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Saturday morning quotes 8.43: Disinformation

May 28, 2022

We like to think that the early music revival was a late 20th-century attempt to reclaim our highly developed cultural heritage at a time when historical standards and traditions were rapidly disintegrating. Perhaps this was true and the motivations of many of our pioneers of the early music revival were pure from the outset. But when early music attracted the attention of marketing professionals it became just another commodity to package as a luxury item and sell to a susceptible public. As we have come to understand through the incisive writing of Richard Taruskin, the audience for early music may have been subject to a (sadly unremarkable) disinformation campaign.

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…”

– Richard Taruskin, “The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990

Through aggressive marketing strategies targeting deep pockets, the audience for early music was made to believe they were the privileged spectators of the past come alive through sound, and that by attending concerts and listening to recordings they were rubbing elbows with historical nobility. Selected performers were touted as highly-skilled adepts who had unlocked the secrets of old music, and their performances would purify and transport the listener to a different, less cynical time. The reality is that performers were just musicians using their 20th-century training and technique, mostly making it up as they went along.

“The truth is we invented the early music vocal sound based on what we wanted it to be like, and on the voices of a small number of singers with particular talents. The small-scale, refined, straight, disciplined early music singing that we were used to came out of nowhere..Even when singers began to look at pedagogical sources and so on, they (we) chose to ignore those bits that didn’t fit the model we had in our heads. An entire pedagogy was developed by people who claimed to know how 17th- or 18th-century singing was supposed to go, but whose knowledge was based mostly on their own experience of the late 20th-century early music movement, rather than an understanding of the sources.”

– Richard Wistreich and John Potter, “Singing early music: a conversation,” Early Music, Vol. XLI, No. 1, February 2013

Over the past 40 years, nearly everyone who was successful at performing early music succeeded because 1) they managed to get involved at the right time, 2) they possessed a trust fund or other means to support their musical life, and 3) they took advantage of the skills of mercenary marketing professionals who knew how to package and sell any product. While early music retains its historical and academic interest to individuals who care deeply about preserving such things (or retired academics endeavoring to remain relevant), brand fatigue has clearly set in. From a marketing perspective, early music is over. Since the early music revival more accurately represents late 20th-century taste, it is useful to examine how marketing permeated every aspect of society for an entire century, successfully turning citizens into consumers.

Turning to the example of Carole Lombard, the famous singer/actor depicted in the illustration above, attitudes, techniques and standards have changed significantly with the times. I (RA) recall a conversation with Bill Gavin (1907 – 1985), a singer and broadcast performer during the heyday of radio, in which he said singers were once encouraged to smoke to add richness to the voice. Today, no legitimate singing coach would recommend intentionally breathing carcinogens. Smoking is well recognized as generally problematic for singers, but it was at one time considered a glamorous mark of social sophistication. How did smoking become so normalized in the first half of the 20th century? Emerging from the rather strict social norms of the Victorian era, how is it that women (or anyone for that matter) were encouraged to smoke in public? The answer lies in the meteoric 20th-century rise of the discipline deceptively labeled Public Relations (PR), a conveniently palatable misnomer for propaganda, which is the very foundation of marketing.

How did deceptive modern marketing strategies get their start and why? Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information in 1917 for the express purpose of persuading the American public that entering the First World War was a good thing—after having campaigned for reelection just the previous year on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”

“Immediately upon entering the war, the Wilson administration brought the most modern management techniques to bear in the area of government-press relations. Wilson started one of the earliest uses of government propaganda. He waged a campaign of intimidation and outright suppression against those ethnic and socialist papers that continued to oppose the war. Taken together, these wartime measures added up to an unprecedented assault on press freedom.”

– Christopher B. Daly, “How Woodrow Wilson’s Propaganda Machine Changed American Journalism“, Smithsonian Magazine, April 28, 2017.

The CPI was directed by George Creel, muckraking journalist and political wannabe. But the key participant in this committee was the father of propaganda himself, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays actually wrote the book on propaganda in 1928, and he openly boasted that he was capable of selling anything to anyone. For instance, as a consultant to the American Tobacco Company Bernays was paid $25,000 for a very successful 1929 public relations campaign to encourage women to smoke cigarettes, which he described as “torches of freedom.”

For more background on how propaganda/marketing influenced the trajectory of the 20th century, readers are encouraged to seek out the 2002 BBC documentary The Century of the Self, which should be required viewing for all eyes before it disappears forever. The official BBC trailer offers a synopsis which may be more easily digestible for skimmers afflicted with the modern attention span.

Since one of Bernays’ chief clients throughout the 20th century was the US government—and more specifically the CIA—it can plainly be seen that the marketing-driven culture in which we still live is dependent upon control of the media in order to mint and circulate the desired message. This is how we were sold the dubious stories of the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK. This is how wars in Vietnam, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan were made palatable to a susceptible public. This is how the distracting “greed is good” Reagan, Bush (twice), Clinton and Obama years masked despicable governmental actions at home and abroad, and enabled corporate takeover of nearly every aspect of public service. A targeted marketing campaign was created and delivered to the public (both left and right) via the news media to cover and spin each and every abomination.

The problem, from a perspective of governmental control of the message, is the internet. With readily available, uncensored and rapid means of communication, it is rather a challenge to maintain lies large and small that can easily be exposed by vigilant individuals with open eyes. So far, the government’s plan has been to create and maintain the narrative (trusted content) by colluding with social media platforms to flag as disinformation any information counter to the official message.

“So we’re helping get trusted content out there. We also created the COVID Community Corps to get factual information into the hands of local messengers. And we’re also investing in the President’s, the Vice President’s and Dr. Fauci’s time in meeting with influencers who also have large reaches to a lot of these target audiences who can spread and share accurate information.”

Jen Psaki, former White House Press Secretary

We live in interesting times. The controlling sector in the US is awkwardly scrambling to retain control of the message through traditional media, resorting to labeling anything off-message as “disinformation.” Controlling interests went so far as to create what has been appropriately called a Ministry of Truth for the internet, headed by an extremely creepy character who has herself been caught red-handed spreading disinformation. Fortunately, polling revealed that the Ministry of Truth concept is wholly unacceptable to the majority of the public, and they “paused” the idea—meaning it will surely go forward in secret. The creepy character who was to lead the effort resigned, claiming she was the subject of a disinformation campaign. See where this is heading?

As for early music, we urge our readers to listen, play and indulge in historical sounds of the past, and seek to discover the meaning of music that was created at a time when every educated person understood the essential value of music and how it affects the emotions. And we urge our readers to recognize sales talk and resist marketing nonsense for the disinformation it is.

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One Comment
  1. John David Lamb permalink

    Dear Don & Donna! I’m afraid Taruskin is right. There is no time machine. We are doomed to live in the present no matter how much we revere the past. As a composer, I know a lot about this. I came of age in the fifties, but my formative models were early Stravinsky (especially Petrouchka, Renard, and :L’histoire), Britten’s Serenade, Bartok’s violin duets, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. By the time I started writing my grown-up music in the late fifties and beyond, it was already passé and deemed irrelevant. I have now lived long after my expected shelf-life, and although I continue to write music as part of my daily life, I never had a career as a musician. So ist die Welt! But we are determined to practice and advocate for what we love. There is honor in that, and who knows what is to come from the seeds we plant without even knowing? But of course you know all that!
    David Lamb

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