Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 2)


A debate at the Cambridge Union is in full swing, regarding the proposal: ‘This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth.’ The next two speakers really set the tone for the rest of the event – Kissy Sell Out, producer and DJ, who was the only real ambassador for youth culture on the panel (Cambridge students definitely do not count, especially when in black tie) and therefore the real authority on this proposition, and Ivan Hewett, who managed to win over the audience with a totally vapid argument whilst apparently denying the very existence of a cultural zeitgeist, and denouncing the acknowledgement of a self-determining youth culture as ‘Stalinist’.


R O U N D    2

Proposition speaker 2: Kissy Sell Out (producer/DJ)

  • Although he loves classical music, it is definitely not relevant
  • It is ‘detached from the modern language of popular culture’, in that its self-labelling system is totally inaccessible to modern audiences. In a post-image web culture, this is particularly important
  • Young people want everything at once – they need immediate accessibility
  • Classical music needs to become relevant to other aspects of life
  • Youth have an overwhelming desire for belonging, they look to art for representation – to find their personalities
  • Youth also want a genre that is relevant in terms of social and political change
  • Music for modern youth should speak to their particular ideals, feelings, subcultures
  • Classical music is elitist – of and for the high classes
  • At classical performance, there’s no interaction between players and audience. Young people want interactivity – ‘for the performer to reach out and grab them’ – this is how culture has progressed

Kissy makes some fantastic points, but in a way which was perhaps too scattered and humble to stand up against some of the more seasoned debaters. However, he still has the most authority as a voice on the subject and he was the only one to speak from the perspective of the young audience without prescriptiveness or condescension, saying what they actually want/need from culture, rather than what they ‘should have’ or what they ‘deserve’. Some further points:

  • Despite suggesting that at 26 years old he wasn’t representative of the group in question, Kissy’s refusal to wear black tie, as well as his manner throughout meant that he embodied the kind of culture of artistic consumption which is the reality for young people, and yet is still refused or viewed with suspicion by the classical apologists. The fact that young people need to access art in a certain way, at a certain level and with a certain facility isn’t something that you can take some kind of stand for or against – it is a plain fact. If you refuse to bear it in mind (and to change the way that classical works are titled is not dumbing down, it would have no effect on the actual music whatsoever) then you’re basically saying: the opinions of long-dead societies are more important than the opinions of today’s society with regards to this art. This is the equivalent of shooting classical music in the face.
  • He too seems to feel the ‘humility’ that ‘should’ come with being ‘allowed’ to opine on classical music from an outsider perspective, which is quite destructive. As the real representative of youth culture, he could have been a lot more brazen with his views.
  • The awkwardness with which Stephen Fry approaches the DJ set that Kissy appends to the end of his speech is very telling. He makes a big song and dance about not knowing what to do, without really attempting to have a go, which sort of ends up symbolising the extent to which the whole debate, and Fry in particular, fail to attempt to engage with the ‘today’s youth’ aspect of the proposition. The opposition team often seem to be far more concerned debunking a very different idea – something like: ‘This House believes that today’s youth is irrelevant to classical music.’
  • What does he argue for? That classical music ‘can be vibrant and interactive, and a performance in front of lots of trendy and cool people’. This is without doubt an optimistic and far-reaching view for the future of music, far more powerful than the appeals to the status quo of the opposition. The KEY point to Kissy’s argument is that we shouldn’t be trying to ‘let kids in’ to classical music, as if it is a distant kingdom to which we can offer a golden key. We should be bringing the music to the kids – that would show real respect to this culturally important demographic, with their own honed channels of self-expression and communication. There’s no point in waiting for young people to come to classical music, because they won’t. They already have music. If we think that orchestras and art songs and choirs and chamber groups have anything to say to modern youth – to enrich their experience of their world, or illuminate truths etc etc. – then we need to bring it to them and present it in a way that they can comprehend. Not because young people have lost the intellectual power to access art, but because classical music has refused to move with society and technology, and therefore still expresses itself in archaic ways.

Opposition speaker 2: Ivan Hewett (critic/broadcaster)

  • He agrees with everything Kissy said, but it doesn’t prove music’s irrelevance
  • The proposal is a ‘literal no-brainer’ with no intellectual content
  • ‘Relevant’ itself is a ‘boo-word’, designed to scare you back into your prescribed socio-cultural bracket
  • The idea of ‘today’s youth’ as distinct from the rest of the human race is ridiculous and laughable
  • To access youth culture, he listened to a song on Kissy’s radio show
  • The song is about unsatisfied sexual desire, a universally recognisable and hardly novel topic, which has even been explored in old classical music
  • In classical music however, ‘biology turns into metaphysics’, and the specifics become universals – ‘biology turns into culture’
  • An Italian poem which features similar ideas – emotional ambiguities – was set to music by Monteverdi. It is ‘great’
  • Beauty itself is ‘the quintessence of the irrelevant’, but humankind has been striving after it for millennia
  • The proposal seems to lead dangerously on from ‘classical music isn’t relevant to today’s youth’ to ‘classical music could never be relevant’, and thence to ‘classical music ought not to be relevant’
  • It smacks of the kind of cultural prescription which the Soviets put upon the proletariat, discouraging the works of Shostakovich
  • Some idealogues would say that classical music shouldn’t be listened to by young people, that it is ideologically unsound and should be shunted off to the side with other ‘elitist things’. This should be resisted

Hewett’s argument was both terrible, offensive and quite frightening in its manipulativeness, and it brought out the worst in the Cambridge audience. Most of it was spent subtly ridiculing the idea of youth culture, much of it was spent in quite bare-faced claims of classical music’s essential superiority to pop music. At the end, he became the first of two speakers that night to demonise those who might claim that classical music is out of touch with young people, effectively putting a halt to any kind of impetus for change. At the same time, he utilised some very suspect debating techniques:

  • He set up a comparison based on a dance track and some Monteverdi, which allegedly explored the same idea, and illustrated the different approaches and levels of pop vs. classical. He introduced the dance track after a lot of sniggering and faux-self-deprecation which the audience seemed to find hilarious, and awkwardly also seemed to make Kissy Sell Out embarrassed of his own profession, for which he had no reason. Then he played the Monteverdi twice and just proclaimed a subjective value judgement – ‘wasn’t that just fabulous!’ – as if it were self-evident.
  • The dualities that he constructs between pop and classical were so reductive and offensive that it was a marvel anyone bought into them. He claimed that the essence of classical music was that it effected a marvellous transformation ‘into metaphysics’ – the kind of universality fetish which Bates had previously warned against. This is all just a false illusion – music is applied to the words, not metaphysics. Music is applied equally in the pop music. The only difference is that, in the classical piece, the specificity of the meaning is obscured by the fact that it is in the Italian language, while it is rendered vague and simplistic by replacing all real subtleties of human emotion with bald clichés and archetypes. It amazes me that he claims this particularly piece, whose words were abject cliché (as so many words to these kinds of historic relics are) necessarily accesses more ’emotional ambiguity’ than pop music – that, in fact, the very idea of emotional ambiguity and nuance is something which he could introduce to a young audience through classical music. It’s a contentious subject, but my experience of these two genres is actually the opposite. In its pursuit of universals and its abstraction of meaning, classical music is usually a lot less emotionally nuanced than pop, and when it does use words, these normally give way to the kind of tired topics and boring imagery that seem universal only because they are so ubiquitous.
  • He opens his argument by suggesting that ‘Kissy proved that classical music is still relevant’ through his sampling of Boccherini in his dance tracks. ‘Weren’t we just listening to classical music?’ NO WE WEREN’T. Nobody would say that was classical music, it was obviously dance music, and if that’s an example of classical music being relevant, then surely we should just add beats to all classical recordings? Sorted.
  • ‘Beauty is the quintessence of the irrelevant’. Nice sound-bite, but come on. If beauty isn’t relevant then what is? We may as well all just die now. What is irrelevant is the replacement of the kind of beauty that people really experience in the world – the kind that is explored in modern films and photography, poetry and sculpture – to the idea of abstract perfect beauty which people believe only music has access to. It is arguable that this kind of beauty is no longer relevant. I think, for me at least, it is also no longer beautiful. But at the same time, surely there should be more to any art-form than the pursuit of beauty. (It kind of boggled my mind when he was talking about the magical transcendence of the particular pursuit of the gorgeous woman in the pop song to the ‘symbol’ of ‘that thing’ that we’re always grasping after. Because… I think in a lot of people’s cases, ‘that thing’ – the most desirable, iconic thing in our lives – is a gorgeous woman, or man, and its replacement with something vaguer is just a lack of poetic commitment. But there you go.)
  • He also claims that ‘if the man had gone to the girl with [Monteverdi’s madrigal], he might have done a little bit better [than with the pop song]’. This is actually a fairly patronising remark for obvious reasons, and also not true at all. I mean, come on. The audience seemed to like it though.
  • His destruction of the motion on two fairly dubious issues – the irrelevance of ‘relevance’ and the non-existence of a distinct youth culture – shows a refusal to engage with the real argument which is at stake, suggesting that he is in favour of maintaining the status quo. But he goes further than this with his Soviet analogy. Here he basically co-opts Shostakovich to mask his deeply reactionary ideas with the air of revolution. He doesn’t, however, mention new music in his entire speech – which is surely how we should view Shostakovich’s work in light of its context. Instead, he patronises young people to such an extent that he blames their own cultural autonomy, and its reasonable disconnection with the staid Italian cliché-cloaked shawties of Monteverdi’s time, on ‘idealogues’. And presumably he doesn’t mean the twenty-year-old idealogues who are constructing their own electronic genres, promoting their own gigs and maintaining their own b-b-b-blogs.
  • So, what does he argue for? That we shouldn’t try and say what is and isn’t relevant to various people, and that if we avoid this then classical music’s inherent relevance, as well as its transcendent and universal values, will eventually draw young people to it. What he doesn’t argue for is that we should actively show, by changing classical music culture and destroying these dangerous assumptions, that classical music needn’t be irrelevant. He makes no suggestion that musicians have a responsibility to bring their music to the audiences – instead he expects that everything will be fine as it is, because of the inherent and irreplaceable greatness of classical music.
Points from the floor

The ironic smugness of Hewett’s argument apparently disposed the audience against speaking out. The few points that were made were:

  • Pop’s ability to refer to a specific time and cultural context sets it apart from ‘timeless’ classical music (in a good way). Obviously I don’t agree with any of this. Weird point.
  • The sampling of classical music in Kissy’s mixes show that it’s relevant. A repeat of an earlier point, and redundant.
  • Youth needn’t be generalised – different things are relevant to different people. The simplification of the term ‘today’s youth’ could be as reductive to the value of the debate as the simplification of the term ‘relevant’. Of course not every young person likes the same thing, but to deny a youth culture is to deny a whole fascinating aspect of modern western society. Moreover, it is the ‘youth’ part of the proposition that should suggest the importance of a contemporary, living culture rather than a dead, mummified one. Cambridge student youth however, in thrall to their ancient institution and traditionalist courses which are often mired in history, will often be content with a good mummy.
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2 Responses to Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 2)

  1. Pingback: Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 1) |

  2. JB says:

    Excellent dispatching of the extremely condescending Hewett, who is exactly the sort of person I can’t bear in these sorts of debates. I hardly needed to be told that he wrote for the Telegraph. His little ‘fabulous, just fabulous’ after the Monteverdi, as though he needed to prove how in love with classical music he was… ugh. horrible man.

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