The New Yorker announced its “new, improved” Goings On page in October 2016 with a boastful statement by its editor David Remnick: “The New Yorker remains one of the few publications to cover the breadth of the city’s cultural events in detail, with scores of comprehensive reviews.” In his post, Remnick clarifies what exactly is new and improved about the new page: “New features include a revolving display of spotlight articles curated by Goings On editors, grids of listings based on category—Art, Classical Music, Dance, Food & Drink, Night Life, Movies, Theatre, Above & Beyond—a Goings On About Town video series, and an interactive map of events, navigated by category or by neighborhood.” I must admit that the new page, “retooled and streamlined for optimal viewing on desktop computers as well as mobile devices,” does look nice.
Nifty gadgets aside, The New Yorker’s approach to listing the city’s weekly musical events has remained suspiciously unaltered in any meaningful way over the entire history of the magazine. Remnick tells us that Goings On “was conceived as a compendium of witty, incisive commentary on the best of New York City’s cultural offerings—what’s going on in jazz clubs, cinemas, museums, opera houses, and Broadway theatres.” “To this day,” he adds, “Goings On continues its tradition of astute, snappy previews and critical reviews of theatre, art, classical music, rock, pop, jazz, cabaret, dance, movies, restaurants, and bars.”
And yet, the categories listed consistently for decades on the Goings On page imply an ambivalence, at best, about the status of anything other than classical music as music. Any music other than “classical music”—whatever exactly this means in 2018 anyway—seems to find its final resting place under a heading derogatorily named “nightlife.”
I recently noticed this and decided to make a small study of it. Were the performers classified under “nightlife” recently stripped of their status as musical artists in the Goings On reboot? Or did The New Yorker always view non-classical musicians as mere set pieces in the city’s nightlife? Had simply no one come along since 1925 to question that? It didn’t take long to discover: apparently not. But there were a few other intriguing finds along the way as I perused a somewhat random selection of Goings On pages over the years:
included in the issue. For whatever reason, it seems there were no significant classical music performances this week in the city. The listening-only events above were apparently not suitable candidates to keep the category going. New York had no “music” going on about town in the third week of September 1944
contemporary music, but here they are trapped under “Nightlife”. More curious, still, is that Ben Webster, featured under “music” for his jazz concert, also appears under “Nightlife” for an evening he is playing at the same Half Note where breaking “sound barriers” is all the rage. Here, we are told, he is a “gem of antiquity […] happily restored to the public eye and ear.” One night this week, Ben Webster is nightlife, but another night he is music. And he is a restored gem of antiquity at a venue for entertainment known for its progressivism and experimentalism. It’s hard to make heads or tails of the contradictions at play here, but we wouldn’t expect anything better from the posse of white editors of 1963.
It is reasonable to ask what has changed in New York City’s cultural offerings since the 1920s. Since The New Yorker has published a section dedicated to answering precisely this question every week, it would seem a good place to look, except for the disappointing fact that this inquiry would only reproduce a racist take on the history of the past century. The page’s attitude towards the city’s cultural events has remained essentially static for the past 93 years. The Goings On page is a critical blindspot in a magazine whose other sections have undergone plenty of change over the years. We take the Goings On for granted and normally view it as nothing more than a list of events. As such, the historical corrective simply never comes, even as American society’s media organizations, cultural institutions, universities, and people—even The New Yorker’s own pages—have (albeit begrudgingly and only partially) come to accept the music that black people produce as worthy of ascribing the predicate “music”. For its entire history, the Goings On page has gone so far as to physically separate the music it lists under “Nightlife” from its “Music” category by inserting at least one other category between them (usually “Art”). “Billie Holiday’s desultory songs” never flow on the page into that week’s symphonic and operatic events. They are consistently a number of page turns away from what is deemed “music”.
recommendation to partake in the city’s “nightlife”. The venue, The Stone, states on its website (as it has for as long as I can remember), “There are no refreshments or merchandise at The Stone. Only music.” This was music, and out of respect for the artists, who deserve to have what they are doing recognized as music, and for the public, who should be informed that this is a music event, it should have been labeled as such.
The next night took me to Roulette to hear the closing night of the “Resonant Bodies” festival. Though appearing in the “Classical Music” section of the revamped online listings of Goings On that week, most of the artists appearing in the festival would be bewildered, to say the least, at being thought of as “classical” musicians making “classical” music. A series that juxtaposes Helga Davis, Jen Shyu, Caroline Shaw, and Pamela Z, among others, can only be called “music,” with no further qualifications. Each of these artists brings an idiosyncratic virtuosity to her performance and rigor to her unique musical practice that cannot reasonably be named “classical music” but must be recognized as music, and certainly not nightlife.
The presence of the Goings On page is iconic to anyone who has even merely thumbed a few New Yorker issues. But the reputation that the page commands comes with a burden as well: the page’s implicit and regressive stance on the status of black music is broadcast every week even to its most hurried readers. Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, Ralph Ellison described a revolutionary change in the attitude of black musicians as they repudiated their assigned place in the culture world: “The thrust toward respectability exhibited by the Negro jazzmen of [Charlie] Parker’s generation drew much of its immediate fire from their understandable rejection of the traditional entertainer’s role—a heritage from the minstrel tradition.” Three-quarters of a century later, The New Yorker still has not caught on. It is urgent that the magazine finally correct its long history of implying that non-classical music is not worthy of consideration as music, but rather as a means of enjoying a night on the town.
What Goings On needs instead is one category simply called “music”. Questions of how to categorize music into genres often track cultural markers and histories of subordination and “other”-ing that have nothing to do with the actual content or practice of the music. More often than not, questions of genre concern where the music was played (in the sociopolitical geography of the city) or what the people who played it looked like (in the power hierarchy of the society). To decline to break music down into categories or genres is not to vacate the responsibility of the editor. Indeed, to classify music in such ways is always a political act, an affirmation or rejection of a particular ideology.
The Goings On page, as it stands, is something to be called up for a serendipitous evening or on a trip to New York. It is something to use when you want it, rather than something that is illuminating in its own right. That Goings On plays to our culture’s impulse to categorize music in backwards ways does its readers a disservice. It limits their ability to navigate New York City’s musical offerings. What The New Yorker chooses to include in a genre-free section called “music” could instead be something that readers look forward to discovering each week. Readers would then be given the opportunity to form a relationship with the curatorial sensibility of the Goings On page. This can only be properly achieved when a wider array of musics can talk to each other under a single inclusive heading on that page, a reflection of the diversity already present in the listening habits of many New Yorkers.