Classical music isn’t dead: it’s just riddled with corpses of its former self. Not rotting ones, but made-up, dressed-up, done-up ones. Classical music is marketed by coroners, morticians and grave-diggers. This results in a deluge of memorial portraiture: dead bodies posed to appear alive. You know the images: from young ensembles all dressed in 80s Soho black, to ecstatic youthful faces caught mid-flight while Adobe After Effects particle plug-ins trail their body into succulent sweeps of confetti, flowers or strawberries. The marketing machines of classical music think this is humanist, sensual, alive. It’s not. It’s dehumanising, fetid, dead. Indeed, classical music’s self-visualisation is far more necrotic than hi-image Nu/Death Metal bands from California caked in shopping mall Halloween face paint. For classical music has ended up being the one-stop-shop for assessing how image is employed to extend music’s life beyond its use-by date. Most other forms of music accept their death or revivals graciously (despite the current vogue of 90s bands reforming/re-performing their first ‘classic’ album for curated festivals). Conversely, classical music—assuming that its historical legacy exempts it from all industrial manipulation—is the only form of music that believes its own hype: that if it were not to exist, civilization as we know would cave in to the music industry’s ruthless neo-liberal dominance.
While one might begrudgingly accept how classical music markets itself globally in an attempt to justify state-spending on promotion for state-funded orchestras and operas, there’s an implied acceptance of how classical music needs to exist beyond marketplace pressures. It’s a weak stance when viewed from either contemporary critical trenches or neo-liberal capitalist citadels. Now while it’s ridiculously easy to attack classical music—and thereby negate out-of-hand its cannon, its myriad histories, its experimental markers, its interiorised complexity, its phenomenal allure—it takes greater precision to separate its musicological lineage from its contemporary and transitional logistics in presentation. In other words, attacks on classical music can be deserved when levelled not at its argument to ensure its livelihood (surely all musical forms have that right), but at the mediarised methods it employs to fabricate how unthreatened its livelihood could be at this present moment.
2Cellos’ video clip for their version of AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck" (2014) is a good place to aim a few fortissimo punches. They’re a Croatian-born UK-trained Sony-signed YouTube-hyped Wikipedia-bioged management-controlled cello duo in their late-20s. With all the panache of the most boring marketing firm in the universe thinking they’ve come up with a stunningly original idea, 2Cellos appear on a Viennese stage in the Baroque era, appropriately attired and musically correct. They commence playing a mashup of Bach and Vivaldi finger exercises which devolves into the infamous "Thunderstruck" double-beat fretwork of Angus Young’s signature one-hand presto-paradiddling. One cello carries this like a busker with a loop pedal; then they each overlay both "Thunderstruck"’s coal-miner wordless chant and power chord patterning. Old farts in the audience have their brocaded collars ruffled as they attempt to stop their young children from being aroused by this devilish music (duh); the piece finishes with a stunned audience à la Mel Brooks’ Broadway bomb in Springtime For Hitler (1968) (double duh). The subtle message: young guys playing classical music aren’t as stuffy/nerdy/pretentious/whatever as you thought they were.
The subtlety started two years earlier, in a video for their cover of AC/DC’s "Highway To Hell" (2012). It starts with 2Cellos stumbling into New Jersey’s famous Guitar Centre where Steve Vai is doing an in-store signing. The cellists head for the back room and start playing cellos loudly through amps; the ‘kids’ leave Vai and start ‘rocking out’ to the cellists. Then 2Cellos welcome Vai to overlay his branded guitar falsetto atop their pummelling acoustic-rasping cello chords. The video features an audience of about fifty culled from rent-a-youth. Once the track gets really rocking, it devolves into that icky trope of male producers directing young dumb women to unconvincingly shimmy and slink around as if they’re ready to fuck because the music is getting them hot. Of course it isn’t—these women look more like they’re ordering soy lattes than ‘getting hot’—but that’s the wet-dream of marketing executives who likely suffer erectile dysfunction. In 2Cello’s video for their cover of Avicii’s oompah-rave-folk-anthem "Wake Me Up" (2015), their life literally flashes through our eyes, as they appear as rambunctious kids, groovy studs at tacky Geordie Shore clubs, and an old peoples’ home replete with a Benny Hill-style nurse. Throughout, their pithy faux-folksy gypsy cello thumping and bowing gets people hot and excited (especially those bimbo clubbers). Wow. Classical music is both sexy and timeless—like a baroque Viagra.
Should I be offended by yet another cynical exploitation of youth’s collective vitality, social inhibition and libidinous expression? Not really, because that’s what all advertising and marketing has been doing since Baby Boomer executives televisually fondled their inner boy in the 80s, creating multiple waves ever since to relive their lost youth through modes of puppeteering teens and imagineering tweens. This imaging of classical music, then, is just as cynically focused not merely on how to update an outdated musical culture, but on how to represent it according to the current codes of youth exploitation. The narratives of the 2Cellos videos thus perform retrograde ejaculation: the erotic ebullience of both the music and its image is imperceptible. Their riot isn't going on, there is no revolution to be televised, and no-one is seeing the future of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (Please, 2Cellos, don’t do a video rebooting Young Einstein.)
People say I’m cynical, but could anything be more cynical than these flagrant and flamboyant admissions of audiovisual self-cancellation? Like the invisible cum shot of retrograde ejaculation, they exemplify the desperation of today’s image climate, wherein images can boldly lie without any worry that their truth value will be exposed as fatuous. Does any serious aficionado of classical music really care about 2Cellos? And does anyone watching their YouTube clips on iPhones on public transport really care about classical music? And if no-one is at all interested in the simulated synergism of their marketing, why does it exist within the mediasphere?
Weirdly, music might win out in the end. 2Cellos’ "Thunderstruck" unwittingly (I presume, though one never knows) uncovers one of the amazing facets of AC/DC’s song writing. I term it AC/DC’s ‘modularity of cadence’. The brothers Young sculpt riffs and power chord sequences hewn from the western diatonic cadence: that monumental musical shifting from C major to G major and back again. It’s the ‘da-dah!’ of harmonic resolution instituted in the Baroque era; the musical equivalent of a gilded picture frame, a proclamation’s bold lettering, a tower’s turret—anything that states its obvious power by stating that obviously it has power without needing to state it. "Thunderstruck"’s middle sections of final halted power chords forms a symphonic coda of cadences which—in true Baroque logic—define AC/DC as rock that simultaneously empties itself of everything and builds itself into a monument to that exquisite emptiness. In AC/DC’s aging sonorum, it’s dead but alive: the polar opposite of classical music as delivered by the blooming likes of 2Cellos.