Another Revolution

The other day I ran across an article in the business section of the newspaper that described the marketing behind Lady Gaga’s newest album as revolutionary… the first campaign to fully utilize all aspects of the social media revolution to promote the album.

This approach is revolutionary in terms of the technology, but not exactly so in terms total self-promotion. That was pioneered, again in music, more than a century ago by Richard Wagner, who, in addition to being a musical genius, was also a marketing genius who was the first artist to make himself inseparable from the product in all dimensions, from its design, creation, production, and in the end, even the very physical forum in which his works were presented, a forum which endures at Bayreuth… more than a century after his death.

Wagner was incredibly successful in creating a form of opera which was essentially self-referential, whose “truths”[although derived from other sources] existed wholly within the opera itself.  That self-referential structure, with its emphasis on what might be called Nordic mythical truths, was tailor-made for Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine because, first, the music was powerful and essentially nationalistic and, second, the “truths” presented in Wagner’s work required and needed no understanding outside the works themselves.

Prior to Wagner, and for many artists, even well after him, the emphasis was on the work, and at the highest levels, artists attempted to reveal what they saw as the “truth” through their work, but the majority of such works contained references well beyond the works themselves and often attempted to make sense of the “greater world” beyond the work.

Some still do, but with the growth of the Ipod music culture of personalized music and especially with social media, this gets harder – and such “exterior-referenced” artistic attempts at revealing greater truth become less interesting and less personally relevant to those in the social media world, because the whole concept behind social media is to tailor the online world of the participant around that participant, to create a self-referential narcissism.

The difference between the “old” approach and the, if you will, “Wagnerian/Gaga” approaches is that the old approach was based, at its best, on the affirmation and understanding of something greater than the artist or the reader/listener, while the “Wagnerian” approach is based on selling the product through its isolation from other conflicting “truths” and the cult of the composer/producer, while the “Lady Gaga” approach to selling her music is designed to go a step beyond fusing artist and work, and fuse the artist, work, and audience in a form of self-identification and self-validation, independent of “outside” truths or references.

Am I being alarmist?  I don’t think so.  Over the last few months, three major U.S. symphony orchestras have either declared bankruptcy or given indications that such is likely in the weeks ahead.  Others have either frozen or cut salaries or schedules.  Bookings and appearances for classical musicians and singers are declining rapidly.

The more simplistic and the greater the narcissistic appeal a work of music has, the greater the likelihood that it will be commercially successful.

And since music, even more than literature, reflects a culture, this trend should be disturbing… not that any narcissist would even bother to care.

8 thoughts on “Another Revolution”

  1. Richard Hamilton says:

    This may well be true. Nevertheless, a google for
    classical music decline
    shows similar sentiments back at least to 2005, and probably longer.
    Add to that the current anemic economy, and I’m not so sure how much is new here. Social media almost certainly lend themselves to narcissism – how many should reasonably expect that their every little comment matters other than to those that are simply glad for any indication of life? But they don’t _have_ to be used that way. _This_ is in some sense a social media, right here, and agree or disagree, the content is at least thought-provoking.

    There are perhaps counter-examples. I can think of one very young and gifted classical crossover artist that also uses (or mostly her parents use) social media rather effectively, that’s certainly not likely to have booking problems, and that has her first full-length major label CD coming out in a couple of weeks. Despite comparing favorably to some of the long established names she’s performed with, she probably does them some good as well, by bringing them to audiences that might previously not have noticed them much.

    Comparisons have been made between her and a young “Bubbles” Silverman, although the sound quality of an early recording of the latter that I heard is such that I have trouble making such a comparison myself. But it certainly seems possible.

    The demographic for classical is not young. Some of that demographic can afford to support their home town orchestras and such regardless of economic conditions; others cannot.

    The audience demographic may well remain at a certain age level; I gather it’s remained pretty much the same over enough years, such that new listeners must be replacing older ones.

    But (with exceptions of course), the new performers may well be younger than much of their audience. It’s not too much to hope that some will take care of their voices, and remain with the genre.

    Look at the enthusiasm at for example
    Granted, much of the work by those listed is individual pieces rather than larger works. Variety platters are an easier sell than 7 course banquets. Still, I doubt very much that the larger works will be forgotten.

  2. Narcissism in music, wow, there’s a topic we could talk about all day. What’s odd to me is how often we see modern musical sensations rise to the height of fame and fortune without having very much genuine musical talent, ability or training. Females especially — Lady Gaga being a perfect example — must simply have the right “packaging” for the role. Many of Gaga’s most ardent fans probably don’t realize it, but Lady Gaga is just the new Madonna. She’s got a voice, yes, but more than that — far more — she’s got a body that she’s not afraid to show off, and she is very good about being the center of controversy and/or sensation. Whether or not this is her own knack, or the knack of her handlers, is almost a moot question. Gaga is the new sensation performer, known as much for her outlandish image and lifestyle as for her actual musical product.

    I remember back in the dial-up BBS days it would have been ludicrous to suggest that anyone could use the BBS universe — fragmented across thousands of large and small systems operating world-wide — to drive a national or international popularity campaign. Not enough of the BBSs talked to one another and the culture that used them was still, largely, the computer ‘geek’ subculture.

    Now we have the king of all possible BBS systems in FaceBook. A promotion-conscious soul might gather a couple of thousand “friends” who can then export a sales pitch or promotional effort to all of their “friends,” and if the effort has any life to it, pretty soon hundreds of thousands or even millions of people become aware of a thing being circulated and driven almost entirely on-line.

    However, on-line fame still doesn’t rate on the same level as television or movie fame. Thus the sudden use of the phrase, “So-and-so is famous on the internet,” such as Tay Zonday or Chris Crocker. Both of whom are internet celebrities who’ve failed to capture or maintain the broader television or motion picture arena, though they’ve certainly made the most out of their proverbial 15 minutes.

    What’s most fascinating for me is watching a whole universe of people suddenly become aware of their ability to put themselves into the public eye — sometimes in ways maybe they shouldn’t want to be in the public eye? As if everyone at work, to the last soul, has become their own promotional agent and spokesperson. Everyone has a blog. Everybody has “followers” of one kind or another. Thus everyone is a ‘celebrity’ to somebody else, on some strange level.

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      Self-promotion and a rather outre style and even personality have of course never precluded real talent. One can appreciate the talent without endorsing the rest. Freddie Mercury, said to be one of Lady Gaga’s inspirations, comes to mind.

      It does bother me that some of those who are inspired by the talent of such flamboyant artists also follow some of their example in terms of presentation and conduct. It would be counterproductive to tell someone they _can’t_ do so, but there seems to be little to recommend it, in terms of personal consequences. Would Van Gogh have been as brilliant if he wasn’t unbalanced, difficult, and in later years fell far short of the standards of conduct he’d once aspired to? Who can say? I’d like to think that while perhaps someone that’s never really been challenged will be unlikely to achieve genius, there’s really nothing that should _require_ that a large portion of their challenges should have been in some sense self-inflicted.

  3. Richard Hamilton says:

    One more thing: I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that when Amazon ran a 1-day special on downloads of Lady Gaga’s latest album, I ordered it.

    Normally, I hesitate to put any money at all in the hands of really strange folk, or somewhat even those that merely play the part. But at that price, nobody was making more than pennies, and I was curious, because I wanted to understand why someone whose ability and talent are much easier for me to recognize also likes at least some of L.G.’s work, despite how very different it is from their own…and because I’d wish for them not less than the best of what they appreciate in others, if hopefully to different ends. I’ve only started to listen to it. It’s not something I’d ordinarily pick, but it’s certainly not all bad, and some I’ll definitely listen to again. Narcissistic? Yeah, probably, but not just that.

    Ironic that starting by listening to a selection suited to far more conservative and traditional tastes, I ended up at least sampling something that gets held up as an example of the shortcomings of modern popular taste. If interconnections like that are possible, perhaps no genre is in serious danger of demise.

  4. hob says:

    Narcissism vs Reality?

    Narcissism might be at very high levels but is it not serving the greater economic model?

    Isn’t Narcissism capitalism? The quest to define oneself through pleasure, pleasure of goods, services, abstract forms etc…

    I think what your asking is why modern Art no longer generates debate/predictions within the Political/social realms of current cultures, and what that means in a society that is in theory is governed by the “Vote”.

    In one way you are very correct, narcissism is overtaking peoples desire to see what things they do share, or as the artists might be better be able to show, the things we might share.

    I don’t think people are becoming more narcissistic, I think maybe people are becoming more aware that the past “truths” that you are referencing Mr Modesitt, don’t define individual Tribes/nations, they highlight forms of community born out of fundamental truths that are evident in all tribes/nations/humans.

    Yet the world is a series of Tribes, and the tribal “leaders” are not willing to give up their privileges afforded by their positions despite these “truths”.

    Given such glaring contradictions–what in our world is being left to define oneself, especially if we wish to remain moral, if not our choice of escapism?

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      There’s room for a vast range of tastes. But for those who are simply ignorant of the long history of art, music, or philosophy (and one needn’t be an expert to not be ignorant!), there’s a saying, to the usual version of which I’ll add one word:

      Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it – poorly.

      (Those who do, or at least try to, can rest assured that they don’t have to stop liking anything they previously liked, and may even find themselves understanding better what they liked all along.)

      For what it’s worth, quite a few popular musicians who could at first glance be taken as rather shallow, have actually had some formal training, although many of those may have run out of patience or money before completing it. And many of them rip off classics, too, even if it’s less obvious than the example of “Could It Be Magic” being a not so flattering adaptation of Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor, Opus 28, Number 20. (However, I gather it was intended to be pretty obvious in its derivation, and was perhaps intended kindly enough, and not unappealing, if vastly inferior to the original.) Still, I don’t mind that sort of thing. Those who would ever notice such things eventually will, and will start to understand that what they used to like didn’t just appear without context to please their generation. And sometimes it leads to interesting experimentation,
      like Wendy Carlos’s “Switched-On Bach”, which must have been incredibly difficult with the very manual, monophonic analog synthesizers of the time.

      Having said all that, I too would sometimes just as soon listen, or read, without having to analyze something. But thanks mostly to my parents and a couple of good teachers, I’ve been more than amply trained to distrust mobs and propaganda, even if I’m not explicitly looking for it.

  5. Bob Howard says:

    While my musical tastes are fairly eclectic, I do tend to stick to what I like. I am generally a fan of classical music and we regularly attend performances of several local symphonies, but there are some composers and compositions that interest me not the slightest, and some I avoid at all costs. Does that make me a narcissist? I guess by the stated criteria I must be.

    I don’t delve much into the social media, present forum and a very few others excepted, but I do like the various music services that offer up new groups based on the implied preferences inherent in one’s musical library. Is that bad, too? Not so sure I see it that way–they prompt me to try new music, albeit music with at least some characteristis shared with other music I know I like. With the huge number of small groups out there, I almost certainly would never be exposed to them otherwise, so I don’t see this as all bad.

    I do concede a sadness for the state of our culture that works that have so well stood the test of time are so little appreciated these days. But that is the way of all cultures, they change and adapt or they stagnate and die. Would we prefer a world where we never moved on from Mozart to Beethoven and beyond? Some might, I’ll wager, but I do believe I prefer today. Can’t say Lady G does much for me, though.

  6. Jeh says:

    First of all, personalization of media is practically a requirement in an age which bombards individuals from every angle with pseudo-art and infotainment all in an environment dominated exclusively by marketing. It’s either that or allow capital driven corporations to shape ideological landscapes. As for personal reality being self-referential, isn’t that what personal means?

    If I recall, art commercialization does not precede Wagner by too many generations and thus destroys any “higher purpose” an artist may try to achieve. “Professional artist” has always been a contradiction in terms, at least since the masses became a viable economic base. Notice for example the section of the newspaper in which you noticed this story.

    Even more traditional examples of music were composed through patronage or by the wealthy and appealed to individual vanity rather than what you term popular narcissism; which may be better, but certainly not much. Yes, populism is capable of horrific atrocities (particularly in the extremely narrow sense of nationalism) but such great power also has the potential for positive impact. Many laud the fusion of artist and composition, so how is the addition of the audience anything but a more perfect whole?

    At the end of the day, art is one person’s expression of truth. Not The Truth obviously, but one truth that may or may not need to reference external attitudes that are inevitably flawed but clung to out of tradition or simply habit. Some of the old ways of thinking should be abandoned, particularly if they cannot provide people with what they desire and/or require. Must art always delight *and* instruct? The only truth any of us can honestly seek is a personal one, and to claim anything higher is delusional at best and deceitful at most accurate.

    On the off chance that some sort of divine truth can be found in examples of classical music requiring symphony halls and expressed by bits of hair rubbing against bits of intestine or spittle dripping from the end of an oboe, never fear. Artistic elites, which are educated in such music and will doubtless continue to teach and honor the like, allow that which is popular to fade into the disdained realm of folk music, as they have done for centuries, marginalizing anyone who does not fit the persona of the True Artist.

    I have not studied music, but it seems nothing more than a sensual medium through which humans may perceive structure and order. Exactly what structure and order a given culture wishes to hear varies geographically and temporally as well as by class and other demographic classifications. To judge any form superior to any other requires greater perspective than I can achieve, so I am loath to condemn Lady Gaga or anyone else simply because I gain nothing from hearing his or her music.

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