The Inherent Paradox of Crossover Music

As I mentioned in my last post, Zappa was very concerned with producing some kind of synthesis of art and pop. He frequently alluded to how Varèse and Stravinsky were on equal footing with the R&B and blues records he listened to while he was growing up. It seems like he wanted to make something new by combining these two kinds of music.

A lot of the time, this motivation is expressed through ironic juxtaposition. I’m referring to songs that cram “high” art in with the “low” and relish in the awkwardness of the pairing. (Think of “Amnesia Vivace” on Absolutely Free. There, in a very short span, we get two quotations of music by Stravinsky–for Zappa, one of the greatest examples of so-called high art–alongside a reference to the “Duke of Earl.” Very unlikely bedfellows…)

Why would he do this? From what I can tell, the impetus seems stem from a frustration with the socio-cultural definition of the art/pop divide. These extramusical forces shape our perceptions of what is and is not appropriate to a given genre. Rock bands, in other words, are supposed to write one type of music, and avant-garde composers another. For Zappa, who identified with both streams, this was a big problem. Juxtapositions of musical borrowings, were one way of working against this.

But I’ve been thinking about this lately and it seems like the general perception of how this works is incomplete. People tend to think of crossover music as bridging a gap. By “crossover” I mean anything from Zappa’s rock/orchestral music, to Paul Simon’s Graceland, to Gunther Schuller’s third stream–any music, in other words, that attempts to fuse two seemingly disparate streams.

But I find myself wondering: Can this really exist. I mean, can crossover music actually achieve what the artist is setting out to do? To me it seems like crossover music inherits much of its value simply by merit of its being a crossover between to different musics. In other words, if crossover music achieves the fusion it sets out to and creates something new, doesn’t it lose meaning in the absence of the differentiated streams? For example, can Zappa’s fusion of Stravinsky with rock idioms have the same impact if both contributing forces are altered so far as to lose their identity?

I’m currently entertaining the idea that crossover music is defined by this inherent paradox. It tries to create music that is free of social baggage–an intertwining of contrasting musical traditions. The artist is presenting what he or she sees as an aesthetically autonomous synthesis of musical styles. But in conceptualizing and describing this act, the same artist necessarily falls back on using these social implications to define what they’re doing. In practice, music can’t be divorced from its social context. If the purported worth of this music is to be found in its ability to combine these disparate streams, crossover music loses much (if not all) of its value in the absence of extramusical implications.

The Inherent Paradox of Crossover Music