Michael Long


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

Cover Interview of February 19, 2009

In a nutshell

Beautiful Monsters explores how “classical music,” and the idea of “the classic” itself, found a home in the American popular imagination.  Concerns about the apparent cultural demise of classical music at the turn of the twenty-first century, the subject of several recent books, provided a jumping-off point for my introduction.  But Beautiful Monsters is intended as a selective history of twentieth-century music in general.  It responds to the failure of academic and journalistic writers specializing in concert-hall music, film music, pop, rock, rap, disco, and other popular genres to cultivate much common ground.  Orthodox writers, including the dogmatically hip ones, tend to hide the sounds of both old and new music in categorical boxes bearing labels of stylistic, institutional, political or sociological identity.  I am concerned more with experience than categories, and argue that popular recordings and visual media have enriched music’s capacity to engage the individual imagination while underscoring the commonality of musical experience.

My project was triggered by a trivial coincidence.  In the car, enjoying the easy companionship of a mixed-vintage pop radio station, I heard three huge and hugely familiar hits – rock “monsters” – played as a continuous set, and began in my mind to sort through the obvious and not-so-obvious relationships among them.  In each, the traditional materials of rock music mingled with sounds drawn from the past (musical motives, instrumental color, lyrics, vocal phonemes), things encountered in undergraduate courses devoted to the appreciation of classical, i.e., historical music.  (I’ve taught plenty of them.)  But the amazing success and longevity of these rock warhorses could not be attributed entirely to antiquarianism.  There are plenty of popular offerings full of clever citations and historical atmosphere that have fallen flat or faded quickly.  These mega-hits had somehow managed to construct an expressive discourse that was unusual, yet immediately intelligible to a broad, sociologically diverse listening population.  How best to explain the way such hybrid musical items work effectively?  What could such an investigation tell us about how we experience and organize the scope of a stylistically unpredictable, mass-mediated aural world?  I decided that a meaningful approach to writing about music in the twentieth century (at least the music most Americans had heard) might center on how components of the classics have come to serve as expressive options within the cultural vernacular.