“Highbrow” and “lowbrow” are terms that seem increasingly fuzzy to me lately. But if we choose the right examples, the division is still there. Grand opera vs. Disney pop. The latest Werner Herzog film vs. Bewitched. Lucian Freud vs. the design on my cereal box. Since about the 1960s, there have been more and more cultural products that seem to defy easy sorting. Sgt. Pepper. The Sopranos. Sense8. Are they “middlebrow,” or are they new forms of high art?
But where does high art come from? The “auteur” theory emphasizes the lone creator, the genius who breaks new ground and bravely forges new paradigms. Brian Eno might disagree, if his writing on “scenius” is any indication. The term refers to the idea that great work emerges from an environment, not from one person.
Academics like the late Sol Worth, who gave movie cameras to Navajos in the ’60s to find out how their work might differ from that of other beginners, have contributed to a different way of looking at all of this. He and his team found that many of the “visual gestures” we take for granted in film – indications of the passage of time; telescoping of events to allow for brevity and pacing; even the sense of point of view – were simply ignored by Navajo filmmakers.
But where did the vocabulary of visual gesture we apparently take for granted arise? The short answer: trash. The silents and the early talkies were considered quite definitely lowbrow entertainment. The same holds true for ’60s sitcoms and procedurals. No one will argue that My Favorite Martian is high art. But those shows built up the toolkit for the auteurs of today, created our sense of how TV narrative works, and made the rules for others to stretch and break and transform. No Green Acres, no Breaking Bad.
In music it’s the same pattern. The Beatles encapsulated this within about five years. They scavenged their way through the short-half-life ecosystem of American R&B and rock, started out making brilliant but disposable love songs, and then used this sonic and performative grammar, developed by others, to create a whole new form of high art. And of course, they were not alone.
A lesser-known but I think perfect example of this is 10cc. Most of us (okay, the middle-aged among us) remember them as the band behind “I’m Not In Love,” “The Things We Do for Love,” and “Cry.” But I’m betting very few people know that before any of that, they were the creators of a virtual factory for some of the most forgettable two-minute bubblegum pop of the late ’60s, Strawberry Studios.
Kevin Godley remembers: “We did a lot of tracks in a very short time – it was really like a machine. Twenty tracks in about two weeks – a lot of crap really… We used to do the voices, everything – it saved ’em money. We even did the female backing vocals.”
Godley and Creme focus on the economics – this work allowed them to build up the gear and income they needed to do their own work. But I think it’s pretty clear from their (insanely complicated and frankly somewhat tortured) chronology: this was also a period in which they developed their working vocabulary of pop music, the colors and techniques, and gestures which they used to create some of the most sophisticated pop recordings of the 1970s and early ’80s.
I’ve always loved 10cc’s stuff. The detail, the obvious love of the craft, the effortless blend of emotional impact and cleverness, like a magic trick almost. “The Things We Do for Love” is perhaps the best illustration. It seems like a fluffy cloud that would blow away in a light breeze, all froth and sparkle. But when you really study it, or try to learn it, you find it’s a thing of crystalline beauty and subtlety. They make it sound easy, but it most definitely was not.
The “low art” made the “high(er) art” possible. No bubblegum market, no 10cc.
For me, this is a much more satisfying and compelling way of looking at our shared cultural heritage than the old dichotomy of high and low. A person could write another piece about how “high” culture influences new rounds of “low” culture (the recent Stooges doc Gimme Danger has some really interesting stuff about the influence of avant-garde classical composers on Iggy Pop). The point is: they’re not opposites, they are buddies. They rely on each other for existence. They feed each other constantly.
There’s great encouragement for me in this. Art tells us something very important about our divided society: we need each other.
Photo by AVRO
PS. For other looks at pop music, check out our posts Let’s Make This Loud and Clear: Power Pop’s Alive and Well, If You Like ’80s Synth Pop…, and In Search of Perfect Pop: The Greatest Song The Cars Never Made.
Good article. I LOVE The Things We Do For Love. Would have enjoyed more detail.
Thanks!! My pieces tend to push the word count already, but maybe there’s a song dissection post in the future ????
check out 10cc’s “One Night in Paris” for a different side of the group.
I enjoyed this articleVery much and was always a big fan of 10cc. When talking about high art versus low art and knowing where 10cc came from I would be interested in hearing your opinion and they’re absolutely brilliant and completely out their song “One Night In Paris”. Back in the early eighties I wanted to try two performed the song as a stage piece but it honestly would have been too difficult to interpret 🙂
Also a huge 10cc fan. Sheet Music, Original Soundtrack and How Dare You especially. Brilliant compositions and studiocraft. It’s also interesting to look at the influence of cinema on their work. So many of their songs were written about movies (Somewhere In Hollywood, The Film of My Love, etc.) but even more important was the fact that they were largely interested in creating sonic environments where one could imagine a film narrative happening. This was especially true of the bizarre masterpiece “Consequences” by half of 10cc (Godley and Creme) but can also be heard in tracks such as Une Nuit A Paris (as mentioned above), Hotel, Baron Samedi, Blackmail and others.
Might have been interesting to have links to at least some examples of the bubblegum songs so we could hear what the author is talking about.
I love 10cc the first time I heard sheet music the album. I purchased every single album but really stop enjoying their albums after dreadlock holiday I still enjoy putting their albums on from time to time I was a little displeased right Kevin and Godfrey left the group but still enjoyed them never less
Worst Band In The World. Not an opinion, just a song I love 🙂
I agree completely. However, I’m disappointed that this sentence wasn’t fleshed out more: “Twenty tracks in about two weeks – a lot of crap really…We used to do the voices, everything – it saved ’em money.” To whom did these 20 tracks per two weeks go? Did any become hits. Who saved money? These details would be fascinating to me.