Monday, February 21, 2005

Is classical music punk?

This observant Orlando Sentinel article concerns a recurring topic which has always piqued my interest: the use of classical music in public spaces to deter loiterers and reduce the presence of criminals, hooligans and punks.

Piped-in classical music can be found everywhere from parking lots to the London Underground, put there as a low-cost solution to deterring shady characters from hanging around public spaces. The crazy thing is that it works. The theory is that punk and criminal types have such strong associations with classical music being 'uncool' and feel uncomfortable being immersed in a cultural expression so antithetical to their own.

This practice has raised the ire of high society types who see the use of classical music to deter public congregation as vulgar and disrespectful. However, the aforementioned article keenly points out that it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century, when recording technology began to gain in popularity, that classical music was considered as anything more than a mere "perfume or drug" to be applied to affect emotional states. In the words of University of California music historian Robert Fink:

You pick classical music because it's better than other kinds of music... But the pieces you use for doing that predate classical music as a concept and come from an era when music was the lowest of the arts.

Exalting any kind of music to the point of elite snobbery is certainly anti-punk in that it creates an esoteric inner circle that discourages public interest as genres become private clubs. This has certainly happened to classical music, but this phenomenon can be observed in many genres, including punk. Often times, this isolation occurs when a genre becomes accepted by the masses. As a defensive reaction to the 'uncoolness' of a genre that has grown too popular, dedicated fans build a barrier of hyper-criticism and hermetic thinking. In the process, the genre's biggest fans are alienated from the masses, and vice versa.

It was the introduction of recording technology that brought classical music into the zeitgeist, and popular appeal quickly quarantined a cult culture of art snobbery. Pop music made things worse for classical music fans, who scoffed at the reduction of music to the low-art, "perfume or drug" mentality of centuries past. No wonder that Mozart makes the coke pushers run away.

The use of classical music as a disinfectant for punks in public gathering spaces is ironic because it is analogous to how punk rockers have used confrontational methods in an attempt to rid their environment of unwanted elements. 7-11s and bus terminals everywhere are essentially using classical music in the context of punk, to confront unwanted guests and hasten their departure.

But punk is more about change than confrontation, and classical music lacks the former. Most of the genre's stars have long decomposed and those who preach the genre's virtues are few and far between. The genre is essentially a revered corpse. Very not punk.

Or is it? How many times have you heard, "rock and roll is dead"? Genres are very much like organic life forms of their own. They are born, and then they die. As recording technology advances and postmodern culture becomes more chaotic, these genre life cycles become increasingly short. No wonder classical music fans were so incensed at the perversion of their treasured art form -- they had the better part of a century to watch it die a slow, painful death.

Punk rock is as dead as classical music. Both genres live on as influences to myriad subgenres, but most of the bands that created the punk genre have disbanded or have died outright. With a few exceptions, those that survived are merely tributes to an earlier incarnation of the band. Genres are all about style, and style is a transient, intangible element. As much as music fans try to deny it, music never stays cool forever. As the opening line of Refused's landmark album, The Shape of Punk to Come states:

They say the classics never go out of style but they do, they do. Somehow baby, I never thought that we do too.

Accepting that genres are essentially dead on arrival to the mainstream, why do fans bother spending the rest of their lives mourning the death of a loved style of music? Music, after all, is infinitely enjoyable: compositions can be always be brought back to life through performance. The music fans that sit around and complain about genres other than their favorite are arguing about which corpse is most decomposed.

There has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of classical music due to ease of digital access and enthusiastic bloggers such as those found at These online efforts breathe new life into a genre that has been all but ignored by mainstream critics and media. A renewed discussion and introduction of classical music is necessary if the genre is to shake the stodgy stereotypes that follow it into the 21st century. With an underground, independent attitude, classical music could once again be appreciated with modesty and integrity -- key ingredients for punk.

It is just as unlikely that there will be another Mozart as there will be another Ramones. Fortunately, we will always have their music, and their integrity can never be marginalized, whether by snooty culture elitists or punk poseurs. Music is about community, not confinement. If classical music can once again develop an enthusiastic and open-minded community, perhaps eventually we'll have hooligans being chased away to the tune of "I Wanna Be Sedated". For the time being, classical music remains an antonym of 'cool' in our culture. Then again, punk is not about being cool either, even if the mainstream has perverted the genre into being concerned with maximum coolness.

At least classical music fans now seem to be proud that they're not cool. If you ask me, that's pretty punk.


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