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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Motörhead @ the Met: Metal meets Mezzo in the Chiasmus of Crossover
By E.W. Wilder

This past season's attempt by the Metropolitan Opera to create crossover appeal for the struggling opera scene presented, notably, a collaboration with British ür-metal band Motörhead. Data proving this really did bring headbangers to Lincoln Center are still pending, but the concert did provide an opportunity for a little structuralist analysis of the phenomenon we call “crossover,” for our purposes broadly defined to indicate artists individually or in collaboration, stretching genre boundaries in order to appeal to wider audiences. Examples include Lionel Richie's recent country album, or the attempts Charlotte Church has made at recording operatic repertoire.

Extreme cases, such as Pat Boone's album of hard rock covers from a few years back or the Patio Girls' Skiffle album abound, but few can match the extreme of Lemmy and Rene Fleming performing a duet of the entire No Sleep 'til Hammersmith on stage, backed by Phil Campbell's guitar and the full Metropolitan Opera's choir. This extremity only serves to reveal deeper qualities shared by all crossover music. By the application of the concept of the chiasmus as applied by structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, we can see the relationship between crossover artists and their audiences more clearly and perhaps more fully understand their motivations and the meanings behind their work. The chiasmus is a reversal of grammatical or semantic form, common in classical and biblical poetry in which the reversed structures parallel one another [“The first shall be last and the last first last” (Matt. 19:30)]. Lévi-Strauss notes this pattern in parallel mythic structures between ethnic groups.

To be sure, the different genres of music represent different mythical structures and, if well developed, entire mythological systems. This is evident even in our everyday speech, in which we refer to “rock gods” and “guitar gods” almost without thinking and in a more or less straightforward way. Even our use of such a now-mundane term as “star” follows a deep pattern of myth in the Western world, in which the peripatetic points of light that we now know to be planets were named after members of the classic pantheon. Further, we treat our popular musicians as if they were gods, catering to their every whim, creating and embellishing stories about their supernatural feats of destruction, drugging, wooing and winning, and, occasionally, of singing and playing as well.

These godlike thoughts seem not to apply as much to classical musicians at the present moment, but in the past Caruso was every bit as loved and feared as Slash, and in the not-so-distant past, Pavarotti could command as much international influence as a Rolling Stone. The depth of cultural relevance--so deep it is buried beneath conscious perception for most--gives the classical world a de facto legitimacy that despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of current mass appeal measures far greater than it would immediately appear and acts as a counterpoint to the “quality” of the Top 40 of any given pop-culture point. By contrast, the rock mythology, in order to maintain its own powerful outsider status, goes out of its way to distance itself from the underlying legitimacy that the classical world still has, this despite the fact that it is by far more popular, commands vast sums of money, and has almost complete cultural saturation.

Complicating matters, the nexus of legitimacy vs. illegitimacy is governed by the overall idiom in which the cultural expression appears. In the popular realm, due to both cultural saturation and the popularity of seeing oneself as anti-establishment, classical music is considered illegitimate simply because of its association (however inaccurate) with the powers-that-be. Likewise, hard rock, because of its (however untrue) associations with anti-establishmentarianism, is viewed, in the popular realm, as inherently more legitimate, more “real.” In the realm of high art, the role of classical music is reversed, not because of its association with an establishment, but because of its place in the history of the processes and progressions of art itself, which is traceable to the same roots as other artistic endeavors such as painting or literature (Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, and the like). Hard rock, as well, due to its outsider status, maintains its illegitimacy within the artistic realm, not because of its popular appeal, but because it fits well with the late-Modernist/early-Postmodernist collapse of high and low art.

In a brutally Hegelian sense, then, these two mythological musical systems require each other, defining the one as the other's “non.” In a most basic way, crossover would appear to represent the Hegelian synthesis. But actually, it's a Straussian chiasmus, which we can represent thus:

Popular Realm
classical ~ illegitimate
hard rock = legitimate
Artistic Realm
classical = legitimate
hard rock ~ illegitimate

Where = is a straightforward legitimacy and ~ is a complex one.

Problematically, maintaining the (il)legitimacy within one's cultural realm and the mythological structures that realm supports becomes increasingly difficult as one is is seen to exist only within that realm. This compounds now, when “narrowcasting” and the splintering and individuation of the media markets move audiences further and further into their specific spheres of interest. You don't have to actually listen to classical music in order to be aware of its associations with an establishmentarian mythos, but you have to be aware that it exists. If a person is unaware of classical music entirely, one is unable to understand the anti-establishmentarian bona fides of hard rock. There is no coincidence that crossover is largely a product of the era of splintering media, developing from a mere novelty in the '60s and '70s to a positive trend in the '80s and '90s, to a downright necessity among mature artists today.

And so the true motives of the crossover are revealed. It is in the best interests of the musicians to engage in crossover work not to find new audiences, but rather to reinforce an existing mythological structure and the artist's place within it. When Lemmy is singing with Anna Netrebko, he is not trying to convert the classical crowd to his way or rockin'; nor is Netrebko trying to capture or captivate Motörheaded thrashboys. Rather, each is trying to send the message to his or her respective audience that “this is what I am not” by directly engaging in it. These artists reveal the mythological chiasmus by their very actions and acts.

Crossover is, then, not only a last-ditch effort by artists who find themselves facing irrelevancy; it is of both an artist's place within the pantheon of his mythological realm and also a reification and intensification of that realm itself. Crossover efforts and the chiasma they reveal are very rites of intensification, helping to reinforce cultural differentiation rather than elide or obscure it.

Thus, when Motörhead and the Met collide, both are strengthened.