The Way We Were: Rethinking the Popular in a Flat World
In the United States, the recent twenty years have seen the emergence of what might be defined as a “flat world” (Thomas L. Friedman) of musical styles – a reshaped cultural environment in which many listeners and scholars no longer view classical music as more sophisticated than other styles. The high brow/low brow distinction that once made the engagement with classical music a marker of cultural and intellectual superiority has been largely replaced by a sense that any style of music may be interesting and sophisticated in its own ways. The result of this flattening of the hierarchies of musical prestige places the meaning of the term “popular music” in question. This article traces the historical conditions in which the high brow/low brow distinction arose in the United States, how distinctions in musical styles were developed, and how advances in digital technology have hastened the flattening of stylistic hierarchies, rendering the term “popular music” increasingly useless except in a historical sense.