So this isn’t strictly music…but this line of thinking can certainly apply to musical analysis as well. Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting examination of dictatorial kitsch (thanks to my partner Matt for bringing it to my attention). Check out the picture behind Clinton and Kim Jong Il in the article–I’m sure this is not the first time you’ve seen or heard some form of dictatorial art and thought, “My G-d, this is TERRIBLE.”
What’s interesting to me about this take on Soviet kitsch is its implicit assertion that only art from totalitarian regimes (or from similar circumstances) is “ideological.” It’s clearly more blatantly ideological than, say, Thomas Kinkade’s work. But scratch the surface of any cultural product and you’ll find ideology or politics of some kind. Let’s scratch Thomas Kinkade real quick for argument’s sake.
Take a look at some of his work and try to answer these questions: What lifestyle does he normatize by his portrayal of what is “all-American”? In his blandness, what settings does he expect will be familiar and unfamiliar to his viewers? How do you think Kinkade feels about cities? What kind of people do you think live in his “regular all-American” cottages and on his Main Streets? He’s not trying to push a creepy cult of personality in the same way as Kim or Saddam, but he’s pushing something, for sure. (Note–I don’t mean that Kinkade is trying to control his audience in any way, for good or bad. I’m just saying that artists are shaped by, and shape, their ideological milieux, and that it’s important to think about how and why this is happening.)
Within the musical realm, we always turn to Shostakovich as the classic example of audio art influenced (or constrained) by totalitarianism, and programmatic readings of his work are quite popular among armchair conductors and critics. What ideological message might be implicit in, say, Philip Glass’s work? In Beyoncé’s work? In American Idol?