Monday, June 9, 2008

Name Brand Quality

The Celtics once again outclassed the Lakers in Game 2 of the NBA finals, although it got ridiculously scary at the end; of course, the hometown boys now have to play the next three games (assuming all are necessary) in L.A., which changes everything. However, the Boston Globe's ever perceptive Dan Shaughnessy pointed out the "classy edge" that's really going to have Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant on edge: "Keith Lockhart and friends performed the national anthem before Game 2. The Los Angeles arts community no doubt will be hard-pressed to top the Pops." Yeah, I saw the pre-game ceremony in which the ever awkward Mr. Lockhart, draped in a goofily oversized Celtics jersey, provided his expert guidance while about 11-12 mostly brass players negotiated the national anthem. To my ears, it came off as a particularly stiff and uninspired reading, with Lockhart looking dead serious, his gestures punctuated by all sorts of fancy little subdivisions. The truth is, just about any small town in America could have trotted out a little brass band that would have sounded about the same.

Ah, but they wouldn't be the BOSTON POPS, would they? Never mind that this wasn't really the "Boston Pops" in any particularly meaningful sense (no strings!), or that a conductor isn't really needed to lead a small ensemble of professionals through this song, or that THE BOSTON POPS can be used not just to describe the BSO players who fill out most of the primary roster, but also any number of high-quality freelance players in the area. (And Shaughnessy might be surprised to know that Los Angeles has a few high-quality freelance musicians.) The truth is, Lockhart wasn't really needed at all to conduct, he was there to define this little group as THE POPS. He was, to put it simply, a walking and gesticulating brand name label (like a Keebler elf, or Tony the Tiger), there to make us all feel good that Boston has a well-known pops orchestra. One might further suggest that the Boston Pops exists largely to give people a "high art" labeled experience without really having to confront "high art." For example, the most high-profile Pops event is the annual 4th of July concert at which the second-tier Esplanade orchestra spends much of the evening providing a virtually superfluous backing track to some famous pop star.

The all-time silliest example was the 2002 Super Bowl for which the entire Pops orchestra was flown down to New Orleans to "play," except that they were just doing the symphonic equivalent of lip-synching, everything having been prerecorded. However, it obviously meant something to people to have the Pops there, representing themselves. They weren't there to play, they were there to be there, and the same is really true of the group from last night, even though they did happen to play. It's all about the name brand. So, although Lockhart's overly elaborate conducting gestures weren't really needed by the players, they did make sense as a way of reinforcing the name brand - people want to see that this guy's got some real conducting chops. He was conducting much more for the national audience than for his Pops stars.

But the truth is that the "name brand" phenomenon is pervasive in the way just about any kind of music, classical or pop, is received. There are all sorts of reasons to wonder why "new music" can't seem to get a legitimate foothold in the affections of concert-goers, but surely names are a big part of it. I teach at a small liberal arts school, and yet our annual student composer concerts always include several really well-written and interesting pieces; it logically follows that there are thousands of talented composers out there, able to turn out worthwhile music of just about any shape or size, but how do you compete with the name brands of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc? By no means am I saying that those composers just get by on name recognition, but I suspect if the average audience member doesn't like or is bored by a Beethoven symphony, the listener will tend towards blaming himself/herself. If the same listener doesn't like or is bored by the music of [INSERT NAME HERE], it's much more natural to put the blame on [RE-INSERT SAME NAME HERE]. This imaginary listener is thus much more likely to give Beethoven a second chance.

This isn't an entirely bad thing, by the way. In fact, it's just a natural part of how culture works in general, but that's a topic for another day.

1 comment:

Fusedule Tecil said...

Easy, Action.

What I heard was Pops players doing a boiler plate, bullet proof arrangement of the National Anthem. No music stands, no time to memorize and perform a hot new John Williams arrangement. A quick look at the players (who for TV were irrelevant) showed a mix of regular BSO players and other Boston free lance players. The whole discussion of "what is the Boston Pops" is for another time, but it seems to be that if they trot out the "face" - Lockhart, Williams, etc - it matters not who is actually doing the PLAYING.

Lockhart is a goofball for sure - one would think he would take a look in the mirror and realize that it looked like his borrowed his Celtics jersey from Bill Russell.

To your other point, the NBA, NFL, MLB all find value in having "celebrity" individuals and groups play the National Anthem at events. Whether actually playing (as the Pops players seemed to be doing last night) or syncing what they had previously pre-recorded (like the Pops did at Super Bowl XXXVI) their PRESENCE is what is important. Nobody is listening. They are watching.

Shaughnessy is wrong when it comes to Boston's "classy edge." The Lakers could trot out a group from the LA Philharmonic. The problem is the NBA - and the TV audience - doesn't give a rip about the LA Philharmonic. It's the Boston Pops brand that went by on our screens for a few seconds. That was obviously worth all the money it took to bring 10 players, managers, conductor, etc to the Garden to play the National Anthem.

Like you said, it's not all a bad thing. It's just part of our celebrity culture. The music making had nothing to do with last night. Last night was about the BRAND and with the Boston Pops - whether anyone in the audience actually noticed who the individual players were - scored big last night.

There are better violinists than Pearlman and better cellists than Yo-Yo Ma. But the "public" still adores their "stars," quality of performance be damned. Look at so many concerts - mostly pop and rock events - put on by singers and performers who are long past their prime, needing to lower their songs by a whole step in order to get to the top note (and refusing to do so), who sing or lay dreadfully. Yet the audience is on its feet. Why? Because they're not listening. They're remembering what once was. Memory always tops reality.

-Fusedule Tecil