Stop the Violins!

How an epidemic of classical music crossovers is destroying the culture of cool.

Published October 31, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Let's get this over with: I was wrong. There. I said it. I have
been arguing for years that the arbitrary barriers between high
art and low should be abolished. "Tear down the walls!" I yelled. "Let the
comic books and old master oils lie down together like lions and lambs!
Allow the graffiti and 'The Odyssey' to hold linguistic hands! Set up opera
and hip hop on a cosmic blind date! Pish-posh to genres! Down with
nomenclature! May the last category commit suicide biting into the last
poisoned appellation!"

Clearly, I did not know what I was talking about. Clearly, I was
mistaken. Out of line. All wet. Because rules are being broken, my
friends -- the wrong rules. Lately, there is a movement afoot that is so
sinister and sneaky and seemingly benign that the fate of global culture is
frightfully at risk. I am speaking, of course, of the reintroduction of
the violin into everyday life.

I know what you were thinking. You were thinking that we had that
little bimbo-shaped, entrail-strung toy box whupped, weren't you? You were
thinking that monarchies and their toady instruments of enslavement were
the laughingstock of the free world. You were thinking that we made the
world safe (sort of) for democracy and electric guitars.

Well, you obviously haven't kept up with your pop charts, because
Beatle Paul McCartney's second orchestral work, "Standing Stone," recently debuted at No. 194,
which is low for a pop star but not bad for the London Symphony. Or you
haven't turned on the radio to hear the title song from Janet Jackson's
"Velvet Rope," featuring fiddling fox Vanessa Mae, whose self-described "techno-acoustic" (read: disco) versions of Paganini have sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. Or you haven't
walked by a bookstore window, most of which are infested with displays of
Anne Rice's new novel, "Violin," and, even worse, the cross-marketed CD
"Violin for Anne Rice" by virtuoso Leila Josefowicz.

Anne Rice is a useful starting point for understanding what
listening to the violin does to a person -- how it clouds one's judgment, how
it can rob a modern American of our most precious indigenous cultural
resource -- that of cool. For her novel is the spaciest collection of
pseudo-poetic slop I've waded through in ages. Rice's protagonist is a
newly widowed New Orleans resident who is stalked/haunted by a dead
man/violinist who plays "poignant" and "magical" tunes outside her window.
She's always saying things like, "Oh, God, that this lone violinist would
come through high grass and falling rain and the dense smoke of imagined
night, envisioned darkness, to be with me still and play his mournful song,
to give voice to these words inside my head, as the earth grows ever more
damp, and all things alive in it seem nothing but natural and kind and even
a little beautiful." Let's just say that nobody ever wrote treacly froth
like that because they were listening to Hole.

If the accountants at Rice's publisher, Knopf, and Josefowicz's
record company, Philips, had their way, you'd be reading Rice while playing
Josefowicz as background music. However, two seconds into Josefowicz's
first piece and you'll drop the book to stare at your stereo. For me, it
was a revelation, the event that led to my confession of error at the
beginning of this essay. I heard Josefowicz's violin version of Sting's
"Moon Over Bourbon Street," a cheesy arrangement of an already cheesy song
featuring hotel lounge guitar and what might be bongos. I was galvanized,
instantly envisioning a quarantine to separate this high art instrument
from this low art form so that we all might recover in peace. Since the
violin's pat timbre is the very sound of irrelevance, and the works of
Sting have enough problems as it is, listening to the combination of the
two makes you want to sneeze and vomit simultaneously, in order to dispel
such contagions from your body. Question: "Who doesn't love the violin?"
asks Rice's widow. Answer: Anyone who hears this Sting cover.

Adding violins to bad pop music is a little like the introduction
of Eastern spices to Age of Exploration cuisine; they're meant to throw off
the scent, to mask the flavor of rancid meat by distracting the consumer
with out-there flavors like pepper. This is the function of
Vanessa Mae's noodling on Jackson's "Velvet Rope." Vanessa Mae's
moody presence -- she's an instrumental cross between "Scary Spice" and "Posh
Spice" -- distracts the listener from Jackson's embarrassing babbling. When
Janet's spouting words of wisdom along the lines of "We have a special need/To feel that we belong," Vanessa Mae's bowing along, waving, "Hey! Over
here! It's a violin! You're supposed to like it!"

The same reasoning applies to Sir Paul McCartney's symphonic stab.
"I'm a rock star! But I'm still fancy!" This 76-minute bore is
supposed to be a serious attempt at program music in honor of, I swear, the
perseverence of the ancient Celts. There's a lot of choral grumbling and
cinematic melodies, suggesting some unsatisfying hybrid between the film
versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals with any score to any film
version of Shakespeare. Think "Hamlet" meets "South Pacific":
You can always picture the moment when the camera pans over some windswept,
ocean-view plateau. And if the violins here weren't up to their
usual haughty tricks, McCartney's third movement reminds us that there is
an instrument that is even more odiously upper crust: the harp. Don't even get me started.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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