By 1941, pop had already taken over from classical as the musical lingua franca, the sound everybody wanted to hear. No actual teenager at the time would have needed to tell the band to play popular music at the prom rather than, say, Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. But for Martin and Blane, and for the Broadway audience they were aiming to entertain, the great German composers still represented a kind of cultural superego. They were what you were supposed to like, even if what you actually liked was big-band music you could dance to.
Today’s pop lyricists don’t poke fun at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because young listeners no longer recognize those names as possessing any cultural authority or prestige, if they recognize them at all.
Like the disappearance of a certain species of frog or insect, this is a small change that signals a profound transformation of the climate—in this case, the cultural climate. It’s a truism that high culture, as it used to be known, has been steadily losing its authority since the rise of mass culture in the early twentieth century.
High culture remained the superego of a society that still nominally believed in artistic values like genius, originality, beauty, and complexity.
There would be no point in making such an appeal if these critics didn’t believe that the general public is capable of preferring the better to the worse, if only they are given the chance.