The Tradition of the Oldie

The NPR 100 shows for better or worse what Americans think is their classical music

By David Schiff

Fans of the recent movie High Fidelity know that an obsession with top-song lists is a symptom of male narcissistic personality disorder. The anti-hero (played by John Cusack), a used-record dealer, tries to make sense of his serial disasters with women by ranking and re-ranking popular songs in top-five lists suited to every emotional crisis. The appearance late in 1999 of National Public Radio's "100 most important American musical works of the 20th century" may be a sign that public radio, too, suffers from neediness, and not just during pledge drives. Even if I disagree with the list about half the time, though (and what use is a list if you can't argue with it?), it is reassuring evidence that despite the saturation of our environment with sound fillers, people still care passionately about music.

The question, of course, is what music and which people. If lists are a guy thing, as High Fidelity would have it, then so are Web surveys, which usually attract a male, upper-middle-class, lower-middle-aged response. An unspecified group of "NPR staff, critics and scholars" created a ballot of 300 works which they posted on the NPR Web site for ten days, attracting 14,000 votes. Perhaps to lend authority to the final list (available at npr.org), NPR also invited about twenty musicians, including Wynton Marsalis and Michael Feinstein, to vote, even though their impact on the totals would be statistically insignificant. Each of the top 100 works became the subject of a five-to-fifteen-minute segment presented on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered over twelve months.

Any list invites skepticism, especially one whose pretentious claims would be more appropriate coming from the Wizard of Oz than from Susan Stamberg or Noah Adams. "Here's our definition of 'most important,'" the introduction to the final list on the Web site says.

By virtue of its achievement, beauty, or excellence, the work is an important milestone of American music in the 20th century. It significantly changed the musical landscape, opened new horizons, or in itself had a major effect on American culture and civilization.

Good grief! Unlike Rolling Stone's list of top 100 pop songs, the NPR 100 seems contrived, the result of a government-mediated list merger rather than a coherent viewpoint. NPR did not publish the names of its "staff, critics and scholars" (again unlike Rolling Stone, which names the people who compile its list) or the actual tallies. So much for the usual meaning of "public."

From the archives:

"The Many Faces of Ives" (January 1997)
This year's Charles Ives is another illustration of how protean our most American composer remains. By David Schiff

No doubt the meetings at which the ballot was determined were rancorous; people at NPR seemed touchy on the subject when I called to ask about it. The carefully orchestrated diversity of the ballot and its knowing combination of popular favorites and cult esoterica has a certain academic whiff—it could be required listening for American Music 101. The ballot wasted nominations on obscurities like Peter Mennin's Moby Dick and Spike Jones's "Der Fuehrer's Face" while omitting long-respected classical works such as Edgard Varèse's Ionisation and Charles Ives's Symphony no. 4, popular musicals like Bye Bye Birdie and The Sound of Music, and popular songs like "Mrs. Robinson" and—how soon they forget—Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Whatever the shortcomings of the process, the result is a fascinating mirror of elite and popular musical taste today. By my estimate, sixteen of the top 100 are popular songs from 1900-1949, fifteen are popular songs from 1950-1959, and twenty-five are popular songs or albums from 1960-1979. Just three are popular recordings from 1980-2000 (the MTV generation does not listen to NPR), and one of these is Graceland, which was made by Paul Simon, an artist associated with the sixties as much as with the eighties. Two are religious songs; nine are the scores for stage or film musicals, mostly from the mid-century "golden age"; sixteen are jazz recordings. Six are film scores or "other." Eight are classical works—if you count Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, a symphonic pops-concert staple, as classical, and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, a work composed in Paris in 1930, albeit by a future U.S. citizen, as American.

To a cynic, the overwhelming preponderance of songs—as opposed to extended compositions—on the list might appear to reflect the shortened national attention span more than any musical values. Equating the song genre with American music does, however, represent a growing convergence of popular and critical opinions. Writers on American music have always recognized the existence of highbrow and lowbrow, art and pop, "cultivated" and "vernacular" traditions. Until recently most histories of American music, while recognizing the role of popular song, have emphasized the accomplishments of art composers like Ives and Aaron Copland or elevated jazz to the status of "America's classical music" or musical comedy to "American opera." In the past decade film scores have begun to attract similar scholarly attention. Although NPR's ballot amply represented these recently exalted genres, the final list, less conditioned by academic fashion, has a distinctive—and, I would say, more honest—profile. The voters rejected the more musicologically correct candidates and overwhelmingly favored a category of music hitherto scorned by scholars: the oldie.

Thirty years ago expert taste and even some popular opinion would have bowed to the shock of the new, assuming that experiment and provocation were signs of artistic accomplishment. Oldies tell us about the way we were, not about the shape of things to come; they satisfy a need for a usable past. Most American cities have a couple of oldies radio stations. Numbingly repeated ads on late-night TV urge us to buy anthologies of the greatest hits from the fifties to the eighties. It is easy to dismiss oldies as the ephemera of the Me Generation. But their transient nature does not negate the importance of a serious aesthetic principle—call it the tradition of the oldie. Let's list the top five components of the oldie aesthetic:

• Oldies are songs, fusions of words and music.

• Oldies (when they were new) marked the passage from adolescence to adulthood, from hormones to heartbreak.

• Oldies are forever linked to their actual historical setting, naming the moment of our fortunate fall into identity and conveying a palpable sense of place and time.

• Oldies are our inner classics. They shape the soundtrack of our lives around indelible emotional moments that remain as vivid as a presidential assassination or an earthquake.

• Oldies, because they are products of mass media, connect the lives of millions, often defining a generation's lifestyle and politics.

From the archives:

"The First Hip White Person" (February 2001)
Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams—The Early Years, 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins, reviewed by James Marcus.

Looked at this way, oldies become not just respectable but eminently respectable. In fact, the oldie aesthetic explains the persistent appeal of a lot of classical music, particularly opera, as well as of popular songs. Though we associate the classical category with instrumental music, its prestige is a recent phenomenon, barely a hundred years old and fading fast. Even in the heyday of classical music, symphonies, usually in individual movements, were used to usher people in and out of the theater for concerts that featured operatic favorites. For most of musical history and in most societies music has meant song, with the essential pleasure of music coming from the way a singer, whether a Callas or a Crosby, brings words and music together.

Oldies are mini-operas. You might not suspect a link between Richard Strauss and the Supremes, but doesn't Der Rosenkavalier tell the same story as "Where Did Our Love Go"—with a similarly potent blend of nostalgia and eroticism? High-minded listeners might complain that Strauss is second-rate high art, devoid of seriousness, a tragic sense of life, and innovative daring—a charge that could be leveled against most of the works on the NPR 100. But think of all the musical qualities that oldies, whether by Strauss or by the Supremes, provide instead: the way they link the self and history, psychology and culture; the way they accept the passage of time rather than demanding the timeless status of respectable classics. In her great scena in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier the Marschallin, a thirty-year-old married woman conducting an affair with a seventeen-year-old boy, describes how she goes through her palace at night stopping all the clocks, to no avail. Listening to "Where Did Our Love Go" lets us, like the Marschallin, play with time or for time, by taking us back to the emotional realities of 1964. Of course, this works only if you were somewhere between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five in 1964. This time-bound state is the essence of oldies: because they are not universal, because my oldies are not necessarily yours, they are all the more tightly wedded to history. At our house the favorite oldie is Kate and Anna McGarrigle's "First Born," an instant time travel to Manhattan in 1977—our Manhattan in our 1977, perhaps not yours.

Seen not as the opposite of classical music but as an aesthetic expression that thrives in classical and pop repertories alike, the oldie may shed some light on the paltry showing of concert music on NPR's list. The minimal appearance of classics is on the face of it harsh evidence of the irrelevance of the concert hall to American culture. Atonal modernist works did not make the final cut (they have gone out of style even in academia), but neither did conservative classics like Roy Harris's Third Symphony, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, or postmodern crowd pleasers like George Crumb's Black Angels, John Adams's Nixon in China, John Corigliano's Symphony no. 1, and even Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach.

According to this list, American composers, no matter what their style, have hardly anything to show for the past century of work—a sobering, if not exactly surprising, message. (When I saw the list, I imagined a Daily News headline: "NPR TO COMPOSERS—DROP DEAD!") It would be interesting to know if this absence is a scathing judgment more of American art music than of its European counterpart: is the marginalizing of classical music a local phenomenon—the result of relentless competition from a vital pop scene—or a worldwide reaction against an outmoded form? Not surprisingly, when I showed the list to classical musicians, they were outraged. When I showed it to college students, they didn't even notice the paucity of concert works, though they did protest the absence of their favorite bands—who are recording the oldies of the future.

It's easy to play a blame game about the classical entries—to blame NPR for pandering, classical radio stations for trivializing, and modern composers for alienating audiences. But I think the NPR 100 shows that many kinds of popular music now perform the functions once exclusively associated with art music. Over the century popular songs have expressed patriotism and social protest and love and loss with a conviction that few classical scores—though not as few as the handful on the list—have approached. The landslide victory of popular songs over symphonies and concertos and operas points to one critical failure of classical music over the past century: the failure to fuse living language with music. From "What'll I Do?" to "Let It Be" and beyond, popular songs have echoed and amplified the spoken language, turning its most potent phrases into melodies. Perhaps art composers, following the modernist dictum to "purify the dialect of the tribe," never really learned to speak that language first. It may not be too late to start.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/03/the-tradition-of-the-oldie/302154/