Michael Long


On his book Beautiful Monsters: Imagining the Classic in Musical Media

Cover Interview of February 20, 2009

The wide angle

The book moves fluidly, even unexpectedly, among chronological periods, genres, types of media, and among ways in which the “classic” has been defined since the second century C.E.  All of the chapters cover a lot of ground.  I know of no other book that treats film music and pop recordings with the same degree of critical and historical depth.  The point, not to mention the fun, lies in the details.  Did the music played on Michael Jackson’s carousel reflect a classic philosophical position?  What might Dante have said about surf music?  What roles did Richard Wagner play in the scoring of Hollywood’s early sound films, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the recordings of Phil Spector, and the decline of King Crimson?  Why did “Mr. Holland” write a symphony rather than a concerto?  Whose music was more classical – DMX’s or Busta Rhymes’s?  Investigating these eccentric and occasionally playful questions provides some insight into how we listen, why we find it important to listen in the first place, and how musical hearing is enlivened by the classic’s presence in the vernacular imagination.

Beautiful Monsters emphasizes the expressive capacity of so-called “mass” media and the receptive powers of so-called “mass” audiences.  Of course that nameless and faceless congregation of individual listeners in fact rarely experiences musical media en masse.  Modern listening is most often intimate, or even solitary, a detail that has not been emphasized in traditional “readings” of mainstream musical and film culture.  Throughout my book, the imaginative listener intersects with descriptions of acoustical and visual spaces: stereoscopic photography, reverb, animation, special-effects shots.  But imaginative hearing is also situated in the text within a mainstream of shared listening expectations.  That mainstream, our cultural vernacular, is made up of special collections of gestures, sound fragments, and image types.  Borrowing a term from linguistics, I refer to those collections as registers, one of which is the register of the musical classic.

This is as far as I take any significant analogy between language and music in the book.  Grammar, syntax, and even “meaning” are less essential to me than the registral connotations of sounds.  They are the most expressive components of both language and music.  That argument isn’t mine – it’s Dante’s.  I hope potential readers of a book on popular culture won’t be put off by my launching the first chapter with a brief summary of one of Dante’s more obscure works.  I couldn’t help myself.  All of my other published work is in the area of medieval European music and poetry.  As a medievalist I try to make sense of the expressive codes imbedded in works that appear small, superficially redundant, and often dull.  My background equipped me especially well for sparring in my text with pop-culture bashers who deride mainstream music’s repetitive simplicity and underdeveloped syntax.

By situating a wide range of elements in the realm of common usage, I can avoid inhospitable theoretical buzzwords like inversion, rupture, and pastiche.  These appear throughout modern and especially postmodern writing about any art that appears to be both “a little high” and “a little low” (I borrow that formula from Freddie Mercury, who figures prominently in chapter 7).  One of my goals has been to respect the acoustical or visual details of each of the items I discuss regardless of its cultural or commercial associations.  I invite Victorian domestic art, psychedelic rock, and low-budget horror movies to participate in a lively conversation without their having to fear an ambush by the big old guns of cultural critique (kitsch, camp, sentiment, inauthenticity).  In Beautiful Monsters, a Chopin piano prelude, a disco anthem, and a Staffordshire figurine are distinguished not by relative or absolute cultural value, but by the varieties of imaginative experience they might activate.