“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing . . . Or Else”
James J. O'Meara
Britons Break Bad
“A beginning,” Princess Irulan tells us in Dune, “is a very delicate time.” Aristotle would agree: “The mistake lies in the beginning — as the proverb says — ‘Well begun is half done’; so an error at the beginning, though quite small, bears the same ratio to the errors in the other parts.”
We might think the same applies to an ending. Post-Sopranos, there seems to be an expectation, as least on the part of True Fans, that their favorite “greatest series ever on television” has to go out with a big, ironic song. The Sopranos of course ironically cut to black with Foreigner’s “Don’t Stop”; alum Vince Gilligan then felt the need to incorporate “Baby Blue” by Badfinger in Breaking Bad’s finale — “Guess I got what I deserved, baby blue.”
More recently, another Soprano alum, Matthew Weiner, brought his series Mad Men to an end with a musical moment. Weiner insists that the ending was long planned, perhaps even from the start. As I wrote at the time:
The idea of Don dropping out, heading circuitously to Esalen, and achieving some kind of enlightenment (or Satori, as Jack Kerouac would say) seemed unlikely, but the immediate cut to the iconic Coke ad tells us that Don simply found a great idea, and headed back to New York to rejoin the rat race as the renewed Alpha Male.
As one blogger writes:
He broke all his vows. He scandalized his child. He took another man’s name. He didn’t want to end up like that guy [at the encounter group], and there’s only one way he could redeem himself . . . by making something great, and by God, he did. He made the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. He is the ultimate con man!
Ultimate, because he finally fooled even us. What we thought was Don quitting his new but conformist job and taking a trek across America to finally “find himself” turned out to be just another attempt to find an angle for a new ad.
In that essay, I focused on the visual angle: Don’s smile, at first seeming to indicate the achievement of Total Consciousness, but then morphing into a smug grin that I related back to E. A. Poe’s epochal work on the great American con, “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” (1843).
But right now, I want to re-focus on that finale and look — or, I guess, listen — to the song itself:
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That’s the real thing.
The song, and its iconic proto-Benneton ad array of colorful multi-culti youth, came back to mind as the streets of London filled with Britain’s best and brightest youth, protesting the “racist” and, above all, anti-globalist Brexit result, brought about by those boring old White geezers. You know, the racists who fought Hitler.
However, the real connection didn’t occur to me until my local classical station alerted me to a news item on their website (they’re very up to date, with streaming and everything), and I realized that for all it’s in your face multiculturalism, the various protests had lacked one fringe group: classical musicians.
Just what does Britain’s vote to leave the European Union mean for classical music? While politicians and economists struggle with immediate economic concerns, cultural leaders are wondering what will happen to the arts. Much of this world supported the Remain campaign, including Maxine Kwok-Adams, a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, cellist Steven Isserlis and the Association of British Orchestras.
In the aftermath of the vote, British radio station, Classical FM, compiled many reactions, from musicians and ensembles, as well.
Now, it must be admitted that these longhairs do show that they have areas of legitimate, personal and professional concerns which shouldn’t be dismissed as mere collateral damage. Here’s some examples:
I don’t think any of us know how [Brexit] will affect anything yet. Musicians are used to travelling freely to perform so there’s obviously a worry if this were to change. Artists have had to cancel engagements here and in the US recently because visas were late arriving. Let’s hope that this will not become the case for British musicians working in Europe.
The key issues for us are what this will mean for free movement of artists across Europe. Like all orchestras, we’ve benefitted from the two-way flow of musicians and the fact that European touring is very easy. If that’s going to become a lot harder that’s a major concern for us.
Typically, the Association of British Orchestras, apparently some kind of union, has more inside baseball concerns:
The ABO is deeply concerned at the potential impact on its members. The prospects for the nation’s public finances are worrying, and may affect the implementation of Orchestra Tax Relief and lead to further reductions in public funding for the arts and local authorities.
We will need the new leadership of this country to give us guarantees as to continued freedom of movement across Europe’s borders for our orchestras, artists and orchestral musicians, and whether the many pan-European regulations that currently affect our sector, from VAT Cultural Exemption to harmonisation of radio spectrum, Noise at Work to the Digital Single Market, will still apply.
I have no idea what that last bit means, but “harmonization” will crop up again soon.
A final point, from Professor Barry Ife, Principal of the Guildhall School:
“The Guildhall School has over 200 students from the EU and we benefit greatly from their talent and enthusiasm. Brexit would deprive them of access to the student loans scheme and their ability to study here would be put at risk.
Again, understandable points of view. However, some opinions seem to swerve into areas that suggest the fiddlers and tub-thumpers have strayed into realms they know not of, in obedience to the dominant culture’s programming:
Beyond that is the wider question of what now happens to the UK economy . . . all of our income streams rely on a better economy whether it’s public funding, ticket sales or fundraising. Quite how that will pan out is possibly the biggest concern for us.
In the short term, we will have to pay close attention to the financial markets. A significant amount of the money we are able to give out to musicians and composers is derived from income from investments . . . any further decline will undoubtedly mean that we will have to cut back the money we give in grants.
Well, if the immediate post-Brexit drop in the world’s markets (the bottom fell out all the way down to last week’s high) was cause for concern, I suppose the subsequent rally must have assuaged those worries, eh?
Of course not; that’s just a proxy (making it sound as if these elite musicians really cared for the economic well-being of those ignorant masses) for the real concern: the elite project of world-wide standardization seems endangered.
I was shocked [by the result], then bewildered, then, later in the morning, conscious that playing classical music is to be unavoidably immersed in a European world, whatever the politicians might decide; and furthermore, a European world which is itself open beyond its own borders. Great art doesn’t so much destroy barriers as make them irrelevant.
[The Royal Philharmonic Society] was founded over 200 years ago by a cosmopolitan group of musicians including Viotti, Cramer, Clementi and Salomon and we have always sought to recognise the finest musicians of any nationality. Music is an international language which transcends borders and musicians are extraordinarily good at finding creative solutions.
And again, some straying off the reservation of actual professional competence, from the very British Dr. Krishna Thiagarajan, Chief Executive, RSNO:
At this early stage I see very few [grounds for optimism]. Britain’s problem isn’t immigration as much as it has been brain drain for a while now. I see little in the Brexit campaign that gives me hope that our politicians understand this. Perhaps there is hope for those who look to Scottish independence as their promise. But for all the foreigners in Britain and British-born citizens of diverse background this Brexit campaign was difficult to watch. Civility was abandoned and things were said that cannot be taken back easily.
Of course, immigration isn’t the problem; it’s just that all the smart Brits left (hmm, I wonder why?), and the morons still here think the numbers of wogs have increased. Thanks, Dr. Thingamabob.
All of which was summed up by this tweeting cellist:
I’m Scottish, a Londoner, British citizen and above all, a European. I don’t recognise the country I’ve woken up to today.
Why should classical musicians show such a neurotic obsession with the unification of Europe? Of course, as always, this is a sample both self-selected and selected by the media to forward the Narrative.
Still, it’s no surprise that “classical” musicians should be such reliable and whole-hearted globalists. As I pointed out in a pair of extremely ill-received articles, the modern Western musical tradition is itself part of the more general impulse to globalization. Long before the EU, the Common Market, or the League of Nations, Western Music, Inc. was promoting homogenization, reducing the expressive system of modes to a bare two (major and minor) solely for the convenience of modulation-mad harmonists, steamrolling local and regional musical traditions and imposing a Whiggish narrative of a single tradition moving with Darwinian evolutionary momentum to an irresistible world unity that just happens to be on our exact contemporary terms. One Scale, One World!
In other words: Harmonization.
Why should it surprise that the modern classical musician gazes into the abyss of globalism and sees . . . himself. “Hypocrite auditeur — mon semblable, — mon frère!”
We might even push the parallel further. The true end of Western Music (in several senses) was, as Adorno and other Frankfurters insisted, the complete tonal democracy of Schönberg & Co. That this “true” democracy — a musical EU — has been stubbornly rejected by the people themselves is, like Brexit, just another example of the stupid masses resisting the inevitable.
The shocked horror of the Elite is easily explained. It was as if the peasants had descended on Versailles, wearing their colourful rags and wooden clogs, swilling their unpasteurized ales and singing their crude “folk” songs full of odd and unnecessary notes.
So it was inevitable that eventually, the big guns would be brought out. If you want to stop Trump, call him a Nazi. If you want to rebuke the nationalistic masses, bring out . . . Beethoven.
Spurred on by the referendum’s result, a group of musicians — both from Britain and other countries in the E.U. — gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to play the European Union’s national anthem: “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a symbol of unification, nationalism, love and brotherhood.
Journalist Philip Barrett attended the performance and interviewed participants as well as members of the audience. Their consensus: music can unite us. As one observer says, “No one really knows what is going to happen, but if there is one thing that can bring us together, it is this music — there’s nothing like it.”
Obviously, Beethoven’s “Ode” is a more appropriate anthem for the EU than, say, an English, French, Italian or Hungarian folk tune, precisely since it is recognizable as such. Indeed, any random piece of so-called “classical” music would do — assuming at least it was not, as composers seeking to revitalize the decaying tradition, itself based on such tunes.
And right they are — music, from the beginning of time, has been the means of creating unity among a polity. Hence, the need for a moral as well as an aesthetic critique of music.
Such a critique would ask “what unity, or what kind of unity?” Obviously, that depends on what kind of music, and so the Chinese and other spoke of a “music of decline.”
The “music of decline” had sounded, as in that wonderful Chinese fable; like a thrumming bass on the organ its reverberations faded slowly out over decades; its throbbing could be heard in the corruption of the schools, periodicals, and universities, in melancholia and insanity among those artists and critics who could still be taken seriously; it raged as untrammeled and amateurish overproduction in all the arts.
The Western system reduced its musical resources to major/minor, which are simply the only two surviving modes; “coincidentally,” they were well known to Traditional musical theorists, as those suitable for inculcating materialism and gluttony.
In short: ideal globalist consumers:
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
“There’s nothing like it!”
1. Politics, Book V, Part IV. Or as Aquinas says in De Ente et Essentia, “A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end, according to the Philosopher in the first book of On the Heavens and the Earth.
2. On beginnings and endings in fiction, see, of course, Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (Oxford, 2nd ed., 2000).
3. Blue, of course, being the color of Heisenberg’s meth. Gilligan was a bit chagrined to discover that Martin Scorsese, the master of such diagetic soundtracks, had already used the song in The Departed. “I thought, ‘Oh dear God,’ this song was in the Departed soundtrack. If someone uses a song in an incredibly iconic and wonderful way, the last thing I want to do is utilize it again,” he says.” For more on Badge, see “Breaking Badge: Touch of Evil through the Lens of Breaking Bad,” here. “Oh my God, is that French out there?”
4. “Don Draper’s Last Diddle,” here; see also my collection of Mad Man meditations, The End of An Era: Mad Men and the Ordeal of Civility (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).
5. Carl: So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas . . . So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald . . . striking. . . . So we finish the eighteenth . . . and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know . . . for the effort, you know?” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” Caddyshack (Ramis, 1980).
6. “Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody sees but himself. He grins when his daily work is done — when his allotted labors are accomplished — at night in his own closet, and altogether for his own private entertainment. He goes home. He locks his door. He divests himself of his clothes. He puts out his candle. He gets into bed. He places his head upon the pillow. All this done, and your diddler grins.” See J. Marshall Trieber, “The Scornful Grin: A Study of Poesque Humor,” from Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:32-34; online here.
7. See “The Making of ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’” by Ted Ryan, Jan. 1, 2012; here.
8. Turgidson: “‘So let’s get going, there’s no other choice. God willing, we will prevail, in peace and freedom from fear, and in true health, through the purity and essence of our natural . . . fluids. God bless you all.’ And he hung up. [Pause as he realizes the implications of General Ripper’s words] Uh, we’re . . . still trying to figure out the meaning of that last phrase, sir.” Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964). See “From Odd John to Strangelove” in my new collection Green Nazis in Space! (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2016).
9. A word that now seems to be reserved for ignorant demagogues who listen to the views of the voters and thus promote Little Englandism and, of course, racism; their opposite number are the unelected technocrats of Brussells (which CNN opened a news report by calling ‘the heart of Europe”). See “Prime Ministers listen too much to voters, complains EU’s Juncker,” here.
10. See “My Wagner Problem — and Ours,” which states the case programmatically, and “Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music,” which seeks a practical solution; both collected in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).
11. The imposition of Europe-wide regulations supplanting local laws, and the sweeping away of all aspects of music in the name of a single, ever-evolving system of “harmony.” Coincidence? “We have had to evolve our own approach to film music in India. Traditional music is unsuitable. For expressiveness, you need to add harmony.” A sold-out pseudo-Hindu “innerlekshul” heard on the BBC late one night. Or was it a nightmare?
12. The ballet is another elitist intrusion, designed to impose a supposed mathematical “perfection” on dance (and with the corps de ballet — derived from the Jacobin mobs — ever ready in the background to enforce the new order. See Jennifer Homans’ Angels of Apollo: A History of Ballet (Random House, 2011). This was precisely what Isadora Duncan despised and rebelled against. “Today she often is celebrated as the creator of ‘modern dance’; such a description is a misnomer, at best, as her entire life was a conscious revolt against the modern world…. Ballet teaches that the central spring of movement is the base of the spine, from which all limbs move. But Isadora thought this produced ‘artificial mechanical movement not worthy of the soul,’ much like an ‘articulated puppet.’” See Amanda Bradley, “Remembering Isadora Duncan: Pagan Priestess of Dance,” here.
13. Traditional musical cultures are, actually, quite capable of mutual understanding, since they are all based on the universal system of mathematics. “Musicians are used to travelling freely to perform” indeed, and were long before the EU. Ironically, it is Western music that, based on various theoretical errors, that is incomprehensible to other cultures, while it promotes “unity” only in the sense of hegemonic dominance.
14. “The above quote is from The Glass Bead Game. The novel, which he started writing in 1931, won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. In a way though he is echoing Nietzsche’s condemnation of Wagner’s music before the War as much as forging a new jeremiad about cultural ennui after it.” Not from a review of my Eldritch Evola, but from the oddly titled website Sexual Fables (“an alternative history of Western arts and literature”), here.