‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice.” It’s an old line, and perhaps an obsolescent one. I can’t recall the last time I heard anyone use it. Americans don’t seem to want to get to Carnegie Hall, not if American Idol is auditioning round the block. And practice is one of those things, like math, the education system seems to have ceded to the Asians. These days, China not only makes most of the pianos, but plays them. David Goldman (the Internet’s “Spengler”) likes to point out the correlation between the study of Western classical music and success in science. “There’s a difference,” he writes, “between an engineer and an engineer who plays Bach.” Whenever he makes his case, even those of a conservative disposition fill up the comments section with objections: There’s nothing wrong with an engineer who likes rock-’n’-roll, or country, or thrash metal or gangsta rap or grunge . . .
Be that as it may, music has fled our schools: In California and New Jersey, you can reach twelfth grade without having heard a note of Mozart. At the school concert I attended this month, the students contented themselves with insipid group karaoke from the current hit parade:
’Cause, baby, you’re a firework!
Come on, show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go oh-oh-oh
As you shoot across the sky . . .
Nobody shot across the sky. The performance barely shot across the footlights. But at the end the parents whooped noisily. A song about how uniquely extraordinary you are is given a pedestrian performance but showered with extravagant praise anyway. To my ears, there’s a sad desperation about these numbers, but I seem to be in a minority. And the principal alternative to songs about how extraordinarily extraordinary your sweetheart is are songs about how extraordinarily extraordinary you yourself are:
Yeah, yeah, when I walk on by
Girls be lookin’ like, “Damn, he fly” . . .
I’ve got me under my skin. I believe I’ve noted previously, a propos what a recent survey of contemporary pop lyrics called the “narcissism epidemic,” Beyoncé’s song about how hot she looks when she’s dancing. I wouldn’t say she looks that hot, not in the sense of Dame Margot Fonteyn dancing Romeo and Juliet with Nureyev. But, as the late Whitney Houston observed, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. And, if not the greatest, certainly a lot easier.