Super Bowl Part 2 (or what would have been cool)

[11/02/2016] I know I shouldn’t, but I continue to be intrigued by the Super Bowl/YOLA discussion in the (social) media. For a start, despite the Sistema sphere’s strenuous insistence that it’s not a classical music program but rather a social program, those who cover it in the media are almost always classical music journalists rather than social affairs correspondents, and the big debate after the Super Bowl concerns whether or not YOLA’s performance was a big deal for the fortunes of classical music in the US. It appears that, in practice, neither the media nor the general public grasps the official message that it’s not about classical music.

One defence of the event came from a surprising source: Anne Midgette of the Washington Post. Midgette stood out among US journalists in seeing through Dudamel’s superficial radicalism, writing in 2010:

Dudamel is not the future of classical music. He’s not even trying to be. The people who are trying to move classical music into the future are thinking about alternate kinds of programming, new venues, different repertory….But Dudamel’s whole training appears to have been about perpetuating the status quo—about the idea that leading an orchestra in standard repertoire is the highest thing to which a musician can aspire. I think this is one reason he’s been so exciting to many people in the field: He represents a future without radical change.

Her scepticism seems to have diminished, however, and she has just proclaimed YOLA’s participation in the Super Bowl to have been A Good Thing for classical music.

She was impressed by its

potential to excite young people about the field – to make orchestra playing cool to a wider audience, to show that playing the violin can land you, too, right next to Beyonce.

This argument is even less convincing than the American Dream that it echoes. “Playing the violin can land you right next to Beyonce”? I think I’ll opt for “you too can be a billionaire if you dream and strive.” It’s not playing the violin that will land you next to Beyonce – it’s having exceptionally good connections, in this case via an entertainment superstar, Gustavo Dudamel. How many young violinists actually have such connections and therefore opportunities? And if children are tempted by such a dream, how many will stick at it once they realise that the reality of learning classical music is not “cool” at all, and is light-years away from the instant rewards available to a chosen few via the entertainment industry? The chances of making it to the Super Bowl halftime show via your musical skills (as opposed to serving as a famous person’s mascot) are about the same as those of winning the lottery.

If this field wants to grow and flourish in the 21st century, it needs to take part in the real world around it, rather than taking refuge in its shrinking ivory tower

Right, because Coldplay just invented the “with strings” format for popular music… This idea has been around since the first half of the 20th century, so it’s a little hard to see salvation arriving from this direction now.

Indeed, it’s interesting to think why Coldplay might have been interested in this linkup. Classical strings? A time-honoured way to add a bit of “class” to a pop song. Classical strings with a “social” backstory? What could be more appealing to a middle-class rock star with a conscience?

As Robert Fink wrote presciently, social justice has become a hip consumer brand in Gustavo Dudamel’s hands. Indeed, seeing how easily it was incorporated into a show designed to sell records and soft drinks, one can see clearly a kind of “commodity social justice” on display (to riff slightly inelegantly on the idea of “commodity feminism”). Yet paradoxically, in the actual performance it was stripped of most of its social justice meanings, and what was left – in the eyes of most viewers – was simply a bunch of young musicians playing orchestral instruments.

So when the hyper-capitalism of the Super Bowl met the social justice of YOLA, it was social justice that gave way and the music that stayed. How does this fit with the official line that the social is more important than the musical in Sistema programs? Why is everyone talking about the concessions that classical music had to make in order to be included, rather than the eclipse of the social message?

Did YOLA have any choice, though? After all, as Midgette writes,

realistically these days, when even the Grammy Awards don’t give prime-time space to classical music, it’s delusional to think that a youth orchestra is important enough to get to dictate its own terms, and choose its own repertoire, in the prime real estate of the Super Bowl halftime show.

She’s right, of course. But let’s imagine a different scenario. Let’s imagine that the youth orchestra and its leaders came together and had an open discussion about social justice, entertainment capitalism, and the kinds of messages that they did and did not want to convey through their performance. They then turned to Chris Martin and said: “thanks very much for the invitation, we’re ever so excited. Now, what we do is primarily social work, so it only makes sense for us to participate if we show a bit of what we’re really about, which isn’t just waving violins around. If we just act as your backing section, our social angle risks getting lost. So what we propose is to [fill in proposal here].”

Who knows, Chris Martin might have said yes, and YOLA would have scored a spectacular goal.

If Chris Martin said, “you’re delusional to think that a youth orchestra is important enough to get to dictate its own terms, and choose its own repertoire, in the prime real estate of the Super Bowl halftime show,” then they could have replied, “in that case, thanks but no thanks.” They could then have made a short publicity film, like the one they actually made, but with the opposite story line – about how they turned down Coldplay because they felt that social justice was more important than selling records and soft drinks.

That really would have put YOLA in the news.

That really would have been cool.

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