Sunday, July 06, 2003

New Volokh Conspirator Randy Barnett ruminates on the philosophical implications of his having greatly enjoyed a concert by a Pink Floyd "cover band". Was it worse than the original recordings, because, though close, it wasn't quite an exact duplicate? Better, because it was a live concert, rather than a recording? Was it worse than a real Pink Floyd concert, because the musicians weren't the originals? Better, because the musicians were the right age to simulate the originals at the time of their greatest recordings?

The answer, of course, is, "it depends on what you're looking for in your aesthetic experience". Music, like all art, can be appreciated on multiple levels. Two of the most popular are the sensual/"pure aesthetic" and the social/symbolic. The first kind involves simply enjoying the pleasing sensory effects, while the second involves deriving satisfaction from the social context and symbolic content of the work. (The same goes for other pleasures, too--food and sex, for instance.)

For various reasons, popular art forms tend to be appreciated predominantly at the social/symbolic level. Pop music fans, for example, are attracted to an artist's style, image or "message" as much as to the actual sound of individual songs. Pop music concerts, certainly, are more about spectacle and crowd behavior than about the sound of the music (which is typically laughably inferior to what can be produced by a CD on a high-quality home sound system).

In the case of a "tribute" band like the one Barnett describes, the audience is obviously attending in order to experience a particular atmospheric effect--that of being at a concert by the original group. If it achieved that effect, then Barnett should be satisfied. If it was really the music itself that mattered to him, then he should have stayed home and listened to the CD.

Personally, I'm much more of a "pure" music aesthete; I've even been known to express appreciation for, say, the superb craftsmanship of a Barry Manilow song, ignoring the devastating social consequences of doing so. [*] But I'm in the minority, and I don't (well, don't necessarily) disparage those who look for something else in their music, such as "authenticity", or "an experience", or the faithful recreation of a long-passed cultural moment.

[*] I hasten to add that Manilow himself is a terrible singer, and didn't even write most of his hits. Still, some of them are true gems of pop schmaltz, if you're willing to consider them within their musical genre, rather than their social context.

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