Time now for the Talk of the Nation Opinion Page. In some circles, the best athletes are called "elite," but more often the term is used as an insult. Art can be pejoratively elite, so can classical music. The term "elitist" has even been tossed around in the current political campaign.

In a convo(ph) over the weekend, Los Angeles Times Music Critic Mark Swed came to the defense of the term. When is "elitism" a useful term and when it is not? Our phone number is 800-989-8255, or send an email to Mark Swed joins us now by phone from his home in Santa Monica, California. Welcome to the program, Mark.

Mr. MARK SWED: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: So how is the term "elite" best used, would you say?

Mr. SWED: I would like to see it not used at all...


Mr. SWED: In fact. I - you know, we have a lot words that become cheapened and meaningless, and we at the LA Times some years ago were asked to stop using "legendary," because everything could be legendary. You know, McDonalds had opened two years ago is already legendary, somewhere. More recently we've stopped using "iconic," because that's been cheapened, as well. It just - anything can be iconic anymore. And I'd kind of like to see "elitism" go that way, too, because it's so misused and it's so meaningless that I just don't think there's any value to it.

NEARY: Now you write this from the perspective of a...

Mr. SWED: An elitist.

NEARY: Of an elitist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Of a classical music critic. And of course, you know, people often, in a negative way, talk about classical music as being elitist. So I guess this might be a little bit of a sore point for you.

Mr. SWED: Exactly. And very often classical music is dismissed as elitist, whereas I believe it's actually far more democratic than many aspects in our popular culture, which are supposedly not elitist but in fact are very, very elitist, particularly sports.

NEARY: Well, the point that you make that I think is interesting is if you take the price of tickets for sports versus classical music concerts or some classical music concerts, that's one example of a way in which classical music can be more democratic.

Mr. SWED: The price, to be sure, where the symphony ticket is not cheap - it can be, in many parts of the country, well over a hundred dollars. You know, tickets to sporting events and tickets to pop concerts can be far, far more, and tickets to Broadway, four hundred dollars now is is a top price in many theaters. So that's one thing.

But another thing is accessibility. In fact, it's much harder to get some of the - to get into some of the popular culture and sporting events than it is to get tickets for cultural events. And it's much more exclusive. In Los Angeles, two of our top venues are the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which has become a very famous building where the LA Philharmonic performs, and the STAPLES Center, which is where we have, you know, many sporting events, including the - where the Lakers play. And at the STAPLES Center, they have sky boxes, they have private entrances, they're very exclusive, they have private food services, everything is special for these people, and I kind of compare that to the Royal Boxes in Old European opera houses.

Where at the Disney Hall, everybody is equal. It was designed to, sort of, the living room of Los Angeles. There are no special seats. Many people's favorite seats are the seats behind the stage where you can watch the conductor, and those are fifteen dollars that go on sale two weeks before the concerts. But we're all in these little areas together in the hall and everybody is equal.

NEARY: We are talking with Los Angeles Times Music Critic Mark Swed about the term "elitism" and what it means to be elite. And you are listening to Talk of The Nation from NPR News. And we're going to take a call now from Jeff, and he's calling from Greenbrier(ph). Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

JEFF: Well, you know, I hear the term "elite" bandied about largely, unfortunately, in Republican circles, against presidential candidates. Of course, very well known that Kerry was an elitist, and this is a big problem. The same thing, central efforts have been made to paint Obama and Michelle Obama, as well, as being elitists, as though this is a bad thing.

As a student of history, our country was founded by an elite. As an elector, we should strive to elect people who are elite. We've had eight years now of a president who is decidedly non-elite, but is it very useful to try to have a president who is a demagogue? I mean, is this something that we're aiming for in government? Or there was someone who is capable of making the sort of tough decision that we ourselves may find difficult to make? Because this is the whole emphasis, isn't it?

NEARY: OK, thanks for your call, Jeff. Let me ask our guest, Mark Swed. You know, I can't help but think I know that you've probably thought this from the perspective of a classical music reviewer, but obviously, as our caller just pointed out, this has been - the term "elite" has been alive in our political life recently, as well.

Mr. SWED: It has, and actually, that is one of the things that inspired me to write the view. I didn't write it about politics because again, it is completely misused in the public discussion. You know, nobody is more elite in this country than a senator. So any - you know, our candidates, the main candidates who have been running for office are among the most elite people: our governors, our senators, or, I mean, anybody who makes it to becoming an important political candidate in this country is among the elite, whatever they want to call themselves. These are the elite of the elite. So it becomes - it's ludicrous for us to be talking about, you know, who is elitist and who is not elitist in an election...

NEARY: Well, I was thinking that as he was...

Mr. SWED: Who are the elite.

NEARY: Right. And I was thinking that as that last caller was talking about George W. Bush, President Bush, because, of course, he comes from a very elitist background, as well. Very wealthy background, the best schools, you know...

Mr. SWED: Exactly.

NEARY: What we think of as an elitist background.

Mr. SWED: He's from a political dynasty. And both, you know, Barack Obama and John McCain are among the very top elite of this country, so I don't think that that's a term that's of any value whatsoever...

NEARY: We just - we just...

Mr. SWED: In the discussion of a campaign.

NEARY: It's just overused and misused, you're saying.

Mr. SWED: Exactly.

NEARY: What about the word - what about the term of "populist"?

Mr. SWED: Again, well, because it's used as the (unintelligible) to "elitism," it becomes kind of meaningless, too. And these all become - they all become, sort of, a form of empty rhetoric, it seems to me. And you know, it's just they become ways of labeling people, usually in - and usually used in some sort of negative term. It's not that somebody is a populist. It's that they're not a populist.

NEARY: All right. We've got another caller now. We're going to go to Mimi(ph), and Mimi is in Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, Mimi.

MIMI (caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

MIMI: Yeah. I just actually - I heard a little bit of what the other caller said and what you were saying about the politicians, the fact that they're all elite, then they're pointing fingers at each other to get the image that one of them is less elite, is not elite. Just like the other caller said, well, you know, Bush isn't elite, you know, but then he is. He is the elite of the elite. Yet somehow, the media is allowing for people - for him to paint himself as a cowboy, blue-collar type of person and then allowing for people to paint others as being people who've always had a silver spoon in their mouth. And it's very interesting how this word is used and allowed to be used so that it doesn't, like the gentleman here was saying, doesn't really have any meaning because it's just used to get soundbites and that type of thing.

NEARY: What about with regard to popular culture, Mimi, because as we pointed out, Mark Swed is a music critic for the LA Times covering classical music. Do you think of classical music as being elite?

MIMI: You know, it's interesting, because I played classical music growing up, actually. I played the piano, and we were, you know, a poor family, and so I didn't actually grow up thinking of classical music as elite. I guess the - maybe the sense that you had to get dressed up to go to the symphony or something like that, but I would agree that today, there is an attitude that maybe pop culture and (unintelligible) is a popular pop music, R&B music seems much more salt of the earth.

But in truth, it probably costs more money to go to a hip-hop concert. It certainly costs more money in clothing because people pay a lot of money just to get the clothes together to go to these concerts. And then there are so few people at the top, and a lot of the genres, if you're not, you know, Jay-z or someone like that, you're not in there...

NEARY: Right.

MIMI: I imagine that...

NEARY: Mimi, I'm going to have to go. Thank you so much for your call. Thanks so much for calling. And thanks again to Mark Swed, who is the music critic for the LA Times, for bringing this discussion. It was good talking to you, Mark.

Mr. SWED: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

NEARY: You're welcome. This is Talk of The Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from