Turning the Vernacular Academic?

On one hand, the pop industry has been under the influence of the free-market since the first commercial recording. Is it so far out of bounds, then, to consider institutionalizing pop music in academia, too?

On the other hand, what might fall under the rubric “classical music” has always been taught in academic settings (for better or worse, one could argue, I suppose). If worse, however—that is, if its institutionalization stunted its growth, or even drained it of life (and I remind everyone that “academia” is almost always used in the pejorative these days?)—then why this:

USC's Thornton School of Music will make room starting next year for singers and instrumentalists who play pop music, breaking a long-standing tradition in higher education that requires students to dedicate themselves either to classical music or jazz.

Today the school is announcing its new bachelor of music degree in pop music performance, said to be the first of its kind at a major university.

"Why shouldn't a program like this start in Los Angeles?" said Robert Cutietta, dean of the Thornton School. "I've been in higher education for 20-some years, and it's been talked about, but everyone has been afraid to do it. No one wanted to be first."

Sure, there have been successful programs, like the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. But...

I guess my question is this: What happens when the vernacular is systematized, dissected? Does it lose its identity? Is this a good thing or a potentially bad thing?

I’m not so sure I’m willing to take a stance on this one. You?

And really, they consulted Randy Newman and Steve Miller?


Ever hear of the Polish augmented-sixth chord? It's a minor triad. Pah-dum. Tss!


If good argument follows, I might be willing to think USC's idea might be the best thing ever.


docker said...

Personally, I think it's just USC's way of asking Herb Alpert for $15,000,000.

Stefan Kac said...

I wouldn't say that there's "a long-standing tradition in higher education that requires students to dedicate themselves either to classical music or jazz;" certainly to the former, but not the latter. While jazz has become offered as a specialization at many schools, this has not been the case for all that long, and in fact, to this day, it is still not the case in many places. So, perhaps this news is less a break with the past than a continuation of a trend that was started not all that long ago when jazz began to be taken seriously in some remote corners of academia (a process that is, for better or worse, still in progress). That jazz is still not taken seriously in many such corners makes it seem unlikely that pop music as a specialization will spread any more quickly.

In any case, the success of this fledgling program probably depends less on what its graduates actually go on to accomplish (quite possibly, like most of us with music degrees, absolutely nothing) than on parents of prospective students accepting it as an uncomfortable compromise between what they want for their kids (straight-laced academic life) and what their kids want for themselves (wildass rockstar partying with occasional music making).

Empiricus said...

While I can't vouch for that Docker, that may very well be the case.

@ Stephen Kac: that's an entirely different point of view, one I didn't consider. Hmmm... certainly possible and valid. I just don't know about the institutionalization the commercial, which once was the subversive. And, maybe I'm wrong, but the subversive is essential (at least in a pseudo-democratic system where dissent is mandatory). If the subversive is institutionalized...what then?

Gustav said...

I'm exceptionally disappointed in my alma mater.

First of all, if the Billboard charts have taught us anything, it's that you don't need skill, talent, knowledge or really much more than basic ambulatory functions to make money in pop music, but I don't object to any genre of music being taught in music school. What I object to is not holding their feet to the flames.

There's no reason that a musician of any ilk shouldn't be an expert in their field, and in my experience, that won't happen here. I have seen many schools of music move more and more in this direction opening up curriculum to non-traditional music -- fine. I support strongly the broadening of musical horizons. However, I can say with certainty that these pop students will graduate knowing almost no theory, history, or actual compositional skills, although, I can't attest to how they might improve as a performer.

If a music school at an academic institution doesn't force them every student to become a scholar then our performance programs are no better than the football program. The football team trains excellent football players -- they'll succeed at the next level, but will know very little else.

Universities should be more than just 4-year vocational workshops.

And oh...

Whatever, I do what I want.

Stefan Kac said...

I don't object to any genre of music being taught in music school. What I object to is not holding their feet to the flames.

Gustav, you hit the nail on the head. You don't teach arithmetic or Dr. Seuss in college, nor do piano majors focus on the Fur Elise, nor do jazz majors work on So What for 4 years. While there's certainly nothing inherently wrong with simplicity in music, I think it's safe to say that the technique required by mainstream pop music is fundamentally elementary in nature, hence begging the question of how to make the study of pop music performance valid at the college level. In fact, I would venture that the pop music approach to technique is part and parcel of the "subversiveness" that Empiricus refers to above, at least in terms of pop music's relationship to other contemporaneous forms of music. And yes, this subversiveness does seem to be in jeopardy here because of this disparity in the acceptable level of technique between academia and the "real world." I wouldn't worry about this setting a detructive trend, though (see my comments above).

Matthew said...

First of its kind? They're dissing my hometown.

I look forward to 50 years from now, when I'll find myself defending the Milton Babbitt of power ballads.