The Super Bowl; or What’s Wrong With Classical Music

Like millions of Americans, and indeed hundreds of millions of people worldwide, I look forward to the Super Bowl every year, even if there’s not a chance in hell that my Buffalo Bills will be playing in it (again). It’s one of those cultural rituals that interrupts the long and ghastly winter, and it’s a convenient excuse to overdose on wings and guacamole. This year, of course, there is an added reason to look forward to the big game because Renée Fleming is singing the national anthem. And then the haters come out of the closet…

The fact that Renée is singing came as something of a bombshell. A classical musician on the biggest stage? Finally! Apart from the exposure to our art form there is also the wonderful chance to hear the anthem sung by someone who actually knows how to sing. No three minute extended melismas, no overwrought patriotism, just a beautiful performance of, and I’m sorry to point this out, a third rate national anthem. The last time I could stomach hearing said song was when James Taylor sang it during a World Series awhile back. Very tasteful that was, and utterly memorable.

Quite obviously not everyone felt that way. ESPN, various blogs, and the folks over at FauxNews were especially virulent in their distaste that (GASP!) a classical musician would be chosen for this honor. It somehow was a denigration of our national game. For shame! Why not Beyoncé? Why not Lady Gaga? Immediately the question was raised: “How is Renée going to react to this backlash?”

Well, anyone who has ever worked with, known, or even dealt with Renée for more than five contiguous seconds knew not to worry on that score. Renée would handle it with the same consummate grace that she brings to everything, a decorum so amazing that if it wasn’t absolutely genuine it would feel artificial. Indeed, as a note to future Presidents – if you want to see if peace in the Middle East is ever possible just send Renée on tour there. If at the end of that people aren’t 1) amazed by her artistry; and 2) seduced by her grace, then forget about it. Spend your political capital somewhere else.

This is exactly what happened. In interview after interview Renée proved yet again to be one of the great ambassadors for classical music that we have. But funny enough, my facebook page lit up with people in the classical music business who spent a good amount of time praising the choice of Renée for the anthem, yet simultaneously deprecating the Super Bowl itself. Their choice of words were interesting – “neanderthals” was a particular favorite, whether referring to the players themselves or those who would tune in to watch the game.

It led me to wonder whether the people hating on the Super Bowl who were tuning in just for Renée knew that they sound exactly like the people hating on Renée who were tuning in just for the Super Bowl. I found this particularly depressing because we in the classical music industry always decry the stereotype that we are elitist, hoity toity, whatever you want to call it. Yet here was that exact same scenario, except reversed. Anyone who might be interested in the game was low brow, a neanderthal, downright brainless.

Well, for all those classical musicians out there dissing the Super Bowl – I call shenanigans on you. You are continuing to perpetrate the very stereotype that you disparage. Over 100 hundred million people watch the Super Bowl every year. Whether you like it or not it is one of the most important cultural events that happen on an annual basis. Pretending otherwise is as foolish as saying that classical music is dead.

So maybe it’s not the attitudes of the 98% of the people out there who don’t regularly listen to or support classical music that need to change. Maybe it’s our own attitudes. Time to come down off of that high horse and realize that in order to ensure a long and healthy future for our art form we need to open our minds to what that 98% think about and enjoy. Their tastes are just as valid as ours.

Perhaps sometime in the future we will be smart enough to market our art form that way. Perhaps sometime in the future my Bills will win a Super Bowl. The way things are going I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. None-the-less…



7 thoughts on “The Super Bowl; or What’s Wrong With Classical Music”

  1. When the Bills go to the Super Bowl, they should engage you to conduct the half-time show. (Recommendation: maybe something other than Ives’ Yale-Princeton Football Game.)

  2. Nice shenanigan-calling, Bill. But can’t I call those muscle-bound classical music-loving beasts on the field something? Low-Beethoven brows? Telemann tanks? Bachward concussions?

  3. Well said, Mr. Eddins. As a classical musician, I agree that it is often too easy to take a holier-than-thou attitude. I actually do watch the Super Bowl for the anthem, the commercials and the half-time show. Those aspects of yesterday’s game were fine. Even if I have no interest in the game itself, we have family over for the typical wings and guacamole. To Mary in the previous comment I would add, it’s time to connect classical musicians to everyone else.

  4. Bill
    To sound cliched, TOUCHDOWN! Thank you for pointing this out, the fact is these “neanderthals” as they’re called put Renee on that stage! To those in the classical world who would disparage the game of football I can only say What the FACH is wrong with you! My absolute favorite slam of late by an “Opera” singer went something like: Beyonce is just a singer who is dressed up by others, fully produced by others and singing the songs written by others (not completely true with her)…unlike the “Opera” singer who is of course….dressed up by others, fully produced by others and singing the songs written by others (COMPLETELY true). So it’s snobbery and ignorance or hypocrisy. Music keeps evolving yet attitudes keep devolving! And that is what is killing us, not the music itself.

  5. Dear Bill,

    Thanks for hitting the nail on the head. I direct Southwest Chamber Music in LA and my double bass player shared your post. My most recent commissions and U.S. or West Coast premieres include Elliott Carter, Unsuk Chin, Wadada Leo Smith, Charles Wuorinen, Gabriela Ortiz, Anne Le Baron, Roger Reynolds, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Vu Nhat Tan so it’s not a populist repertory that is my inspiration. We had one deficit in 27 years (2008 but if you didn’t that year you were cooking your books).

    I want to share another perception. We are fortunate to have received 2 Grammy Awards and 9 nominations over the years (5 from mainstream, 4 from Latin Grammy as a US group). And every year the classical music world struggles to even think this is an accomplishment let alone newsworthy. Wouldn’t you think outreach to Latinos is a goal for a U.S. group based in LA? Don’t hold your breath regarding public TV, print or radio media.

    I received a Grammy at the same ceremony as Tony Bennett and other luminaries far bigger than anyone in classical music will ever be during their lives.. His acceptance speech said it all “When you are nominated for this award, as a musician, there is no other place on earth where you are supposed to be.” If you think the major classical artists regularly show up for the Grammy’s, guess again. It’s connected to the mind set you’ve pointed out. Drives me crazy.

  6. Bill;

    I don’t disagree that it is good for classical music that a great opera singer was seen and heard by so many football fans who would likely never set foot in an opera house. And, although there is little reason to expect that a brief encounter at a football game with Renee Fleming will have any positive effect whatsoever on attendance at our nation’s concert halls, I agree that it couldn’t possibly hurt classical music anymore than our pop-saturated culture has already done. But I just can’t agree with the suggestion that great symphonic music is equal to popular music; that the classical music field should “come down off of that high horse and realize that in order to ensure a long and healthy future for our art form we need to open our minds to what that 98% think about and enjoy”. If I, as a teenager with some musical proclivity, I had concerned myself with what the 98% thought about and enjoyed, I would never have found music that affected me in a profound, life-altering way. I would never have taken up an unwieldy instrument and devoted the next ten years of my life to mastering it so I could be a part of those remarkable orchestral sounds. I believe that without that high horse of excellence, inspiration, and technical proficiency to mount many fewer people would have put themselves through the 10,000 hour process of mastering an instrument to the highest levels of execution demanded in the classical world. It takes an almost religious devotion to sustain such an effort. Popular music, though it provides great enjoyment and satisfaction for millions, could never have done that for me, and, I argue, will not for subsequent generations of instrumentalists, either.

    If classical music were to cater to the tastes of the 98, as you suggest, it is not “a long and healthy future for our art form” that would be ensured. We would merely be ensuring a somewhat longer, somewhat financially healthier future for ORCHESTRAS. Ensuring a long healthy future for the ART FORM involves a continued commitment to performing the very best that the world’s greatest musical geniuses have composed. A nation of orchestras that play more show tunes and film scores than the most masterfully crafted musical creations has no right calling itself an upholder of the symphonic art form. Personally, I do not believe that orchestras are worth saving at the expense of the music. If you tell me that a film score moves you just as deeply as your most admired symphonies, then I suppose I will have to take you at your word. But I know without a doubt, and perhaps I am more unusual in this than I think, that I would not be a member of a major orchestra today if I had not heard music that ignited a ferocious enough passion in me to make the attempt at that goal. It was a difficult and often frustrating climb up to this high horse. I’ll not agree to come down off it for just any old Tom, Dick, or Harry’s idea of what music is worth playing. The ART FORM deserves better than crowdsourcing to determine its future.

    I confess that I do not follow football, and tune in to the Big Game (if I am home) a few times over the course of the contest, but mostly to be reassured that no one has been killed by a skull-crushing collision. So I will blame the concussive brutality of the game of football for my missing Renee Fleming’s performance at the Super Bowl.

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