A Day in the Life of American Music Criticism: The "Sgt. Pepper" Debate of 1967-69

By Roka, Les | Journalism History, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

A Day in the Life of American Music Criticism: The "Sgt. Pepper" Debate of 1967-69


Roka, Les, Journalism History


The debate about the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club" album is a watershed in the 1960s discussion about how press critics approached the transformation of American musical culture. In part, the "Sgt. Pepper" debate gave some critics fresh material to challenge highly intellectualized musical compositions of the avant garde who worked within the growing network of college and university music departments. Pitted against the landscape of social unrest, protest, and rebellion, a few critics used "Sgt. Pepper" to dispense with notions of a dominant musical culture and talk about the proliferation of highly segmented musical genres and influences and new crossover phenomena where different musical idioms influenced each. Among the most outspoken critics championing the latter were Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, Joan Peyser of the New York Times, and Richard Meltzer of Crawdaddy!

Dramatic, even bewildering, changes in the American music scene of the 1960s challenged music critics at newspapers and magazines. In the world of classical music, critics faced avant-garde composers whose musical experiments pushed the limits of dissonance and performance theater. Much as the literature and journalism of the 1960s, in the words of Morris Dickstein, cherished "immediacy, confrontation, [and] personal witness," these composers defied consistency and universality in matters of standards, tastes, aesthetics, and popular appeal.1

Meanwhile, critics also fretted about those composers and performers wedded to serialism, a scientifically precise approach to composing music that called for, among other things, strict adherence to arranging patterns of music pitches. A compositional approach founded by German composer Arnold Schoenberg in the earliest years of the twentieth century, it was widely practiced in music schools around the nation. However, a totally ordered art form somehow did not seem relevant in a social environment where stories of upheaval and rebellion were playing regularly on the front pages of newspapers.2

The relationship between critics and composers always had been antagonistic, but the differences seemed to widen in the 1960s. Music journalists had to suddenly contend with composers from the avant garde and serialist movements, who said they did not need audiences or critics. Composers such as Pierre Boulez, Ned Rorem, John Cage, and George Rochberg churned out essays about their music as frequently-or more so-as the new musical works that they wrote.

Thus, by the late 1960s, music critics faced new cultural sensibilities. However, those who had been tied exclusively to the manifestations of serious or classical music now were expected to deal regularly with rapidly ascending pop and jazz forms. There were several key events in 1967, for example. The untimely death of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane at the age of forty signaled a passing of the musical torch in jazz to Ornette Coleman, a fellow saxophonist whose musical improvisations did away with traditional chord progressions but managed to maintain the steady rhythmic swing of the genre. Wendy Carlos, a former student of two well-known contemporary composers of electronic music, was recording versions of Bach compositions on a synthesizer specially designed by Robert Moog. His album, released the following year, would garner three Grammy Awards, encouraging musicians of all genres to incorporate electronic sounds into their work. Finally, the innocuous pop rock of the late 1950s and early 1960s metamorphosed into an edgier, provocative musical idiom by the last third of the turbulent decade. Along with the increasing presence of maverick personalities such as Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, groups such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Country Joe and The Fish became integral elements of a counterculture punctuated by antiwar protests, communal housing enterprises, and free concerts. …

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