State of Art

Yuga Cohler

Yuga Cohler is a 27-year-old conductor whose mission is to revolutionize musical culture.

Flight Safety and Musical Function

I don't always fly domestically. But when I do, I prefer Virgin America. I like the wide range of entertainment options they provide; I like the ease with which you can order food on-demand;  I like the company's ethos of coolness. The thing I like most about VA, though, is its flight safety video.

Yes, you read that correctly. The operational instructions that the airline is legally obligated to announce to its passengers are one of the most compelling parts of the flight. Find it hard to believe? If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and take 5 minutes to watch it now.  

This video is brilliantly executed. The production values are sky high, with crisp vocals, clever lyrics, and dynamic choreography. Broadly speaking, the song is in a style I would classify as pop, but it also makes forays into rap/hip-hop (the part about the oxygen mask), autotune-techno (the part about the life vest, somewhat oddly self-identifying as "robot rap"), Broadway (the part about the emergency exits), and funk (the part about not smoking). These directives for flight safety are an amalgam of  popular music simulacra, cobbled together from catchy snippets of various genres. I found myself singing "Fly Away With Me" days after my return flight from LAX. While it might confuse the "0.001 percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before," the #VXsafetydance does a good job of communicating its essential messages in an entertaining way.

Virgin America's safety video also highlights some interesting facets of the role of music in modern society, the most important of which is that music can have a specific role at all. In this age when technology has made music ubiquitous, we tend to focus on musical classification. We obsess over playlists, organizing music by artist, album, genre, length, and so forth. The primary question is "how does this music fit"? In contrast, we hardly ever discuss musical function - what purpose the music is serving, what utility it provides. This answers the question, "what does this music do?"

A significant dichotomy in the function of music is that between

  • commercial music, music whose purpose is to be monetized, and
  • art music, music whose purpose is artistic accomplishment.

An example of the former is the entirety of Pitbull's oeuvre;  an example of the latter is Beethoven's Große Fuge. Note that this distinction has nothing to do with genre - by these definitions, many commissioned works by composers of classical music would qualify as commercial music. Some would argue that commercial and art music are antithetical to one another: that music made for the purposes of profit could not possibly contribute to artistic discourse, and conversely, that serious art music could never be consumed on a massive scale. Others - for instance, fans of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy  - would argue otherwise, and recognize that musical functions are not mutually exclusive.

(Veritably, we have side-stepped the hairy issue of what constitutes "artistic accomplishment," i.e. what actually defines "art music." Hopefully, over the course of this blog, we'll be able to come to an understanding of what it is.)

The curiosity of Virgin America's flight safety video is that it falls outside of this dichotomy. Despite the popular idioms it employs, this music is not commercial because it does not aim to sell. Instead, the purpose of the music is to instruct, and as such, might be categorized as educational in function, much like the ABCs. This observation swings the door to the room of musical purpose wide open - it turns out that music can exist in a variety of guises, including

  • educational music,
  • dance music, music that is to be danced to,
  • accompanimental music, music that is auxiliary to a primary artifact, e.g. film or commercial,
  • political music, e.g. the national anthem, or perhaps more generally, ceremonial music
  • spatial music, music whose purpose is to enhance the mood or aesthetic of a space, e.g. in a café or a museum,

and so forth. The last of these was brought to mind by the words of composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who said in an interview:

It always astonishes me that people who design public spaces don’t pay any attention to the music that plays there, so it ends up being random. That could be a niche for young composers to make some money, designing soundscapes for public spaces.

It seems to me that, particularly in the world of classical music, there needs to be more consideration for the multitude of roles that music can play in life. Conservatory-trained composers and performers tend to fixate solely on producing self-sufficient works of art. This is no doubt a noble goal, but doing so at the exclusion of other motivating factors might be counterproductive to cultural progress. If classical musicians participate only in the highly specialized niche of art music, they have a lower of chance of gaining exposure to a more generalized audience. The complex, thought-provoking music that they have spent years honing the ability to perform and compose should have the opportunity to affect the lives of many, not just those who happen to be engaged in the world of high art. I think that a key paradigm shift over the next decade or so will be for classical musicians  to view their craft as a means to an end, and not only an end in itself.

Speaking more broadly, I think it can only do us good to think more consciously of the purpose of the music that we create and listen to. Too often do we fall into patterns of rote repetition, producing and consuming music of the same type simply because we are used to it. Works of art like the Virgin America safety video which subvert our expectations remind us the fact that art need not only be for art's sake, and in fact, can be pragmatically useful. What's more, discovering beautiful, entertaining music in the places we least expect it can be a great joy. If we can find great music in movies, and now in flight safety videos, perhaps we can look forward to a day when places like the DMV feature the next hot track.