America’s Musical Meltdown (2005)

by Professor Edward Joffe

The opening verses to two compositions that were both #1 hits, seventy-five years apart, are shown below. While both sets of lyrics describe unsettled relationships, I believe the difference in the sophistication of the lyrics mirrors the “dumbing down” of America’s musical culture over that span of time. It has been reported that the United States is forty-ninth in the world in literacy.1 This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been involved in education for any length of time. Yet, the plain truth is that we have slid equally far down the music cultural ladder.

Body and Soul (1930)
Music by John Green
Lyrics by Heyman, Sour and Eyton

My heart is sad and lonely,
For you I sigh,
For you, dear, only.
Why haven’t you seen it?
I’m all for you, Body and Soul!

I can’t believe it, It’s hard to conceive it,
That you’d turn away romance.
Are you pretending, it looks like the ending
Unless I could have one more chance to prove, dear,

My life a wreck you’re making,
You know I’m yours for just the taking:
I’d gladly surrender myself for you, Body and Soul!

Let Me Love You (2005)
Music/Lyrics by Mario

Baby I just don’t get it
Do you enjoy being hurt?
I know you smelled the perfume, the make-up on his shirt
You don’t believe his stories
You know that they’re all lies
Bad as you are, you stick around and I just don’t know why

If I was ya man (baby you)
Never worry bout (what I do)
I’d be coming home (back to you)
Every night, doin’ you right
You’re the type of woman (deserves good thangs)
Fistful of diamonds (hand full of rings)
Baby you’re a star (I just want to show you, you are)

The most commercially successful musicals of the 1950’s were Guys and Dolls (1950), My Fair Lady (1956), West Side Story (1957), and Gypsy (1959). These were innovative works that carried messages of social importance. The most successful hits of recent years—The Lion King (1997), The Producers (2001), Hairspray (2001) and Mamma Mia (2002) pale in comparison. CBS regularly broadcast “Young People’s Concerts” hosted by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic from 1958–1973 and even commissioned Igor Stravinsky to compose a musical play for television in 1962—The Flood. Currently, there is not one major network that broadcasts an orchestral program, opera, ballet or jazz ensemble concert. That task has been left to PBS and arts channels on cable television. Today, music is primarily regarded as nothing more than a food service—something to be displayed to enhance the proceedings of a more important activity like the halftime show at a sporting event, the local parade, an awards ceremony or wedding. Commercial radio, the medium that has been the most significant in promoting music and selling recordings since its origin in 1920, broadcasts the music (75% to 85% is heavy metal, alternative or rap music) that sells the most to the age group that buys the most recordings—teenagers. This programming rarely reflects the musical “art” forms (Western European classical and American jazz) most commonly taught in our educational facilities. CEO’s of record companies, program directors of radio stations, businessmen who are producers of musical theater productions or control the Board of Directors of arts organizations, have the ultimate word in what music shall be recorded, programmed and performed. They are generally musically uneducated and primarily concerned with the financial bottom line. Is it any wonder that this nation’s level of musical acuity has declined so quickly? A look at the specific factors that has created this musical meltdown might help to provide the answers to remedy this situation.

Political Influences

During the early years of the Cold War (1950–1970), the U. S. was competing with Russia in the arts as well as in scientific achievements, sports competitions and politics. Schools throughout the country were encouraged to develop their music programs, performing arts centers were created, and a federal, state and local government provided funding for the arts. Congress established The National Endowment For The Arts (NEA) in 1965 to encourage and support arts programs throughout the nation. However, when America put a man on the moon in 1969, the Vietnam War ended in 1973, and Watergate attracted national attention in 1973, money for the arts began to dry up. Thus began a thirty-year downward trend for music and the arts in general. The NEA has been receiving less and less money over the last two decades (except for a slight increase in last election year’s budget, which brought its appropriation amount back to the 1994 level when inflation is included) and is fighting for its very existence. Since music, and for that matter all of the arts are perceived as being associated with politically liberal-minded forces, the conservative Congress of recent times has decided to help balance the budget by attempting to dismantle this agency.

Changing Popular Culture and Music Education

Popular music until the early 1950’s was primarily performed on acoustical instruments with vocalists who were required to sing accurate pitches. “Popular and classical music spoke basically the same language, although at different levels of subtlety and seriousness”2 These factors contributed to the growth of the traditional school musical organizations—orchestras, bands, and vocal choirs. However, as Rock ‘n’ Roll music dominated the airwaves in the 1950’s and 1960’s, youngsters began playing the instruments most closely associated with this new expression—the amplified guitar, electric piano and drum set. Since academic institutions are historically late in adapting their music programs to current trends, the school music ensembles began having trouble attracting students beginning in the 1970’s.

The immigrants who moved to America during the first half of the 20th Century were primarily from Europe. Their musical cultures were reflected in the classical musical organizations of the schools. Since 1950, the majority of America’s immigrant population has come from Latin American, South American and Asian nations. Their musical traditions are different and are rarely reflected in typical K-12 grade school musical groups. Ironically, the jazz band is often the only ensemble in which some of these “new” immigrants’ music is performed. Furthermore, as the popularity of MTV (1981) has created several generations who associate music with visual reinforcement, the desire to listen to or attend musical performances without any added stimuli has declined. Since music programs in schools are often the first to be cut when budgetary constraints are necessary—the Medicaid of educational disciplines—is it any wonder that many students have become musically disengaged? To add insult to injury, in March 2002, the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) sent an alarming letter to its members stating that there is now a serious shortage of music teachers in grades K–12.
The end result of the schools’ failure to musically engage their students can best be seen by the decline in popularity of the music that schools most often teach. Classical music record sales represent roughly 3% of the total record sales—a far cry from the 12% it represented in 1950. Today, while most of our major symphony orchestras, opera and dance companies operate in the red, their musicians have accepted major salary cutbacks, seasons have been shortened, audiences have gotten older and attendance continues to decline.

Solutions

I believe that the solutions for creating a new generation of musically sophisticated listeners and active music participants lie in the hands of the educational institutions and the music educators. If we were able to create a musical environment at schools that would allow enthusiastic music making, we would have a musical audience that would be aware of a more diverse spectrum of musical styles, attend and support live music performances, and prevent politicians, media heads and businessmen from destroying our cultural inclinations and institutions. In order to achieve this objective, we must do the following:

a) Convince administrators and parents that music is an essential discipline that has shown to improve students’ reading and math skills and social interaction as well as to teach them about the cultures of all nations. In self-studies done by the American College Testing Service, it was determined that a childhood full of diverse interests, activities, and hobbies (i.e. music) is the best way to insure future success.

b) Schedule music performing classes as an integral part of the everyday curriculum and not as an extracurricular activity so that all students have an opportunity to participate.

c) We need to enlist a new type of music educator: one who is aware of and respects the many styles of music that students listen to in addition to the traditional expressions of classical and jazz music; one who is able to perform on a regular basis for their students; and most importantly, one who conveys a sense of enthusiasm and passion for music making. The teacher certification process must demand this type of skilled individual.

d) Schools need to include additional performing ensembles that reflect the music of all of our population (i.e. Brazilian Ensemble, Latin-Jazz Ensemble, Shakuhachi, Koto & Shamisen Ensemble, etc.)

Without these types of drastic changes, I believe that we are in danger of producing future generations who will never know the thrill of making or listening to live music.


1 Donald G. McNeil,Jr., “The Last Time You Used Algebra Was…” , New York Times, December 12, 2004, section 4,3.

2 Bernard Holland, “Loudspeakers Complicate Effort to Span Sonic Divide”, New York Times, February 28, 2005, section E,6.