Against pop culture populism
The phoney courage of disdaining classical music
Desert Island Discs. With its cosy format, gentle theme tune and the warm feeling we get from knowing it’s been around forever, this is a programme that could hardly be more uncontroversial. Yet, goodness, does it have the capacity to provoke a row amongst people who care deeply about music.
It happened again the other day on the platform we are no longer supposed to call Twitter. Alice Roberts, medic, academic and presenter, posted what probably struck her as a throwaway remark. “How refreshing,” she wrote to her 400,000+ followers, “to hear @AdrianEdmonson daring to say he hates classical music.” Cue a howl of outrage from music lovers and performers, followed by a backlash against the backlash from other music lovers and performers, who said it only confirmed everyone’s worst perceptions about the preciousness of the classical-music world. An all-too familiar hoo-ha — the latest storm in a teacup amidst the million such daily storms on X — but there is a bigger reason why this sort of thing matters.
Edmondson’s apathy to classical music wasn’t, itself, the problem. His feelings were all bound up with a reaction to his aspirational father, on the cusp of the lower middle classes, who set about trying to “civilise” his son through music and chess (perhaps with the best of intentions) and got it badly wrong. The listener could feel only sorrow for Edmondson’s emotionally damaged childhood, tinged perhaps with a small sense of regret that he’d never met someone who could have shown him how much there was to enjoy beyond his father’s fifteen tainted LPs.
It was Roberts’ use of the words “refreshing” and “daring” that triggered the frustration from Twitter users. Her remark was perplexing because it felt as if it belonged to a much earlier era. Subsequent comments (“if you say you don’t much like classical music, you’re often treated like a cultural heretic”) suggested we live in a society in which classical music is highly valued, has tremendous cultural cachet and is the dominant taste. They implied it would be risky to express a preference for popular music. That wasn’t really the zeitgeist even when Edmondson was growing up in the late 1960s, and it most certainly isn’t today.
Countless freelance classical musicians are paid below minimum wage
In contemporary Britain, it is popular music that has “cultural capital”, that’s revered in mainstream broadcasting and education, and whose performers are paid astronomical sums. Countless freelance classical musicians, on the other hand, are paid below the minimum wage (78 per cent of London-based opera freelancers earn less than the average London rent, according to the 2023 Big Freelancer Survey), and classical music is fast disappearing from schools and universities. Since the 1980s, the media has determinedly and relentlessly painted classical music as “elitist”, boring and old-fashioned. Even Arts Council England, hell-bent on a programme of radical “change” to the cultural landscape, can scarcely conceal its contempt for it. None of this is suggestive of a society in which classical music reigns supreme. It isn’t brave to say you hate classical music so much as bog-standard normal. State publicly that you don’t like classical music, and you’re cool, funny and “relatable”. State publicly that you don’t like popular music, and you’re a weirdo or a snob.
It’s true that guest choices on Desert Island Discs were historically dominated by classical music. Between 1956 and 2016, guests selected 235 records by the Beatles and 161 by Frank Sinatra, but these artists couldn’t touch Mozart (592) or Beethoven (498). Today though, nobody would bat an eyelid at an all-pop playlist, as chosen by numerous guests: Robert Webb, Jill Scott, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Maxine Peake, Edward Enninful, Adele, Richard Osman and Kate Moss included. Where once politicians might well have felt compelled to display gravitas by making so-called “highbrow” choices, these days they are far more likely to want to display their “ordinariness”. David Cameron, in 2006, chose Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song” because he had it at his wedding, but his other choices were by Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, The Smiths, R.E.M., The Killers and Benny Hill. Nobody gives two hoots what genre of music a guest chooses — the interesting thing is the personal backstory and the reasons for the choices.
All that rankles is the drip-drip effect of repeated stereotypes, which brings us to the popular crossover tenor Alfie Boe, who appeared on the show in 2011. Declining to include any “high opera” (as then-host Kirsty Young put it) amongst his tracks, he told listeners that he never went to the opera, despite he himself having sung at ENO and Covent Garden, because watching it made him feel “bored stiff”. The opera world was incensed — not because of Boe’s personal preferences, but because the way he painted the classical music profession as snobbish and stuffy (both on the show and in an autobiography) was unhelpful to the colleagues with whom he had formerly trained and performed.
The classical music world has long politely held its tongue as the art form it loves, and wants to share with other people, is relentlessly misrepresented. Musicians work long hours out of the limelight with schoolchildren and deprived sectors of the community on outreach projects. None of this is undertaken in pursuit of any financial gain, but in the hope of diversifying audiences. The objective is giving recipients a taste of something that could, potentially, become a source of lifelong pleasure.
As a Professor of Public Engagement with Science and a prominent “telly don”, Alice Roberts’ remit is to help the public to understand concepts that are challenging, complex and perceived by some as (dare I say it?) inaccessible and even boring. We badly need figures of similar expertise and standing — not just the usual celebrities “on a journey of discovery” — to be given a platform to advocate for classical music, to show how varied it is, to explain how it works, and to demonstrate how it can light up our lives. I trust — I hope — that we would never hear them celebrating the fact that somebody hates science.
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