National Public Radio is a bad idea, as you can tell from the name. But the specific reality is even worse, though I suppose it comes in different forms. The service is varied in that local stations can tailor themselves differently. But I believe that my take on NPR is basically true about the “NPR effect” and its treatment of “classical music,” as it is quaintly called.
Now I don’t deny that some NPR elements are good, Car Talk being the best, though that show was no longer produced after 2012. (What you hear are reruns.) The loss of Car Talk was a blow to what little entertainment value or humor or good sense NPR had. A Prairie Home Companion also has its moments, though adjusting for the condescending vanities and indulgences of Garrison Keillor can be a challenge. I also concede that, possibly through error or inattention, sometimes good music well played is actually broadcast by NPR, but they seem strictly to limit the threatening phenomenon that should be their obvious priority. But besides the points noted, the effect of NPR is to make you want to listen to anything else, and I mean anything. Out of a scrupulous respect for the mental health of my devoted readers, I am going to skip over here the long list of alternatives that are either the bane of the airwaves, or better than NPR, or both.
I am not going to skip over or delete or neglect much that has to do with doing music wrong, by which I mean doing harm to the image of good music, discrediting it, playing boring music as an example of good music, playing insipid performances even of good music, and continually insisting that music is therapy. With friends like NPR, music that didn’t know it was classical when it was written doesn’t need any enemies. But even before I draw up my bill of particulars, I have some other points to make.
Though there is no logical necessity for equating classical music with political correctness, this is what NPR does when you hear the dreaded voice intone, “From Washington, this is Lakshmi Singh.” There is only one thing that could be worse than the smugness of the take on the news, and that is the particular attention given to the sufferings of and microaggressions borne by more and more obscure groups of oddly named children, women, and “minorities.” The parade of petty, precious, and maudlin affectations is hardly the tone to be struck before we address music that projects the heroic, the bold, the adventuresome, or even (dare I say it?) the romantic. But the namby-pamby faux-childish recitations of absurd victimization have an effect quite opposite of the one intended—for when we reflect, they remind us of the hippy teacher, David Van Driessen, from Beavis and Butt-Head. How could we have learned otherwise that international consciousness of human suffering is actually funnier than Car Talk?
It was a point of difficulty—or it was hard for me—to remember the distinction between chaconne and passacaglia when my attention was being stretched to absorb the testimony of a youthful cancer victim (one who had sold a kidney for eating money) in a remote jungle or native habitat that had been irretrievably blighted by the carcinogenic poisons recklessly hidden in the few functional wells left by an exploitative Western factory spewing pollution even on sacred ground—one already indicted in the World Court for crimes against humanity! But seriously, how could such a pedantic matter of Eurocentric academics be of any concern during this emergency of international humanitarian priorities?
Yes indeed, but of course even this ponderous misalignment of values would not be the only bar to respecting music for what it is worth. Another attack would take the form of trivialization, like this: Classical music is good for you because it helps you relax! It helps you at your workplace by soothing your nerves, rather like an herbal tea. Music is also an adjunct to your workout or exercise. You can listen to music when you walk, jog, or bike in the park. Music makes you feel good and helps you to enjoy your day. Somehow music has encroached here on the domain of yogurt and yoga, but I haven’t yet heard anything from NPR about weight control, dieting, and beauty issues. I cannot countenance the packaging of the best music as Muzak or elevator music. This is a worse crime even than using music to pound home political tent pegs in the ear of the whomever.
I do acknowledge that the corporations have been packaging music as political statements for years; and that the companies that sell recordings as markers of cultural appropriation have also repackaged them as Baby Mozart and Relax With Chopin, and so on. But even so, those companies paid the artists, and those companies were not bugging your ear on the radio. Somehow, though the principle is the same, NPR is worse. But the real question is, what to do about it?
Though music is necessary, no particular vehicle of music is indispensable—except live performance, of course. National Public Radio and even radio itself can be avoided by taking advantage of various ways to be your own disk jockey: compact discs, streaming, and so on. The problem with music in your car is that it is a dangerous distraction, so that it must be used with caution and precautions, even as it liberates you from the soft tyranny of NPR.
My own problem with music in the car is that I listen to it too intently. And this recalls to mind the absurdities of “music for relaxation.” I don’t relax to music, and I never did. Years ago I listened to music standing up and pacing in the living room. Music was never a mild little pill for me; rather it was challenging, intense, and a lot to take in at once. A good piece was to be memorized effortlessly, and then repeated and repeated—it would never grow stale. That was how you knew it was a great piece and deserved so much attention.
Right—but now that we have sketched the Great Escape from NPR, it’s time like all well-funded identity groups to rehearse our grievances in an act of collective distaste. And we have quite a few. One of them is the excessive promotion of instruments that have trouble carrying their load. How often in the daily commute do we seek for some music only to hear a guitar? Now it is true that there is a guitar repertory and a roster of outstanding guitarists. But somehow on NPR, it’s always the wrong piece or the wrong player. The suspicion sets in that NPR is trying to “relax” us once again with dull, undynamic music. This same paranoid conviction, amply confirmed, begins to settle in when we hear an excess (as in more than one) of pieces for the flute. The flute has its place, but that place is a limited one. See above for “dull, undynamic music.”
There are other categories or aspects of music that NPR uses in an apparently successful strategy to make sure that no one ever listens to serious music again.
There is a certain musical identity that seems to guarantee a snooze, and I frankly refer to a bizarre NPR obsession with British pastoral or folkish music of the early 20th century. These various compositions seem to consist of woodwinds over a bank of strings in an unvarying monotony. They all seem to have the same tempo (andante mit schleppend?), the same key signature, and no dynamic range. The pieces were perhaps selected by family members of various composers, or perhaps by some People’s Committee for Musical Equality.
Guitars, flutes, British folkies: They get the job done. But there is always another way to skin a cat. Example: How about a Beethoven Eroica (that’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 to you) played by an orchestra of sissies, conducted by a person who seems to be a failed hairdresser? So even Ludwig Van can be part of the problem. We could easily arrange, for example, to have a dispassionate performance of the “Apassionata” Sonata in F minor, Op. 57. We might prefer and proffer Classicists with nothing to balance, Romantics without intensity or romance, Modernists without outrageousness, and everything mezzo forte. There would always be a chance through the music to tip the scales against interest, intrigue, intricacy, or intelligence. But what would we do if anything interesting or exciting happened by some failure of foresight and control?
Well, the sure thing, the best shot for a kill, would be between the musical selections, when the disc jockeys get to talk about relaxation and tea and walks in the park, and the reporters report about prejudice, inequality, social justice, and world hunger, and the world sufferings are vented to those who tuned in perhaps to escape from that consciousness if only for a little while. For just as a spider creeps by the lamp where the moths gather, the inverted aggressors of NPR go to the point on the dial where people gather for beauty and truth—and make sure that no such solace may be found.