THE HOT NEW show on HBO is "Girls," created by Lena Dunham, and it has fans and detractors debating its qualities across social media platforms. I would count myself as one of the detractors. For all the skill and effort that goes into it, there's a crippling problem with its premise and conception. The common criticism of the show is that it is blind -- which it is -- to the existence of characters who are not white. I sympathize with that reaction, but it's not constructive criticism, it's more a complaint about what one wants and what one is not getting. Creative works exist on their own terms, and the terms of “Girls” are the lives of four white young women who live in New York City and come from vaguely upper middle-class, educated backgrounds. They are, as the pre-premiere hype trumpeted and Dunham herself coyly promotes, supposed to represent their contemporary generation, the show is supposed to reflect the lives of its viewers, and since it both does and does not, it has earned the Yin and Yang of 'that's me I love it' and 'that's not me I hate it' response.
All I can say is that if this is a reflection of a generation, than that generation is depressingly parochial, because the show is depressingly parochial. It's narcissistic, which is par for the course in our contemporary age where everyone's story is supposedly worth telling (it's even a trope in advertising), but even more than being both self-involved and being about self-involvement, it shows no awareness that there are any other possible ways to live, think or be than in its dull and predictable stories. In contrast, another show on HBO that is about a woman and her life, “Enlightened,” takes something that is even more finely focussed and personal than what you see in "Girls" and, by not bothering to try and reflect and affirm the lives of its viewers, has a view of society that is expansive, unsettling and fascinating. The girls on “Girls” don't know anything other than themselves, and so cannot see anything, while the woman on “Enlightened” is continually discovering she doesn't know as much about herself, and others, as she thinks. Which strikes you as more interesting?
But this column is not really about critiquing television shows, it's about points of view. Because if popular culture can be so powerful but so easily fall into torpid parochialism, there's an antidote in classical music. “Girls” is like popular music, where adherence to styles creates subcultures, and fans and supposed critics alike don't know that the word music encompasses an endeavor that spans the globe, the imagination, and goes back to the deep history of humanity itself. If it doesn't have a good beat or a catchy tune, you can't dance to it, and it won't be the song of summer, whatever the hell that is. And it's in dance where we can see the parochialism of pop and the human, cultural expansiveness of classical music of all kinds.
Before the free-form, personal dancing that developed with rock music after World War II, dance was a way for people to move together in time. There were dances with steps that went with specific forms and styles of music, and the history of masterpieces of classical music is in large part that of the sarabande-- Bach!-- or the waltz -- the menuet and trio movement! -- and more. The politically organized form of dance, the march used to drill soldiers and keep them organized in battle, is everywhere in classical music and is even one of the fundamental pillars of popular music, laid down in the mid-19th century. Looking at the names of dances in the West alone attests to the expansive variety of the music, and the social aspect which demanded nothing more than the knowledge of the steps. Of course, dance in non-Western music is also fundamentally important. The planet is full of the history of people gathering to move together in time, and what better way to start a civilization.
People gather in groups to enjoy pop music, too, but it's groups of people who then move as individuals. The hear something in common, but by not moving together they can't share it in the only way that matters, physically. They also miss the abstraction of classical music that gives us the history of what people heard in places we never will be, like the cowbells rattling from distant Alpine valleys in Mahler's symphonies, the procession of kings and courtiers, the contemplative group isolation of matins. Hearing music like this literally tranports us into things we do not know, and that experience makes us aware that it’s good not to know everything.
There is a danger of parochialism in this view, of course, the idea that art is therapeutic and therefore good. I don't share this, and I personally am a huge fan of Elvis Costello, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, James Brown and more. In the context of this column, I have a curious, expansive view of music, and hear more things in classical music than I can in just pop, but I wouldn't want to be without pop. Lena Dunham's confined view seems to fit with a confined listening, buried firmly in the skull through earbuds. The characters on “Girls” are the kind who ask each other "What bands do you like?", when instead they should be asked "Aimez-vous Brahms?"
George Grella's column The Drift appears on Classical TV.