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Saturday morning quotes 6.5: Stars

June 18, 2016

Paul WhitemanEarly humans seem to have regarded the stars as gods, and ancient Egyptians are known to have worshiped the sun. Even the early Israelites had to be warned off worshiping the stars by Moses (Deuteronomy iv. 19, xvii. 3).  Remaining traces of ancient civilizations, like the pyramids and Stonehenge, appear to indicate an idolization of the stars and planets.  Today, this metaphor describing the human need for deification of a power we don’t really understand has been transferred to the idolization of celebrities, and we now have stars of every stripe whether royal, political, Hollywood actors or entertainers in the music business.

Star worship as it applies to celebrities is an interesting phenomenon that hearkens back to the roots of human society.  Our need to identify and honor leaders or idealized examples—no matter the size, orientation or the focus of the societal group—leads to sometimes odd implications when we factor in concepts like “pecking order“, flock behavior, and narcissistic tendencies, as well as describing the elusive nature of popularity. What makes a thing or a person popular?  At some point in time it had to do with being born to the right parents, or to do with a distinct combination of skill, personable attributes and fortunate circumstance.  Today, it has to do with marketing psychology.

Take the interesting case of Paul Whiteman, pictured above.  In the 1920s, Whiteman was the most popular entertainer in the US, based entirely on radio broadcasts, records and live appearances of his orchestra.  A large, rotund, balding violinist, Whiteman was dubbed the “King of Jazz“, and was the subject of a 1930 feature-length color movie with the same title.  Whiteman’s popularity is the antithesis of the products of today’s image-conscious Hollywood PR machine, and the public cared little about his looks: They cared about how his music made them feel. Of course, the title “King of Jazz” rightly belongs to another musician whose experience and visage may be considered the direct opposite of Paul Whiteman, and who famously said:

“There is two kinds of music, the good and bad. I play the good kind.”

Louis Armstrong.

Jazz has always had a direct relationship with popular music, and success was and is determined through popularity polls.   While the arcane and intimate world of the lute occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, lute fans are still humans and we even see the results of such polls applied to lute players.

“A recent poll in Lute News magazine showed readers’ top five lute recordings to be: Fantasia de mon triste, Chris Wilson (Metronome); Music from the Royal Courts of Europe, Julian Bream (RCA), John Dowland, complete works, Paul O’Dette (Harmonia Mundi); Rosa, Chris Wilson (Virgin Veritas) and Bach Suites, Nigel North (Linn).”

– Chris Goodwin, Secretary, The Lute Society, 2001

While the poll results are not so recent 15 years hence, it is interesting to note the longevity of the “stars” of the lute world.  And, without discrediting their individual accomplishments, it is interesting to note that there are not really any “stars” of the younger generation who have presented a challenge to their celestial position.  While Julian Bream is and always will be in a class of his own, and while we share the generational position of the others mentioned above, we really should be wondering why we’re not hearing much from the younger generation of lutenists?  It is certainly not because no younger lutenists possess the necessary skill, but it may be because they lack the fortunate circumstance.  Could it be because the star-maker machinery is now worn out and broken?  Or is it because there is simply no room at the top of the pyramid?

“Musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them.”

– Louis Armstrong

  1. geoffgaherty permalink

    One of the problems facing all young musicians is the recording industry. Every young musician faces competition from over a century of existing musicians on recordings. The HIP movement in the 70s allowed a lot of young musicians to do things which were new and different from previous generations, but now they have become the establishment that today’s young musicians must compete with.

    • Thanks, Geoff. I think you made the point precisely and directly. However, the recording industry is a completely different kettle of fish today than it was during the early stages of the early music revival, and larger labels simply will not take a chance on an aspiring artist in such a small niche market as lute recordings. And they tend to over-inflate the PR for those select few who have been in the game for a while. It’s an imperfect world and becoming ever more so as time marches on.

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