There’s been some back and forth in the UK between an MP and James Blunt about Blunt’s (and others’) elite socioeconomic status pre-career and how he’s part of a burgeoning class of privileged upper-middle-class bourgeois musicians. The New Republic added to the debate, positing:
The children of the middle and upper classes are beginning to reassert a much older order. In the arts generally—music, theatre, literature for sure—it is clear that cuts to benefits, the disappearance of the art school (where many a luminous layabout found room to bloom) and the harsh cost of further and higher education are pricing the working class out of careers in the arts and making it increasingly a playground for the comfortably off.
Blunt asserts that all of this is merely people being envious. But, in my experiences as a musician from a not-rich family, there’s a lot of truth to what is being said. When I was in undergrad, I worked at a music camp over the summer. It was one of those places where wealthy families from Boston and New York would send their kids to “summer” with us locals, and it was like walking through a J. Crew/Ralph Lauren/Vineyard Vines catalog in real life.
I had never really grown up around people more or less substantially well-off than me — Nashua, NH is a pretty middle-of-the-road kinda place, with a homogeneous population. It was here that I became acquainted with the class of people who could afford to be musicians — you know, without incurring a second mortgage in student loans. It blew my mind.
What also blew my mind was that, aside from preppy dress-up nights at New England summer camps, rich kids look pretty normal. That is to say, they don’t walk around all day looking like this:
You’re more likely to encounter a rich kid in a t-shirt than in morning dress.
This is what I fundamentally don’t understand about allegations that classical music is elitist — or rather, more elitist — than popular music. Popular music is increasingly made by wealthy people who can afford the time, lessons, and equipment. Look at Taylor Swift or Vampire Weekend — they had significant resources that allowed them to get where they are today. How do these artists speak for the common people any more or less than a classical musician with those same advantages?
Put another way — What’s more elitist: a classical musician $100,000 in debt after a decade of conservatory training, or a guy whose parents paid the tuition, room, board, and pocket money for his English degree at Brown while he comfortably strummed his guitar to local notoriety on the circuit?
All the talk about “classical music needs to be in bars,” or “tuxedos are too fancy for regular people” is meaningless. Rich people music sounds the same as poor people music. It happens in the same places. It looks the same, draped in the same sweaty, ironic t-shirt. The difference is that rich people are the only ones who can seem to afford to make it.
The baby boomers tricked us into thinking that “revolution” will always look like it did in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s — that skinny kids in t-shirts in a bar will always be the underdogs inevitably overtaking the fat cats with their suits, ties, and classical music, because those kids are singing the music of the common people. Well, those fat cats’ kids, armed with their parents’ money, have hijacked the music of the common people, and nobody seems to notice.
Seems to me, the best way to be punk right now is to put on a tuxedo and listen to some Mahler.