She’s 12. She’s famous. She’s also way too sexy for the cover on her latest CD (received with gratitude by our editor as a holiday gift from one of our concertgoers). Jackie Evancho is the center of both mania and controversy, and she’s another sign that the future of music (sales) is in hype, hype, hype.
We could blame P.T. Barnum, as the “inventor” of the great star revolution (at least, according to Norman Lebrecht). We could blame recordings in general, as the killer of the demand for live music, as John Phillip Sousa famously did. We could blame the kid’s parents, her producers, her label, the venues who sponsor her. But the reality is that the very public we aim to serve just really, really loves to gawk at a talented kid. Therefore, there is money to be made, and the ever-ravenous celebrity machine to be fed.
Is this the start of a young girl’s dream to be a superstar? Perhaps. It certainly seemed that way when Evancho made her premiere on America’s Got Talent in 2010. Now billed as a “classical crossover artist”, her publicity copy reads with strong echoes of a little Welsh girl who crossed our paths in the late 90s, and is now struggling for a comeback with a wounded voice, tabloid-throttled personal life and far too much money evaporated. Whether or not Charlotte Church makes it remains to be seen: her recent efforts have shown signs of difficulty, and once she showed the audacity to grow into a full-grown human, the British tabloids have been unrelenting in their pursuit of manufactured drama. Other Wunderkinder have fared better: Josh Groban has a solid following and a weird appeal with Hollywood hipsters: he’s a cool guy and grew up in LA, and his personal charm has led to public displays of (thankfully chaste) affection with the likes of Oprah (who forever dubbed him “Opera Boy”) and Jimmy Kimmel; a string of celebrity girlfriends; and a beautifully nerdy, funny cinematic debut as Emma Stone’s clueless fiance in last year’s hilarious Crazy Stupid Love. He’s a real musician, smarter than the average starlet, and his albums show originality, regardless of whether or not his style speaks to you — he’ll likely be OK.
These examples of young fame raise the issue of the whole “crossover” label. It has its purpose, of course, and we use it here, too. But it’s not a little discouraging that the only way the media and really seems to know how to address classical music is to dumb it down and to make so very palatable that it’s no longer recognizable as art. Like the Hooked on Classics franchise of the 1980s, and the endless compilations of “greatest hits” sold in every Target and highway rest stop, the ongoing cavalcade of experiments in so-called versatility, by artists who otherwise perform at the highest levels, tends to boil down to one thing: money. All of these things are driven more by potential sales than by actual listening. The producers don’t seem to care whether or not they use their powers for good, whether they give the arts any hope of continuation, or whether their products provide any enlightenment, solace or joy to a deeply deprived public. This is the worst end of the spectrum.
It doesn’t have to be that way, as more established classical artists have proven for years. One of cellist Yo-Yo Ma‘s best-selling albums is Hush, the 1992 collaboration with Bobby McFerrin that’s so much fun listeners are more impressed by the performers’ virtuosity. Renee Fleming‘s 2010 crossover album, Dark Hope, went further than others by covering not just the Great American Songbook, but song by current, active bands — and it was fairly well-received in multiple camps. But even then, the news coverage seemed mainly focused on the very existence of the project, not about the music itself. The act of crossing over was what made news. Even with Placido Domingo’s recent and fairly embarrassing appearance on Dancing With the Stars is likely to help in promoting his upcoming crossover album. And let’s be fair — DWTS is difficult stuff!
As regular readers know, we at the List are very much in support of the ongoing evolution of art music. We’re also in favor of artists making a living — it’s a huge part of why we exist. But while we’re at it, it is essential to reckon with our professional responsibilities, finding some way to maintain guardianship of art within the boundaries of public demand, and fulfilling our essential duty to fill human need by creating something that enhances their lives. As arts education and traditional culture decline (or at least dip), we will struggle to maintain standards, but must reassess our message, and be watchful of how our product is wrapped up for delivery. Our dual reality of artmaking and pragmatic business smarts is a tightrope — but it’s worth walking.