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Cupcakes

July 9, 2011
Cupcakes are funny things. In the last few years, when cupcakes were sold as an ‘In’ dessert, with deluxe items being sold for four or five dollars a pop. The thing is, the difference between a five dollar cupcake and one at half the price is mostly just more sugar with a little bit of presentation. It’s still a cupcake, regardless of the swirls in the icing or color of the cake. They’re tiny, and I don’t think there’s that much one can do to stretch the idea. Slate ran a great article on this a few years back.  (Incidentally, NPR ran a piece on how macaroons are the new cupcakes a year ago, but they still haven’t caught on too much in my world. I suspect it’s because they look like those fake plastic toy hamburgers Fisher Price used to make.)
This might seem to be entirely off topic, but follow me a bit. With the explosion of the ‘alt-classical’ label, I’ve heard more than a few examples of a musician taking pop music and converting into a chic cupcake, i.e. re-brand it as art. I think this may be more dangerous than irrelevancy. This has been brewing in my head for a while now, but I just arrived at this cupcake idea recently as a way to express it. So, while I’m not going to try to identify specific instances now, neither will I avoid pointing them out down the road.
Now, I am entirely in favor of art music that is informed by popular music, but it is a fraud to simply imitate pop music and call it art. When one thinks of art music, there is definitely a complex set of principles that go into qualifying the music for that definition. Sometimes a piece will feature parts of the principles without showing much of others. Certainly technical proficiency is expected from the performers, as well as an exploration of the musical elements such as harmony, form and rhythm.
I’ve heard before that when someone labels their music as “art music” all that person is saying is that they would like you to pay specific attention to the sounds being made. I can get behind this definition, so long as there is something to listen to that requires my specific attention. If all that’s been added to pop music is sugar and a ‘sophisticated’ wrapper, that doesn’t require any special focus to listen to.
I’m pretty sure that if people really paid close attention to fancy cupcakes they’d realize they got a bit of a raw deal, and I really don’t want art music to move in a direction where people are justified in asking what exactly makes it so artistic.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 3:40 pm

    We had a lengthy discussion in college about what defined “art music.” I agree that many artists are trying to repackage their image, but what do you think defines art music? And why is it that so many successful pop artists are successfully rebranding their image this way, while traditional art music is suffering (as seen through the many problems we see facing orchestras today)?

  2. Doug permalink*
    July 12, 2011 8:02 pm

    Considering the mountain of tomes written on aesthetics and the quality of art, I doubt any blog can really flesh out that question properly, let alone a comment. I will say personally I appreciate the definition of art music that Corey Dargel establishes here. I would add to that by saying that I believe pop music is almost entirely concerned with musical affect while art music has a much more complicated relationship between affect and the nuts/bolts that make the music. I’d say the best art music places those two things in a somewhat equal balance, but there are plenty of examples that don’t seem to even be aware of affect.

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