Beethoven and the Big Mac- Art in the Age of Junk Culture

Sometimes I think the classical industry is a bit like a chap standing on deck of the Titanic, moaning loudly about how his feet are getting cold because they’re a little wet. Sure we have problems, but look at the world around us- when the ship is already sinking, the man with the cold feet is doing pretty well, and talking about whether now is the time to buy waterproof boots is probably beside the point. Music is one of the great tools for the righting of sinking metaphorical ships, be they nations or individual lives. Nations, of course, are ultimately collections of individuals. If you want to save a nation, save a person. If we want to warm our feet, let’s right the ship.

Look around America today, with the virulent spread of gun violence, or take a hard look at the UK and Europe, where fascism is on the rise. Racism and sexism are making a huge comeback, and politicians and pundits now seem to think it is okay to condone rape and the stoning of gay people.

The most commonly diagnosed cause of all this rage and dis-function is the lack of economic opportunity and hope since the 2007-8 economic collapse. The persistence of economic hopelessness extracts a terrible toll on any society. Hans Gál called unemployment the worst catastrophe that can happen to any society. He was speaking of inter-war Germany and Austria, and we all know how that turned out.

One of the many tragedies of our difficult age is the way in which so many individuals act against not only against the interests of their fellow human beings, but against their own. People vote for politicians whose policies will impoverish and imperil them. People embrace ideologies, such as the mass-scale rejection of basic scientific knowledge, which will ultimately damage their health and make their environment unsafe to live in. People support a gun culture that puts them and their children in mortal danger for no reason. Even at the most extreme, the jihadist who bombs a plane or the mass shooter who attacks a school are both acting in ways that harm themselves.

I strongly believe that these kinds of widespread and frightening self-destructive behaviours are indicative of not only a lack of economic health and opportunity (although the corrosive impact of economic hopelessness is hard to overstate), but of a general feeling of defeat and despondency that comes from being unable to understand and engage with the challenges facing the world.

I think some (huge) portion of the responsibility for this depth of despair and hopelessness must lie with our media and entertainment culture. Just as junk food fills the stomach but doesn’t nourish the body but instead gradually destroys it, junk culture fills the eyes and ears, but gradually rots the brain and soul. Our media culture is, overall, far more toxic than the Big Mac. News has become more of a game (a bloodsport, at that) than a public service, as broadcasters and publishers work primarily towards three goals: ratings (or distribution), profit and advancing the political and financial cause of their stakeholders. What is deeply troubling in our time is the extent to which nobody questions the validity of these three aims. Quite the opposite- public service broadcasters and publishers are under enormous pressure to show that they can measure outcomes according to the same metrics used in the for-profit sector. The notion that the success of a newspaper is measured in the truthfulness and relevance of its reporting seems pretty quaint these days.

Similarly, just as fast food is carefully engineered to manipulate the dopamine responses of those who eat it in much the same way that hard drugs do, most mass entertainment is aimed at doing two things- keeping you watching, and convincing you there is something wrong with you that can be fixed by purchasing whatever the show’s sponsors are selling. The first rule of advertising is to make the target feel like a failure so they’ll buy your product. I remember learning about advertising works when I was in seventh grade- it was pretty horrifying, but my eyes were well and truly opened. I was only twelve, but being taught about how advertising manipulates us, and how content (whether print, tv or radio) exists largely to prepare you to receive an advertiser’s message gave me a level of critical awareness with which to partially inoculate me against the soul-rotting poison TV and other media throw at us every day. These days, few schools still teach children about advertising- quite the opposite. They show commercial television in school, they welcome ads from massive corporations- they feed children the very toxic ideas they should be teaching them to protect themselves from (the school food isn’t too healthy, either), all because they’ve been forced to embrace the same goals as the junk culture- ratings or distribution (both as expressed by enrolment numbers and test scores), profit (in terms of both core funding and external support) and advancing the political cause of their stakeholders (school boards and councils in the USA and UK are among the most polarized and politicized organizations on Earth ever since a generation of religious zealots in both countries decided to take them over and shape the curriculum to suit their world view, facts be damned). Religious education, which is spreading like wildfire as a paradigm, often works using the same techniques of degradation, manipulation and reward as advertising- make people feel bad about themselves, tell them you have an answer (whether it be a bigger car, a political catchphrase, or God), then trigger their dopamine system with something. Advertisers usually offer a bit of sexual titillation, religious educators use the promise of salvation- of a solution to all our worries.

Junk food is designed to make you want, even need, to eat more junk food. Junk culture works in the same way- it’s designed to keep you consuming. I’d go so far as to say the values of junk culture have now expanded to junk education and junk religion. Epidemics of obesity, type- two diabetes and heart disease are just one manifestation of the damage done to our bodies by junk food. School shootings, fascist political movements, dangerous, wide-spread rejection of fundamental scientific facts- these are the type-two diabetes of the soul that are a manifestation of the damage to our selves by junk culture, junk education and junk religion.

That, to me, is the Titanic that the classical industry is standing on, worrying about our damp socks. Comparatively speaking, the rot of junk culture is just starting to infect our industry- we’re still, overall, a center of excellence and a powerful force for social good. Worryingly, however, many within and outside our industry are advocating that what really need to do is adopt more of the paradigm of junk culture- more manipulation, more titillation, and ultimately, more craven service to the political and financial advancement of our fiscal stakeholders. A generation ago, one could make the argument with a straight face that journalism was about the quest for the truth. With notable exceptions, the last fifteen years have made that notion look laughably quaint. Likewise, one would like to think that being a musician, or running an orchestra ought to be about making the most soul-touching, life-changing music, but fewer and fewer in and around the industry are willing to measure our success according to that metric. To many of our colleagues, it’s all about sponsors, sales and selling.

Orchestras and artists are governed as non-profits or charities for a reason. We’re not supposed to be putting money first, we’re supposed to be putting music first. But how do we stay in business? We look to the world of public-service broadcasting, and we see a gradual creep towards the values and practices of the for-profit sector. Just as the BBC and PBS feel they have to measure more and more of their outcomes in terms of money, ratings and relationships with funders, classical music presenters are trying harder and harder to emulate the business and marketing practices of the pop culture and corporate worlds. We sell concerts the way companies sell toothpaste, and build classical careers in the same way pop stars’ careers are developed- it’s about selling an image and a personality, not about developing a unique talent, building a body of work  and growing  an engaged audience for it.

So, how to avoid becoming part of the junk culture movement? Well, the food world has seen a massive, if incomplete, counter-movement to shake off the power of the junk food industry. It may seem odd, but when I was young, processed food was considered an emblem of progress. Practically nobody was interested in fresh produce or local sourcing. This mind-set permeated both home-cooking and the restaurant industry. It went beyond food- coffee was something that was mass-produced and came in a can from a factory. Beer was made in one of three or four giant breweries in Milwaukee or St Louis, and was uniformly horrible. The future of wine was considered to be the box-o-wine.

Now we have a large number of restaurants making a point of serving fresh, locally sourced produce. Green grocers are in, cans are out. You can buy fresh coffee beans even in remote small towns, and the micro-brew revolution has changed America from the land with the worst beer in the universe to the home of the very best. Boutique wineries have sprung up all over the country, with hardly a box-o-wine to be found among them.

Of course, the junk food industry continues to be a force, and a powerful and destructive one at that, but the new wave of food, brewing and cooking has created a viable, and highly successful alternate paradigm. One in which success is measured in terms of food’s ability to bring health and happiness- profit flows from success in those terms. To a large extent, this revolution occurred because people in the food world were prepared to set aside scale as a measure of success. In 1980, a beer company could only be considered successful if it was big enough to advertise on TV. By 1990, a local brewer could set up a successful business on a much smaller scale selling a higher quality product.

So, perhaps one of the reasons public service broadcasting and classical music have been tiptoeing (if not, in places, racing headlong) towards the business practices and mindsets of junk culture is that scale seems like an important part of what we do. An orchestra is, by nature, a large-scale institution. So is a TV station, let alone a network. There’s lots we can do more efficiently and at a smaller scale (the two most interesting concerts I did this year were for audiences of under 80 people), but I believe art needs to provide a counterbalance to junk culture. That means we need a certain amount of scale. We just need to achieve scale using a different paradigm- one in which we measure success in terms of the quality of our artistic work. The food industry can show us many examples of “new wave” business that started small but were able to upscale to a national impact while maintaining their core values (I had a very nice Lagunitas IPA last night here in Texas- they started as a micro-brewery in California). When we have a balance of scale, values and quality, I think we’ll be in a strong position to offer a more relevant alternative to junk culture, and can start giving individual listeners the kind of spiritual nutrition they need to survive in today’s difficult environment.

I’d like to encourage readers who want to see a future for music to think about how we can get away from the junk culture’s measures of success, and avoid their toxic ways of manipulating and exploiting their customers. When we chase ratings, we forget the importance of the impact we can and should have on individual listeners. Junk culture would rather reach 10 million viewers on a superficial or even toxic level than affect even 100,000 in a profoundly positive way. If art doesn’t make a profound difference in some of our audience’s lives, we’ve failed, even if a billion people see us on YouTube. Our entanglements with our funders also tend to mean that our programming is excessively cautious and we avoid directly engaging with the key social, moral and political issues of our day lest we offend the trustee of some foundation or a member of the local city council. In America, the prime accepted measure of an orchestra’s quality is its budget. I’m not sure that’s healthy. I’m totally sure it’s not true.

The values of junk culture feed on complacency. If you think you’re an unassailable center of excellence, you’re more likely to think you can flirt with the values of junk culture without believing you are doing yourself too much harm. Recent history would seem to confirm this- the New York Times (which I’ve read every day for over 20 years) compiled a truly appalling record of journalistic failings in the run up to the Iraq War. In pursuit of circulation, money and appeasement of those in power, it ran countless false stories, suppressed true ones, and utterly failed in its duty to hold power to account. In spite of that, it’s still the most important and probably the best paper in America and possibly the world. That’s why they haven’t learned any big lessons or made any profound changes since then. However, as the situation in Iraq worsens, the magnitude of that capitulation to power and profit looks more and more unforgivable. The real costs of those mistakes and falsifications will mount for many years. I’m sure their thinking was that, in a difficult and fast-changing world of publishing, they had to put profit and power first, or risk losing scale. They’ve lost scale in the ensuing ten years. In spite of their junk journalism calculations? Or because of them? Maybe, in the long run, more truth would have sold more papers? Or at least made a better world in which to sell them? Just because the New York Times is still the best paper in the country, it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re actually doing great work when it counts most.

Could the same be true in classical music? Maybe our problem is not with aging audiences, shinking donor bases or changing demographics. What if too many of our concerts are just not that great?

Today’s performers are amazing at avoiding making audible mistakes, but is that the same thing as giving a great concert? I don’t remember many typos or grammatical errors in those pro-Iraq War NYT articles. The only thing they lacked was the truth. What is our truth? Are we speaking it? Are our concerts really exciting enough, brave enough, moving enough? Do we encourage each other to take risks, to go right to the edge of the possible? To make old music sound new, and new music essential? Or do we reward conductors who facilitate mass reproducible, comfortable and familiar received renditions of classical works? I think to some extent, we do. One reason the Big Mac is so popular is because those who eat it (I confess, I’m one, but only occasionally) know exactly how its going to taste. Many conductors have had the experience of getting down to work on a standard repertoire piece with a fine orchestra only to find their colleagues’ ideas about the piece are already set in stone (see this blog post for a description of the phenomenon). Beethoven 7 to many is like the Big Mac of symphonies- everyone knows what it’s supposed to taste like. “We hired you to make Big Mac’s, maestro- not to deconstruct them!” one sometimes feels you are being told. Conductors who want a big career learn early on to become proficient at reproducing a nicely standardized performance with no horn splits or ensemble problems. Today’s conventional wisdom dictates that it’s better to adopt a fresh approach to personal grooming and styling (the age of the hipster conductor is on us, and that of the sex-symbol conductor is coming) than to try to push the artistic envelope too far. Too often, we learn to perform standard repertoire works in a safe and familiar way, and to programme only contemporary works that conform to broadly accepted norms of taste among those “in the know,” without in any way challenging the worldviews or power-bases of our funders and stakeholders.

The food world has shown us it’s possible to pursue a different paradigm and be successful. They’ve proven that one doesn’t have to be in the junk business to be in business. I think it’s important we learn from them- after all, music is way more important than food, just as the soul or the self is way more important than the body. Humanity is in desperate, desperate need of a viable alternative to junk culture. We’re the ones who can deliver it- but only if we make it our primary goal to do so.


It’s been exciting to see the strong response for this post. Thank you for reading and sharing.

One thing I don’t feel I made clear enough above is that I think one of the really horrible things about the impact of junk culture is that the people who are affected by it understand that they’re being manipulated, understand that it’s a toxic brew, but feel unable to free themselves from its influence. There’s a sense of rage at being trapped in a cynical world, and a sense of self-loathing at being unable to escape the junk culture.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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9 comments on “Beethoven and the Big Mac- Art in the Age of Junk Culture”

  1. SarahM

    Wow. What a great post! And I totally agree with your view. You put into words what has been on the edges of my thinking for the past couple of years. As an active performer, teacher and collaborator I’ve observed the inside-the-box-cookie-cutter artistic/musical output that has been given out for awhile now and have not been moved by any of it to push out the boundaries. I’ve watched other people with vision and passion get snuffed out by those in more powerful positions which leaves an ensemble’s energy and drive lackluster and near lifeless at best. I’m not committed to any of that so I greatly appreciate your words and it adds fuel to the fire. Thank you!

  2. Peter

    This is very bold Ken – as ever you are an articulate and insightful agent provocateur. But your point is subtle. It is not just an angry rant against corporate interests and music being used as a crude vessel of ego, but something more nuanced. It is all too easy to become lazy about the great masterworks, both in their presentation and in how we listen to them, and then they all too easily become ‘processed’ and bland.

    But oh, what to do about it, aside letting out a huge groan of frustration? You can go down the Schoenbergian route of disaffection and rage, keeping out the media and the uncritical public from your concerts, but ending up by being as alienating as the people you are attacking. Better to engage with the public and the media and just do things better, and I like the idea of the authentic cuisine – locally sourced produce presented in healthy ways. The aim has to be to feed people well and nurture their palates, while supporting local talent and encouraging the eco-system to thrive.

    Corporatism and the star-system don’t always produce something bad, but they do polarise between the successful and the rest. They can also pander to the gullibility of mass taste, taking the mediocre and the superficial and flooding the media with them, like mouth-watering bonbons. Success is a big drug, and everyone has a weakness for it, including the high-minded. (Schoenberg envied Berg’s successes and was deeply suspicious of them). But success should be hard-won, not manufactured from empty glamour by some manipulative PR people.

    Ken’s right. In the end change will come from altering the way consumers behave, as they become more discerning and aware of the implications of their choices. But then promoters have to put appealing things on the menu, that are authentic, tasty and relevant. Chucking the football in the soup (as Schoenberg was inclined to do) will only make a mess and drive the customers away. Current World Cup fever (a triumph of corporate and media brain-washing for sure), does rather make me want to throw a football somewhere – perhaps deep among the wreckage of the Titanic in the mid-Atlantic.

    There are a lot of great things going on out in the musical culture, but it too easily gets marginalised and has no voice. I do applaud Composer of the Week on R3 though, which has been bold enough to take on George Lloyd, Hans Gal and Weinberg in more recent times. We need more of this willingness to rummage in the margins and to show scepticism about received opinion. It freshens the musical culture and widens choice, which is surely the whole point about living in a liberal democracy. Corporatized music means conforming to the masses and removing choice, which is the very opposite of what it claims to do. So we should always be questioning the validity of the status quo.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Thanks for the comment, Peter. Very good that you mentioned the Composer of the Week programmes- this is where public service broadcasting can really change the world for the better. The trick is in developing ideas and projects to the point at which they become a viable topic or thread for the major outlets. What it does show is that there are a lot of creative and open minded folks at places like NPR and the BBC, they just need the independent sector to lay the groundwork for them so they can make the case for the importance of someone like Weinberg.

  4. David McDuff

    I’m uncomfortable with the notion of ‘junk culture’. It seems there has always been a popular and/or commercial culture to which classical and other types of music have adapted to a greater or lesser degree. Looking back to the last century – in his operas ‘Wozzeck’ and ‘Lulu’ Berg approached the commercial music idioms of his day, even making use of the instruments of the dance hall and jazz, and was condemned for doing so, not least by the fascist government that eventually took power in his country. In the 1920s jazz itself came under fire, dismissed as ‘trash’ by individuals and organizations ranging from Henry Ford to the Ladies’ Home Journal, and it was banned as a creation of American capitalism both by Europe’s fascist right and by its Stalinist left.

    I think that throughout most of its existence classical music has to some extent been in conflict with popular mass culture, but it has also gained greatly from interaction with it. In any case the best new music – whether classical, jazz, soul, rock, rap or ‘world ‘ – is deaf to social categories and musical genres, and speaks and resonates beyond them.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David

    Many thanks for your comment.

    I think you misunderstand me. Junk culture as a concept has nothing to do with genre. As you point out, cross-fertilization between genres has been essential for the growth and development of all kinds of music. The founders of Bebop were deeply interested in Ravel and Debussy, Stravinsky and Milhaud took an interest in jazz and Ragtime almost from day one, classical artists like the Beatles and Queen recorded music that reflected a very sophisticated grasp of classical harmony as well as a deep affection for jazz, skiffle and folk music.

    What makes junk culture junk is it’s intended effect on its audience- it’s there to anasthetize, to manipulate, to dull critical responses and to sell and manipulate. Pop genres have been hit far harder earlier by the junk culture paradigm because there was much more money to be made there. If you consider the breadth of voices and personalities that drove the pop world in the 60’s, it’s hard to imagine today’s major record companies welcoming that kind of creativity and innovation.

    There have always been political and social figures who’ve sought to develop their own power bases by denouncing various forms of art. Junk culture isn’t art- I think it’s important to still be able to say that there is a difference between art, entertainment and marketing.
    Thanks again for engaging!

  6. David McDuff

    Hi, thanks for clarifying an interesting post. Yes, I think I see where you’re coming from: junk culture isn’t popular culture, or even pop culture, but something that’s insidious and new, and doesn’t really have much to do with culture at all – rather in the same way as some of the new brands of politics that are now appearing in Europe (and probably also in America) don’t have much to do with politics, at least as we have known them in the past.

    It’s sometimes hard to get the right labels for these new phenomena – especially perhaps because in the past (I remember the 1960s) pop culture itself was dismissed by many people of an older generation as being ‘anesthetizing’, ‘commercial’ and ‘manipulative’, though in retrospect we can see that it was anything but.

  7. David McDuff

    By the way, I’d like to thank you for your wonderful recordings of Hans Gál’s symphonies – Gál’s music has meant a lot to me throughout my life, ever since I took piano lessons from him at his home in Edinburgh as a young student, and it is really heartening and inspiring to discover this music and hear it played as it was meant to be performed.

  8. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David-

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said junk culture isn’t culture at all. I remember the first time I heard someone say the same thing about junk food. Food satisfies our appetite and gives us strength, health and energy. Junk food does none of those things- it makes us crave more, and the more we consume, the worse the effect on us. Same thing with junk culture.

    So delighted to hear of your direct connection with Gál. Getting to know his massive body of work and having the privilege to record so much of it has been an amazing experience. I hope the next ten years will see his works becoming a regular feature in concert halls everywhere.

    All best


  9. Marion Capriotti

    I am so glad that a commenter at the site “Gin and Tacos” posted a link to your site. Sir, you are a gentleman and a scholar!

    As an unhappily-retired opera singer (my home company, the New York City Opera, recently died a well-publicized and heartbreaking death, after which the urgent need to earn a living pushed me back into the legal profession), I recognize and resonate with all of the points you make about what art is for.

    I particularly appreciate your realization that big orchestras – and by extrapolation, big opera companies with the resources to mount productions of large-scale masterpieces like Verdi’s “Aida,” “Otello” or “Don Carlo,” or Wagner’s Ring cycle – are an important part of our artistic and spiritual heritage, and it is particularly tragic and infuriating that private, individual rebellion against the “junk culture” ethos can’t help us keep these challenging, powerful works alive for the next generation. (Much as I love and celebrate the chamber groups, new-music collectives and chamber-opera companies that are still striving to create and survive, it still breaks my heart that currently, there is no hope on God’s green earth that a newly-imagined, artistically and intellectually challenging, magnificently played and sung production of “Aida” could ever happen. Some great art just HAS to be made on a huge scale, and where there is no public will to experience it (because nobody can get rich off of it), it simply will never appear.

    Verdi’s “Aida” could be so wonderfully presented, with glorious traditional vocalism (by which I mean great dramatic singers with huge, magnificent voices who perform without amplification — not model-gorgeous youngsters with pretty little lyric voices, mic’ed so they can fake projection over a big hall) and great orchestral performances, but with a challenging re-configuration of Verdi’s passionate anti-racism. How thrilling would that be?

    But it will never happen. Never again. I love and champion small, daring new artistic endeavors, but my heart breaks for the death of grand opera, and the large-scale symphony — Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful writings and your musical courage.

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