Cultural Hierarchies and Bling

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I’ve been thinking recently about the visual dimension of musical performances, and cultural attitudes about High Art and vulgarity. The immediate spur for these thoughts was the Sweet Adelines convention in Birmingham, but they’re also plugging into things I’ve been thinking about at least since my PhD days.

So, the concern with costume and make-up and general blingification is of course the aspect of barbershop that people affiliated with other genres sometimes take as evidence of triviality. It’s The Music that matters, they say, not all this frippery stuff. Diamante earrings and choreography are tricksy things in this view, at best distracting the audience from the Real Thing that is The Music, and at worst trying to disguise the fact that the music isn’t very good. It’s all style-over-substance, is the criticism.

There is a direct contrast here with the norms of classical music that mostly involve penguin suits and black dresses, unless you are a female soloist, in which case you can wear an evening dress. The message here is thus: rank and file musicians are supposed to dress in such a way that you won’t really notice them at all, making them entirely subservient to The Music. Soloists are allowed to be noticeable, but must dress as if for a formal occasion in order to show proper respect.

Now, barbershop and show choirs and other visually-extravagant genres don’t need to take this too personally. This snobbery has been very much part of classical music culture for a long time. There are those who hold symphonic music as the purest form, for instance, and find opera a bit vulgar, what with its lavish costuming and celebration of the individual. And even within opera, there are those who have seen (Germanic) Dramatic Expression as the worthy and serious form of the art in contrast to all that (Italianate) coloratura nonsense. The comparison of vocal twiddles and roulades with a shallow concern with baubles and tiaras goes back at least to the writings of Carl Maria von Weber.

So, visual extravagance is seen as a form of egotism, of showing-off. It’s not about you, the argument goes, it’s about The Music, so get your identity out of the way and let the composer’s genius show through. It’s an idealist argument, and one which I actually have a lot of time for, notwithstanding the snobbery that it can be presented with (about which I am rather uncomfortable). And of course, it’s not that classical musicians are above thinking about all that visual nonsense: they actually spend quite a lot of time and effort to create that illusion of transparency to let the music through.

I spent enough years helping classical performance students with stage craft to know there’s as much discipline and convention in the presentation of a classical recital as in the presentation of more overtly showy styles. It’s just the conventions are designed to create a different effect.

And, as the ambiguous value of the word ‘bling’ reminds us, this isn’t just a musical matter. The relationship between opulence and high-status, and/or between ostentation and vulgarity is always a bit of a vexed question and stirs up all kinds of implicit anxieties about class and gender identities. Kate Fox’s telling observations about the subtle snobberies and inverted snobberies that mark the fault lines between different parts of the English middle classes are relevant here. The disdain with which false eyelashes are sometimes met is not unlike the feeling that one should say ‘napkin’ rather than ‘serviette’.

My guess is that this isn’t nearly so much of an issue for American barbershoppers. They seem to suffer from a wider gulf of disdain relative to classical music than the British, but seem to have fewer issues with class anxieties in general. It occurs to me, indeed, that some of the historical tension between the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers and the Sweet Adelines (with their presentational style so much more directly influenced by their American sisters) may have been subconsciously fuelled by these forms of discomfort.

(In this vein: I suspect that my own distress about the number of hair-pieces I see at a Sweet Adelines convention may be a class-marker. Sequins, I can enjoy; nylon squirrel tails on your head I don’t. I lack the perspective to say where that places me, but offer the information for the use of any passing anthropologists.)

Gender stereotypes, meanwhile, get tangled up with hierarchies of both class and taste. The showmanship of the male barbershopper is sometimes regarded as not only déclassé by classical singers, but possibly also rather camp. But he in turn looks down with fond condescension on the female barbershopper’s glitter hairspray and chorus nail polish.

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