Clearly, what the world needs is another blogger weighing in on the Kanye West/Taylor Swift controversy. But I have no interest in castigating Kanye – I don’t pick my music based on the politesse of the artists. Instead, what struck me about this peculiar celebrity moment was the fact that I really enjoy both Kanye and Taylor and their immaculate pop confections. In the last few months, my brain has been infected by the melodic memes of “Fifteen” and “Heartless”, “Tim McGraw” and “The Glory”.
So far, so obvious – I enjoy (with a touch of snobbish guilt) Top 40 radio. But here’s the interesting thing – Taylor and Kanye create completely different kinds of music. One is a talented teeny-bopper with a touch of country-western twang, while the other is a hip-hop star with a weakness for Auto-Tune. Although it’s easy to take this cultural diversity for granted, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how modern it is. Ninety-seven years ago, people rioted because Stravinsky wrote the “The Rite of Spring” – now we dance to the dissonance of Girl Talk. Fifty years ago, Top 40 radio consisted of Elvis, The Everly Brothers and doo-wop. (Dylan, Motown and the Beatles were still several years away from taking over the airwaves.) The point is that, until recently, we listened to (and enjoyed) a far narrow range of sounds. The rest of the sonic universe had yet to be discovered.
This isn’t the place for a discussion of the corticofugal network, or the peculiar ways in which our brain cells learn how to listen to new songs and melodies. I’m simply pointing out the obvious – that the twentieth century was a powerful demonstration of human plasticity, cultural proof that that we can learn to tolerate (and even enjoy) an astonishing range of music. Kanye might have started a riot in 1913 Paris, just as Stravinsky did, but we now sing along to his choruses, and can steal some emotion from his sample driven tunes. What began with the atonality of Schoenberg, et. al. has led, somewhat inevitably, to that strange moment at the MTV Music Video Awards, where a hip-hop star interrupted a country-western dynamo, and two musical forms that didn’t even exist 75 years ago reminded us that they’re here to stay.
PS. Check out the comments for some excellent dissents. I certainly don’t mean to underestimate the innovations of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, et. al. I’d argue, however, that there’s a more dramatic difference – at least from the perspective of our acoustic cortex – between Kanye and Taylor Swift than between Beethoven and Brahms, or Wagner and Stravinsky. We no longer simply have to deal with different musical styles – we have to tolerate and enjoy different genres.