“As a performer, however, it’s seductive to think that I can gain instant credibility with ordinary listeners by dropping some phat 808s. It’s natural to want to please an audience; is it unethical to take advantage of their ignorance (in the most nonjudgmental sense) and cultural conditioning (in the most judgmental sense) to do so?”
This is a quote from the end of Colin Holter’s latest at NewMusicBox. He’s discussing the fact that many audience members are substantially more likely to enjoy a piece, or even to consider it music, if it has a rock-style drum beat or other regular pulse element. It’s an interesting question, and has garnered some excellent discussion in the comments over there – it’s worth reading the whole essay and the comments thread below it.
His question is really a corollary to the old question “how do I decide what kind of music to write, given the preferences of the audience, my desire to be loved, and my aesthetic preferences.” The short, easy answer to that question is that you should write whatever the heck you want to write and be happy with what ever audience happens to like it. (This is the part of “Who Cares If You Listen” that Babbitt got right but which he rarely gets credit for.) The question then becomes “is it ethical to deviate from your personal aesthetic preferences in order to appeal to a larger segment of the public,” and that question has nothing to do with “taking advantage” of anybody’s “ignorance.” My answer to that question is that it’s a personal choice. If you feel that it would be wrong for you to do it, it’s wrong for you to do it, but if you’re comfortable with it you should go ahead. Appealing to the audience is a valid artistic goal. Appealing to a massive popular audience is a valid artistic goal. Making money is a valid artistic goal. (I’m serious. The fetishization of art as superior to economic concerns is nonsense. Difficult or impossible to integrate with economic concerns, sure, but not because of some sort of spiritual transcendence hogwash.)
Now we can get down to the issue of “taking advantage of their ignorance.” The unstated premise behind this question is that there are valid and non-valid reasons for appreciating a given piece of art — that the “ignorant” audience can be tricked into liking (and possibly paying to hear) a piece that they otherwise wouldn’t like by the addition of an element that they are wrong to attach value to. Why should you get to dictate the terms on which an audience is allowed and not allowed to appreciate a piece? Aesthetics isn’t universal law, it’s personal preference. Certainly one might add a rock beat to a piece and thereby make it more appealing to a general audience while at the same time not effecting (or even undermining) the things that the composer values about the piece, but the audience should be permitted to have its own tastes. If you don’t want anybody to like your piece for the “wrong” reasons, don’t include those elements. But if you do include them, the only unethical act would be to presume that your aesthetic values are superior to somebody else’s.
It’s worth noting that adding a rock beat isn’t the only way in which composers can cater to the tastes of their audience. A short list of other strategies might include: writing tonally, writing atonally, adding dissonance to your tonal music, adding consonance to your atonal music, writing for more traditional instruments, writing for more obscure instruments, writing for film, refusing to write for film, writing in older styles, writing in modern styles, using simple rhythm, using complex rhythm, etc. Whether it’s pandering depends on whether the composer is compromising his or her preferred technique. (And as I said, whether pandering is “wrong” depends on whether the composer feels bad about it.) The next question would be this: Should we draw a philosophical distinction between the composer who compromises his preferred style and the composer who has been successfully brainwashed by some element of the culture to prefer to write in a given style? Cuz we all fall into the latter category. . .