Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cultural Influence: Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

I want to make some notes on cultural influence across class lines. Charles Seeger is one of the few musicologists to make an issue of this. He wanted to document the emergence and eventual merging of class-based cultures in the US. Seeger was particularly interested in the notion of subacculturation, the process by which musical influences from one class became adopted by another.

Seeger used the familiar (if now outdated) three-part paradigm of the folk arts, the popular arts, and the fine arts. The folk arts were the home-made and passed-down musics of the rural settlers; the popular arts were the semi-literate and mass-distributed musics of the urban working class and middle class, while the fine arts were European classical music.

I realize that my statement in the previous post about class being more fluid in North America may miss the point. Mass communications in the 20th century probably made the cultures of different classes and regions more fluid, mobile, and open to appropriation by others. But it’s not the same thing as class itself being fluid.

This is significant because, as Seeger points out, the cross-fertilization between the folk and popular arts is a huge part of the story of popular music in the first half of the 20th century. The influence of rural forms of music (early folk balladry and fiddling, field hollers, gospel, country blues) on the music of the city was tremendous.

But the city and the world of vaudeville, film music and Tin Pan Alley (middle-class and middlebrow musics) left their stamps on these rural musics as they migrated into the urban centres. Thus we see the development of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country music of various types, soul music, and so on.

The flow of cultural influence, in these cases, was mostly bottom-up. The music business took the music of the poorest in America and commodified it, allowing it to appeal across class lines, and sometimes across racial lines.

But, as Seeger notes, the attempt to send cultural influence from the top-down was not overly successful in the US. He references the nineteenth-century efforts, which he calls the “Make America Musical” movement, to implant European high musical culture in the US.

Orchestras were founded, music critics had columns in major newspapers, philanthropy by rich men like Andrew Carnegie led to the building of elite concert halls and opera houses, conservatories and musical pedagogies based on the European model were established, and on it went. Many music departments in universities across the US still bear marks of this effort to use European high culture as a standard for musical training in America.

Its success was mixed. Classical music in America struggled against a colonial/provincial mindset. The classical orchestra flirted with jazz at times, and the use of orchestral composition in American film-making has a distinguished history. But the sense of classical music as a central tradition (as in Europe) was never very strongly established. At best, it filtered downward through middlebrow channels, but even this way of mediating high culture seems to be fading away.

I wonder to what degree the relative success of bottom-up subacculturation accounts for the “culture wars” that have riven the US at various points. Since the nineteenth century, the American elites have had difficulty asserting their culture in a top-down process of assimilation, and they have had to adapt by colonizing and disciplining popular culture in various ways.

Perhaps the PMRC, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, conservative rock canons, and (in a way) talk radio represent elite reactions to the challenge of bottom-up subacculturation in American popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! I think that we're seeing trends change a bit within the college/university setting. Most folks I know who are hired as musicologists are having to teach a combination of world music/pop music/music apprec. classes, whereas even 15 years ago world music courses were so rare in most institutions. That's a good sign that perhaps our efforts are at least combining the European high culture with the other sounds of the planet. Maybe one day the standard training won't be so standard.