Pop is not enough
Here is an actual thing Richard Beck says in his n+1 piece about Pitchfork:
But the story of The Beatles doesn’t begin with John, Paul, George, and Ringo deplaning at JFK. It begins with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1722 Treatise on Harmony, which began to theorize the tonal system that still furnishes the building blocks for almost all pop music.
That is a funny thing to say, because it brings to mind a notorious piece of music criticism: the first “serious” consideration of the Beatles, penned by London Times classical music critic William Mann, which piece included phrases like ”chains of pan-diatonic clusters” and “Aeolian cadences.” He wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t right, either; even John Lennon, the person most likely to be flattered by the comparison, made fun of it.
Beck suggests at the end of his piece that ”in a better world, pop music criticism simply wouldn’t exist” because there’s no conceivable reason “for separating the criticism of popular music from the criticism of all other kinds.” The problem with suggesting that we do pop criticism with references to the Treatise on Harmony is the same problem with having Mann’s strictly technical descriptions of the compositional techniques Lennon/McCartney used be the way we “seriously” consider pop music: it utterly fails to resonate with everyone who makes or listens to pop music. To paraphrase Harrison Ford, you can type this shit, but it sure doesn’t sound anything like the music we’re listening to.
It’s significant that Beck’s suggestion for marrying pop and classical music is not to bring in musicological considerations, but music theory ones. It’s like suggesting books should be reviewed primarily with reference to The Elements of Style rather than The Anxiety of Influence. He seems to want to make indie rock capital-A Art, which is to say something entirely divorced from its social context. He wants it to be, somehow, not a cultural product, to reduce it to a seemingly-neutral series of notes on a page that can be scientifically analyzed.
There are lots of wrong things he says in the piece (“As indie bands in the ’90s did everything they could to avoid the appearance of selling out, rappers tried to get as rich as possible” is another actual thing he says at one point), but this seems the most pernicious. Pop as art music isn’t particularly interesting; he points out that there’s no division between reviews of popular and non-popular books, but it also seems true that reviews of popular books tend to be pretty awful and inevitably end up privileging the less-popular ones, because yeah, by those standards, they’re piss-poor. Pop is music whose social context is at least as important as its musical content, and that’s why it’s interesting - that’s maybe the only reason it’s interesting in a critical sense. To strip that away would be to fundamentally diminish the music. And the music still feels pretty powerful to me.