It was only to be expected that The New York Times would fall madly in love with Rent, the “rock opera” that—with no little help from the Times itself—is turning out to be this season’s biggest and most bogus theatrical sensation. After all, any WORK THAT COMBINES ROCK MUSIC AND AIDS and drug addicts and a multiracial cast and one star who plays a lesbian performance artist AND ANOTHER WHO PLAYS AN HIV-positive transvestite sculptor is calculated to spark a lot of heavy breathing at the Times’s culture desk. Add to this a story line “updated” from Puccini’s La Bohème—but transposed to Manhattan’s Lower East Side for “realism”—and you have a mixture that is irresistible to anyone who prefers his sensationalistic trash overlaid with a few rhinestones of “culture.”
This winning combination alone would doubtless have assured the success of Rent (reviewed in these pages last month by Mark Steyn), which is now moving on to Broadway after a wildly successful opening run at a tiny off-off-off-Broadway spot. But when the thirty-five-year-old composer of Rent, Jonathan Larson, was found dead of an aortic aneurysm in January just a few days before the show was to open—well! For the Times, anyway, this personal tragedy instantly transformed the hitherto unknown Larson into an artistic martyr and Rent into a work of unquestionable genius.
So it was hardly a surprise when on Sunday March 17 the Times devoted a large proportion of its Arts & Leisure section, including most of the front page, to various tributes to Rent and its ill-fated author. Inevitably, the cultural benchmark to which Rent is compared is that compendium of 1960s fatuousness, Hair. Rent is indeed a “Hair for the 90s,” as the Times gushed—though it lacks the one really significant thing about Hair, namely its status as a novelty object. Once upon a time, nudity and obscenity on stage were shocking; now such antics are usually little more than evidence of a certain species of dramatic impotence: artistic aphrodisiacs resorted to when genuine theatrical imagination fails.
For the most part, the Times’s chorus of praise was Pavlovian in its predictableness: “one man’s vision,” “a classic tale of luck grit, ambition,” etc. But the “Classical View” column by Bernard Holland, the Times’s chief music critic, distinguished itself by surprising even us with its abject capitulation to everything trendy and meretricious in the response to Rent. Mr. Holland began by citing a recently published letter to the editor that had contrasted walking across the campus at Yale University thirty years ago—when on a sunny Saturday afternoon what wafted out from dormitory windows were the sounds of the Metropolitan Opera broadcast—with the situation today when virtually the only thing heard is rock music. The writer—correctly—deplored this development. But the chief music critic of The New York Times (whose companion at Rent, he told us, was “a bona-fide rock-and-roller”) does not consider the triumph of rock music an evil omen; on the contrary, he castigated the letter-writer for being hidebound and—most egregious of sins for the politically correct—“exclusive.” Here is the key passage of his animadversion:
Classical music, having carefully developed a two-centuries-old cult of the past, now finds itself in an ambivalent position. It rightly defends a repertory of great music by dead composers, but it has become distinctly inept at handling the present. The righteous indignation of our letter writer abets the suicidal tendencies of so-called high culture. High culture places its artifacts at the peak of a mountain and proceeds to push away the ascending creative minds that are not of its direct bloodline. Art like this retains its identity as do all closed societies: by rejection.
“So-called” high culture? “Direct bloodline”? “Closed societies”? What, we wondered, could Mr. Holland be thinking of? The good opinion of his “bona-fide rock-and-roller” companion, perhaps? He certainly wasn’t thinking about the music. Indeed, he acknowledged that “from a musical point of view” he “wanted Rent to be better than it is.” (He also noted the “college-dorm patness to the show’s social politics”—that is to say, its adolescent radicalism, self-indulgence, and anti-Americanism.) But the Times’s chief music critic argued that “whether or not Rent succeeds as an opera, a musical or anything else is beside the point.” Really? What does matter, apparently, is that Rent “brims with good will,” that the “effort behind it” and its “sense of adventure” “say something serious about a sophisticated culture trying painfully to create a more inclusive art.”
A more inclusive art”? Again we have to wonder what Mr. Holland can possibly be thinking of. Someone with his long experience of classical music surely knows that few art forms have been more omnivorously inclusive than classical music, which precisely over the two-centuries he mentions has shown itself open to all manner of vernacular traditions from folk songs to jazz. What Mr. Holland cannot bring himself to admit is that rock music—which consists of little more than a handful of simplistic musical clichés repeated ad nauseam and at great volume—is really a form of anti-music. It is not the new hope for youth culture but a sign of the artistic poverty (not to say moral degeneration) of that culture. There is plenty to disagree with in Plato’s social philosophy, but he was surely correct that we can tell a great deal about the character of a society by the character of its music. What does the character of rock music—which, as Mr. Holland notes, is coming to “dominate” the world—tell us about ourselves? Mr. Holland ends by proclaiming that, as someone who has spent his life with classical music, he is “alarmed for the future of its important artifacts.” We are alarmed, too—and not least because that future is increasingly being looked after by people who, like Mr. Holland, have given up on high musical achievement and are busy cultivating its demotic caricature.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 8, on page 2
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