I find it such a weird time in our culture. MMEA is being celebrated for branching out beyond the standard repertoire, and they rightly should be, but here are the things I don’t understand.

For all the people that are somehow just now discovering that there are other kinds of music than Western classical music, it might come as a shock to discover that composers have always been listening to and interacting with popular forms of music. Always. At all times. I’ve never met a composer that didn’t. I can’t think of a single historical composer that didn’t. It’s possible that I don’t know them all, but if there is such an animal, it’s rare. I mean, really, even that bullwark of ivory tower isolationism Milton Babbitt wrote for Jazz Band and had a great affinity and love for Broadway music. He taught Sondheim for goodness sake.

My bigger issue is that statements like this one from MMEA are really not saying what they mean. It says, “select repertoire that is representative of the student’s personal experiences and culture,” but it doesn’t really mean that. They don’t relaly mean that we are going to fill our concerts with student’s cultural experience if it’s bad “Christian” pop music with poor vocal production.

One of the things that I had to do pretty often when I taught in the inner city was to pretty regularly tell 8 year old girls to stop singing a popular song about giving a blowjob. Is that the representative repertoire we’re talking about? Not really.

I would even suggest that music educators would not even be open to performing Pulitzer Prize winning rap like Kendrick Lamar’s Damn (though this would certainly be representative of the student’s personal experiences, and I would enjoy it.) Instead, what they really want to program is safe, made-for-middleclass-white-people rap like Hamilton. Then, they will pat themselves on the back for being “representative.”

The real question, of course, is not whether or not we should be “reflecting our students culture” because “culture” isn’t a neutral subject. The big question is the one that Cornel West asks Jay-Z in a New York Public Library interview: At what point does an artist have a responsibility to go beyond simply reflecting their culture and decide to challenge it? That’s a real question, and the answer would make for a real concert.

I find it hard to believe that there would be an educator in this country willing to let their students pick music for a concert that is completely reflective of our culture right now. Your concert would have a MAGA song paired with a pro-choice song. You would have a patriotic song paired with a song from the socialist tradition in our country. A Mormon hymn would be the foil for a panegyric to a goddess. This would actually be an interesting concert, but I don’t think that’s what they really mean when they say they want to represent the “student’s personal experiences and culture.”

They mean the sorts of safe versions of “culture” that are acceptable to parents and school boards that don’t really challenge you harmonically or culturally or really in any other way. You do get to pat yourself on the back for being “diverse” though, so I guess that’s something.