08 Dec

The Inevitable Institutionalization of Rock

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan does mark something, but not, as many argued, that the Swedish Academy committed a category error. Instead, it marks a point beyond which it is impossible to argue against the institutional support of rock, or rock-lineage, music. Grants, fellowships, academic postings, and public and private institutional support is increasingly both necessary and inevitable.

We’ve already seen this happen: by the mid-1960s, jazz had lost its primary place in the vanguard of American popular music, which had peaked commercially in the Swing Era. But the subsidies of the GI Bill had led many university music departments to welcome jazz musicians as students, and, later, as faculty as well. Europe, where jazz had been appreciated as an art form since its earliest years, supported American musicians whose audience at home had shrunk, with the power of state-subsidized radio and festivals. And gradually, institutions like Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian, and the Kennedy Center created jazz wings alongside their classical programming.

What is now called classical music had already gone through a similar displacement, drifting slowly from church-and-court ubiquity and supplier of popular melodies to rearguard class signifier or cloistered modernism. (One can add electronic music to the short list of institutionally-approved genres, though the strain of electronic music privileged in the academy—from Ussachevsky and Stockhausen through Carl Stone and beyond—predates and is dwarfed by the apotheosis of electronic music in hip-hop and dance-pop.)

Rock-lineage music has had a chronologically similar arc to jazz. About 40 years separate its first explosion as an underground phenomenon to its commercial peak-slash-last hurrah, followed by an extended eclipse (in this case, ceding ground to hip-hop, EDM, and hip-hop-influenced pop).

It might be useful to define terms. (Given that genre terminology by nature is flawed—see Alex Ross on “classical music” and Ellington and others on “jazz.”) For “institutional support” read university teaching positions, public and private grants, commissions, fellowships: the financial and prestige infrastructure of the “unpopular” arts. I’m using “rock-lineage” as a catchall term for post-jazz, pre-hip-hop “popular music” that’s no longer, well, popular—that is, able to sustain itself commercially (indie rock, folk-rock, art-rock of various kinds, etc.).

The death spiral of rock-lineage music is well documented. Attempts at replacing revenue by crowdfunding, licensing, increased touring, and idiosyncratic merchandising have reached their natural limits. Even sympathetic audiences have been ultimately indifferent to the inequities of streaming royalties. The options are the extinction (irrelevance is already achieved) of one of America’s acknowledged premier cultural creations, or the artificial support of institutional funding. So why hasn’t this process begun in earnest, or why aren’t more musicians agitating for it?

First, it’s a question of “elevation.” To be accepted in the academy and foundation world, jazz had to be perceived as an art form “equal” to Western classical music—the high/low dichotomy is alive and well in institutions, which are by their nature conservative. Can rock-lineage music assume that stature?

In essence, it already has. Witness the welcoming of artists like David Byrne, St. Vincent, Thurston Moore, Sufjan Stevens, the Dessners (The National), Glenn Kotche (Wilco) and others into the “new music” world (whether that’s simply a ticket sales gambit is a question for another time), and the eagerness of young, classically-trained composers and performers to establish their rock and roll bona fides (“I got my Ph.D. at Juilliard, but I also own several Metallica records”). The fad for black metal as a vector for experimental music. Hip-hop associated figures like DJ Spooky who are savvy at presenting themselves in the context of institutionally-supported art.

But for a variety of reasons, many musicians in the rock lineage are hesitant to present themselves as self-conscious artists, afraid of being perceived as “pretentious” (the expectation is often still one of a blue-collar straight-talker or underclass idiot savant). The world of the rock lineage, though, is already primarily that of the college educated and middle class. Perhaps this is one area of resistance to popular music studies in the American academy (it is well established, in the wake of scholars like Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige, in the UK): a discomfort with institutionalizing an area of music widely considered the realm of white men. (Hardly more so than classical music, one would think.)

Second, there remains a sense that “popular” music should be commercially self-supporting. This is demonstrably no longer the case for rock-lineage music, additionally, there is always a cross-genre musical aristocracy: no doubt the tax returns of a Yo-Yo Ma or Dawn Upshaw, Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett, dwarf those of an Arcade Fire member. Film programs employ directors despite the existence of a billion-dollar film industry. Foundational support and academic jobs provide a path to middle-class security for artists who have very few options between a small peak of stardom and a wide base of amateurism. The academy (supplemented by foundations) provides, for most arts, essential jobs, support, accreditation, and validation in the absence of commercial success.

If the rock lineage sits uncomfortably beside jazz and classical music in institutions, it will soon have nowhere else to go. It is not that it requires institutionalized pedagogy to maintain a tradition, but that it needs financial support to maintain its practitioners (the inconsistent commitment to teaching displayed by some jazz “professors of practice,” who treat their teaching gigs as secondary to their “real” lives as performers and recording artists, is already a staple of many music departments). Not as a sinecure for hacks and opportunists, but as a safe basis for serious artists.

The appetite is certainly there: anyone who has spent time in an undergraduate music program can see the disconnect between students who study Bach and Parker or Max/MSP in class and spend the rest of their time in bands or on hip-hop production.

Third, it is a challenge for institutions to decide how to value and how to integrate an art form that doesn’t privilege virtuosity. The model here is surely postmodern visual, conceptual, and performance art. For their part, painful as it may be, musicians from the rock world will need to learn to speak the language of the artist statement, “residency goals,” publication and performance histories, and grant writing. While there remains an institutional confusion on how to value the CVs of musicians who don’t fall neatly into the career paths (graduate school, Ph.D., residency, visiting artist, assistant professor) of the archetypal “unpopular” musics, speaking their language helps meet them halfway.

While the Dylan Nobel nod may seem aspirational or fannish, like the Obama Peace Prize in 2009, it surely removes the last excuse for bias in music programs and granting organizations against practitioners of “popular” music. (The Kennedy Center has long honored pop performers, and the Pulitzer has intermittently gestured toward jazz.) Yes, perhaps not every candidate would be perfectly placed in music programs: some lyrics attain the status of literature, and you could imagine songwriting workshops (by, say, someone like Bill Callahan or John Darnielle) cross-listed in creative writing; musicologists, or a more professionalized corps of critics, in American studies; and someone like Nels Cline in a music department proper.

But like all institutionalizing moves, this is a way of protecting endangered art forms against a culture that values novelty over consistency and general trend over the individual creator. It also protects career artists from the vagaries of early success and late rediscovery: a hedge against the pathos of the middle-aged artist. It is the natural fate of any art form that outlives its transient role in popular culture, and it is the role of culture in a larger sense to preserve those zombie arts it judges valuable and worthy of pride. Rock lineage as a self-supporting mass-culture driver is over, as should be the preposterous and romanticizing idea that it is the music of some kind of spontaneous, youthful holy-fool effusion. Let it not become a museum piece, one might say—but museums preserve essential elements of artistic culture and practice and employ those who care about them.

Postscript: This piece was pitched before the recent election results and to finish it at first seemed small-bore. But I thought it worthwhile in part as a riposte to a facile response: that “at least we’ll get some great music.” I’m of the opinion that art as a response to political repression is pointless as a practical matter: while it has some utility as propaganda for the progressive resisitance, protest music and art ended neither the Vietnam or Iraq Wars nor the Reagan or Bush II presidencies. As a friend of mine pointed out, authoritarian regimes don’t create great music, any more than federal funding does. But institutional funding creates more culture in general, which grows a more cosmopolitan population, without which reactionary and xenophobic politics finds more fertile ground.

By Franz Nicolay, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Jhon Alfa Tumbelaka, distributed under the CC-BY-NC-ND creative commons license.

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