Almost 25 years ago, a catastrophe befell American conservatism. University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom wrote about rock and roll.
His words came in the book "The Closing of the America Mind," which was published in 1987 and became a bestseller and cultural touchstone. Most of "The Closing of the American Mind" is brilliant, a careful and poetically delightful assessment of the takeover of academia and American culture by Marxism and nihilism. Its upcoming 25th anniversary should get it a new round of attention.
Sadly, Bloom included rock and roll in his critique. In doing so, he 1) embraced Marxism, 2) failed to recognize one of the 20th century's great art forms, 3) banished conservatives to a cultural wilderness from which they have yet to emerge, and 4) made it seem like the right doesn't care about the soul.
By far my favorite passage in "Closing" is the following. It's a bit long, and I spent a couple days trying to figure out where to trim it. But that's like trying to chip a few inches off of Michelangelo's "David." I also have found that reading this passage can be a therapeutic, yogic exercise. You just say it out loud while standing at attention and facing Graceland:
Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel's Bolero is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them.
In alliance with some real art and a lot of pseudo-art, an enormous industry cultivates the taste for the orgiastic state of feeling connected with sex, providing a constant flood of fresh material for voracious appetites. Never was there an art form directed so exclusively to children.
Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family. This has a much more powerful effect than does pornography on youngsters, who have no need to watch others do grossly what they can so easily do themselves. Voyeurism is for old perverts; active sexual relations are for the young. All they need is encouragement. The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness thus becomes indignation and then transforms itself into morality. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture. And then comes the longing for the classless, prejudice-free, conflict-less, universal society that necessarily results from liberated consciousness -- "We Are the World," a pubescent version of Alle Menschen werden Brueder, the fulfillment of which has been inhibited by the political equivalents of Mom and Dad. These are the three great lyrical themes: sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love. Such polluted sources issue in a muddy stream where only monsters can swim. A glance at the videos that project images on the wall of Plato's cave since MTV took it over suffices to prove this. Hitler's image recurs frequently enough in exciting contexts to give one pause. Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such tableaux. There is room only for the intense, changing, crude and immediate, which Tocqueville warned us would be the character of democratic art, combined with a pervasiveness, importance and content beyond Tocqueville's wildest imagination.
Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
Ole! Virtually every word of it is wrong, but it was the part of "The Closing of the American Mind" that got the most attention. Robert Asahina, Bloom's editor at Simon and Schuster, shrewdly convinced Bloom to put the music chapter up front in the book, where it would get the most attention. The book became a sensation and something of holy writ for conservatives.
I was a young liberal working in a record store when "American Mind" came out, and I am now a conservative. But over that entire period of time one truth has not changed: The Beatles are not a masturbational fantasy. Neither are the Rolling Stones, or the Who, or Beyonce, or Radiohead or the Beach Boys, or the Morning Benders or Arcade Fire or the Twilight Sad.
In the last 50 years, rock and roll has become an art form in which you can sing about anything at any tempo and with any amount of passion you want. It seems to reinvent itself constantly, and some of it is indeed timeless. I submit that the song "One" by U2 will still be heard -- and considered a masterpiece -- in 500 years. Perry Como will not.
The most complete counter-argument to Bloom came in 1998. It was a lecture, reprinted in the Public Interest, by scholar Martha Bayles. Bayles knew Bloom and her critique is written with affection. It is a complex argument that involves Plato, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Romanticism and the nature of music, but for our purposes Bayles makes four salient points.
Number one: Bloom's argument about music is based in a Marxist rejection of popular art forms. Bayles uses jazz great Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul" as her example. When the song came out in 1939, it was considered junk by both left and right. "On the right, popular jazz was considered a violation of traditional musical standards committed for the basest of motives, profit, by members of two groups, blacks and Jews, who were socially if not racially inferior. On the left, such music was seen either as the shameless commercialization of a once-authentic folk music or, in the highbrow anti-Stalinist opinion of Partisan Review, as kitsch: cheap, disposable, and derivative of genuine art, which it threatened to cannibalize." Bayles notes that time has been kinder to Coleman Hawkins than to the politicos of the 1930s: "Today, Hawkins's recording of 'Body and Soul' is a classic. After being kept on jukeboxes for 20 years by the listening public, it is now studied and esteemed as both beautiful in its own right and a harbinger of the maturity of America's only original art form." Neoconservatives hate to hear it, Bayles wrote, but this rejection of pop music on the right has its roots in Marx.
The second point Bayles makes is that Allan Bloom simply misrepresented rhythm. "The beat of sexual intercourse"? Perhaps true in some cases, but the diversity of beats that have always been part of the blues, jazz, rock and roll, and pop represents different moods and situations, from melancholy to spiritual urges to simple emotions like longing and happiness. "She Loves You" is more spiritual ecstasy that masturbation. "Under My Thumb," by Bloom's hated Rolling Stones, is tender confidence. The Who's Pete Townshend has used various styles, from hard rock to pop to acoustic folk. And it goes on today: Radiohead's masterpiece "Kid A" is a work of terrible beauty which has been covered by reggae, classical and jazz musicians. As Bayles noted, African-Americans traditionally have used rhythm in their music, the music that led to rock and roll, in all kinds of celebrations and rituals, from work to lovemaking to worship. I should note here that Bayles agrees with Bloom about modern popular music. She believes that in the 1960s a "perverse modernism" made its way from the British art schools that produced Mick Jagger to the African-American blues tradition, thus culling some of the nihilism that Bloom renounces. I disagree with Bayles on this; if "Gimme Shelter" or "Ruby Tuesday" are "perverse modernism," then so is Picasso. Today, between electronic dance music, folk, hip-hop, soul and pop, you can find virtually any beat addressing any human condition.
Where Bayles is on more solid ground is the idiom shift -- and the soul and its relation to music. Citing music critic Henry Pleasants, she claims that over history the center of musical genius and innovation has been found in different parts of the world: in the Renaissance it was the Netherlands; during the Baroque era, Italy; the classical period found its home in Austria-Bohemia. And so on. Pleasants and Bayles argue that in the 20th century the center of musical genius was in black America. Just because it was popular music did not make it inferior to classical; Duke Ellington was just genius in a different form. With the Beatles, that epicenter of musical fecundity shifted again. Today popular music has a staggering array of styles, and much of it is brilliant.
And lastly, there is the soul. Bloom and Bayles both spend a lot of time examining Plato's thoughts about music expressing the "barbarous or non-rational" parts of the soul. But to Plato, music was also at the center of education -- it was useful in treating people how to channel the passions. The more beautiful the music, the better. In rejecting rock and roll, Bloom -- and the conservatives who embrace him -- reject modern music and its relation to the soul of modern man.
So, to sum up: because of Allan Bloom, for the past 25 years conservatives, at least in terms of music, have looked like Marxists who could not recognize great art and cared little about popular expressions about the state of the human soul. But hey -- we're for lower taxes.
Honestly, would Plato find "Sgt. Pepper's" barbarous?
Emily Esfahani Smith: The Corrosive Effects of Rock and Pop Culture
Over at The Weekly Standard, the brilliant Andrew Ferguson assesses the legacy of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind now that it's a quarter century old.
As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism-of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone-had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.
The crisis was--is--a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America--even Jerry Springer--had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.
"The crisis of liberal education," he wrote, "is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization."
He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were "nice." You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. "They are united only in their relativism," he wrote. "The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate."
I've been reading the book, and while there are many points that leap off the page and demand attention, the ones that particularly resonated with me were his insights about popular culture. Whereas once, reason led students to the discovery of truth, now, the popular culture imposes its truths on its young and impressionable consumers.
Here is Bloom on the pervasiveness of pop culture's most prominent medium, rock music:
Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music . . . It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alient to music. When they are in school and with their families, they are longing to plug themselves back into their music.
(That point is particularly prescient as Bloom was writing before iPods, smart phones, and other portable electronic devices became such powerful parts of the identity and image of young and old alike.)
There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels exclusively devoted to them, on the air nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place-not public transportation, not the library-prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying.
And here, on the content of rock:
Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire-not to love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children's emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.
To Bloom, "Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror." The point of education is "the taming of domestication of the soul's raw passion-not suppressing or exciting them, which would deprive the soul of its energy-but forming and informing them as art." Pop culture, to Bloom, works against education's goal of taming the soul, giving students a cheap shot of bliss at the expense of longer, lasting happiness:
Rock provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors-victory in just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religion devotion and discovery of truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits. In my experience, students who have had a serious fling with drugs-and gotten over it-find it difficult to have enthusiasms of great expectations. It is as though the color has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end, or as the end. They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life's activity to produce anything but a living, whereas liberal education is supposed to encourage the belief that the good life is the pleasant life and that the best life is the most pleasant life. I suspect that the rock addiction, particularly in the absence of strong counter-attractions, has an effect similar to that of drugs. The student will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it. But they will do so in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle-as something harsh, grim and essentially unattractive, a mere necessity. . . As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.
As a young person who loves rock/pop music-i.e., the kind of person Bloom is talking about-I agree that the affect rock music has on the young, emotionally, is generally speaking as he describes it. Rock music appeals to our rawest passions and emotions and creates a world for us that indulges those passions and emotions-like love, sex, heartbreak, anguish, angst, anger, anxiety, loss-often before we have even experienced them first hand. Not only does this create warped expectations for us when we finally do have those experiences, but it makes those experiences seem duller to us when they happen. In a way, rock music demands so much of our emotions and psychological wherewithal that it can bankrupt us of them, so that we don't have them when we actually need them. It takes the living out of life.
That said, I do think there are certain exceptions, like this song that I highlighted yesterday or these ones I wrote about in February, which harness our emotions in a more sophisticated and meaningful way than, say, the pop-rock stars that Bloom took aim at in his book, like Mick Jagger, Boy George, and Michael Jackson (today's equivalents being Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Kanye).
Along those lines, while Bloom praises classical music for appealing to the "refinements" and "spiritual satisfaction" of its listeners-he delights in introducing his students to Mozart-I wonder what his assessment of lyric-less jazz music would have been, like Miles Davis' Flamenco Sketches, which (to me) is closer in line to classical music than to rock.