Mistaking Commercial Popularity With Artistic Achievement
Not long ago a couple of friends invited us to watch a concert DVD of one of their favorite performers, a woman named Beyonce Knowles. One of our friends, a musician, said that although most fans admire Ms. Knowles for her pretty face, powerful singing voice, and shapely ass, the really impressive thing about her is that she composes most of her own material. (And she dances, too.)
It was easy for us to notice the pretty face, powerful singing voice, and shapely ass. What was less obvious to our benighted sensibilities was the accomplishment in Beyonce’s compositions. The lyrics were what one might expect from a semi-literate elementary school student. Most of them consisted of a banal phrase (“I wanna get with [pronounced: “witch”] you”) repeated ad nauseam. They were largely unintelligible. And they didn’t scan. The music that accompanied these modernist poems was similarly repetitious, thumpingly insistent, and mostly interchangeable. These “compositions,” it seemed to use, were works of depressing banality.
When we said as much, our musician friend remarked that we ought not criticize an “artist” like Beyonce because it was damn difficult to write a hit song that sells millions of copies around the world. Until we were capable of dashing off such successful ditties, we ought not to denigrate that glorious achievement.
Our friend, like so many of us toiling in the arts, is in thrall to money and fame, which a miniscule percentage of performers ever enjoy. A semi-anonymous musician plunking away at the keyboard of his home studio dreams of one day being celebrated and applauded, of being heard. Those who have what he wants — like Beyonce Knowles — seem to possess a talismanic power. These rare commercial successes have cracked the code and found the secret. They won.
But that doesn’t change the fact that writing a popular “Oooh, baby, baby” song is neither difficult nor admirable. It’s marketing the trifle that’s the challenging part. Getting plugged into the machinery of promotion, distribution, and sales is the real accomplishment. Writing lyrics as horrible as the ones Beyonce Knowles creates is not beyond the capabilities of any functional member of society — although the real trick, wer’re assured by people who know such things, is putting these blatherings to a catchy “hook,” a memorable musical figure that gets you humming. (We weren’t able to discern such a thing in most of the songs on the concert DVD; but the dancing was nice.) Praising someone for composing a disposable song that sells ten jillion copies around the world is like honoring the fortunate soul who wins the state lottery. Buying the ticket isn’t any sort of achievement; beating multi-million-to-one odds is.
In the literal sense, you can say that Beyonce Knowles and others like her are “composers,” in that they compose music and lyrics. (We’ll refrain from enumerating the legions of creators, living and dead, whose legacy is cheapened by lumping them with Ms. Bootylicious.) The fact that she has authored something, however awful it might be, is worthy, of some sort of recognition — like the prominent place on the refrigerator mom and dad give to your first finger painting.
But to mistake a commercial success for an aesthetic achievement is to fundamentally misunderstand the value of making something genuinely beautiful and everlasting. That is worth celebrating.