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Obama's Hit Parade

The world of pop music has always revolved around money, the more the better. Money's influence alters not just the way the music is presented, but the way it is created and the expectations of the creators and the audience. Success in this field is a dollar figure.

Classical and jazz don't work that way. The musicians need to get paid, sure, and most aren't above playing weddings or in some ways tailoring their music to suit their audience. Money pressures exist, but they don't dominate the art form. Success here is rooted in technical accomplishment and in the musical experience itself.

When a classical artist verges on mass popularity, like Yo-Yo Ma, companies like Sony will maneuver themselves into a position to profit from it. But Ma didn't get where he is by thinking about money -- he got there by being a terrific cellist, and an inquisitive musician, constantly challenging himself, branching into new areas. His success was established long before big money entered the picture and continues largely because he is able to rely on his true artistic nature and ignore the role of money.

Pop musicians sometimes emulate that model, ignoring the financial rewards and following where talent and curiosity lead. Often they find themselves in a better place as a result, connecting more easily and honestly with audiences, developing a longer career trajectory.

They don't let the money get in the way.

All week on TV, money did get in the way, in the form of a parade of money-driven pop culture containing very little artistry.

Kelly Clarkson did a great job belting out "My Country Tis of Thee" (not lip-synching), but I still think a well-trained, young operatic soprano would have served the moment better. Alicia Keys is no slouch as a singer or pianist, but hearing her do a presidential parody of her own top-40 mega-hit at the inaugural ball was just a little too nauseating.

I'm a big Stevie Wonder fan, but he would have looked a lot more dignified in the context of an evening that also included the music of Chopin or Ellington.

Lady Gaga at least understands this distinction. The orchestral instruments in "Born This Way," shown in the video clip I cited earlier, act as a prop, designed to infuse her act with a kitschy air of nobility. In her defense, though, the ensemble arrangement is a bit more nuanced than its role really requires; the conductor really is conducting, not just mimicking the role.
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