The Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin says somewhere, I believe, in his famous essay The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that people will accept a radicalism in popular art forms that they will never accept from the avant gardes of “high” art. Benjamin was writing in the era of Eisenstein. A lot of cut-ups have made it into the gallery since then. Audiences at Tate Modern seem pretty schooled to expect everything pre-deconstructed in the museum. The most interesting thing now about Benjamin’s argument is that it also works the other way around. It is conversely true that the idea of the classics, the greats, the old masters, is universally accepted in pop music when it is nowadays widely spat on in the sphere of contemporary high art.
I’ve been listening to some 1960s favourites. The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, a bit of The Incredible String Band. I hasten to add that I was only four when the 60s ended. I wasn’t at Altamont or anything. But when I was a teenager, much later, it was obvious that rock music had reached a peak of imagination and brilliance in the 1960s – and it’s still obvious. Does anyone dispute that? More crucially, does anyone think it trashes today’s music to say so? There is a maturity, a common sense about critics and consumers of popular music that is totally absent from the high arts. No one thinks it demeans Lady Gaga to admire Madonna.