We are all rockers now. National Review publishes its own chart of the Fifty Greatest Conservative Rock Songs, notwithstanding that most of the honorees are horrified to find themselves on such a hit parade.  The National Review countdown of the All-Time Hot 100 Conservative Gangsta Rap Tracks can’t be far away. Even right-wingers want to get with the beat and no-one wants to look like the wallflower who can’t get a chick to dance with him. To argue against rock and roll is now as quaintly irrelevant as arguing for the divine right of kings. It was twenty years ago today, sang the Beatles forty years ago today, that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. Well, it was twenty years ago today—1987—that Professor Bloom taught us the band had nothing to say.

I don’t really like the expression “popular culture.” It’s just “culture” now: there is no other. “High culture” is high mainly in the sense we keep it in the attic and dust it off and bring it downstairs every now and then. But don’t worry, not too often. “Classical music,” wrote Bloom, “is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archaeology. Thirty years ago [i.e., now fifty years ago], most middle-class families made some of the old European music a part of the home, partly because they liked it, partly because they thought it was good for the kids.” Not anymore. If you’d switched on TV at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 you’d have seen President and Mrs. Clinton and the massed ranks of American dignitaries ushering in the so-called new millennium to the strains of Tom Jones singing “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour/ That’s when my love comes tumblin’ down.” Say what you like about JFK, but at least Mrs. Kennedy would have booked a cellist.

“Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.

So the “Music” chapter is the most difficult one for young fans of The Closing Of The American Mind—because it’s the point at which you realize just how much Allan Bloom means it. And by “young fans,” I mean anyone under the age of Mick Jagger, who features heavily in that section. A couple of years ago, Sir Mick—as he now is—spent an agreeable hour being interviewed by a pleasant lady he’d carelessly assumed had been dispatched by one of the hip young magazines surfing the cutting edge of the zeitgeist. He was furious to discover subsequently that she was an emissary from Saga, the magazine for British seniors. They put him on the cover as the Pensioner of the Month, and he wasn’t happy about it, although one could see their point: When you think about it, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” makes a much better anthem for seniors than it ever did for rebellious youth. He should be grateful they didn’t send their medical correspondent: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” “Well, it’s a common problem at your age. But the good news is that often it’s just psychological.” Twenty years on from Allan Bloom, this is the triumph of rock’s pseudo-revolution: elderly “street-fighting men” with knighthoods—Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Bob Geldof, Sir Bono.

For Bloom to write his chapter on “Music” seems to many of us braver than attacking the 1960s or the race hucksters or his various other targets. No-one wants to be Mister Squaresville. And it’s interesting to see the reaction it gets from readers. Told by Bloom that they know nothing about Brahms or Mozart, they respond that he knows nothing about . . . well, whomsoever they happen to dig. They point out that his chapter is full of generalities: “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.” Etc. Turning teacher on the professor, they demand that the assertions be bolstered by examples, by specifics, by an understanding of the difference between the lyrics of, say, Bob Dylan and Britney Spears.

But Bloom is writing about rock music the way someone from the pre-rock generation experiences it. You’ve no interest in the stuff, you don’t buy the albums, you don’t tune to the radio stations, you would never knowingly seek out a rock and roll experience—and yet it’s all around you. You go to buy some socks, and it’s playing in the store. You get on the red eye to Heathrow, and they pump it into the cabin before you take off. I was filling up at a gas station the other day and I noticed that outside, at the pump, they now pipe pop music at you. This is one of the most constant forms of cultural dislocation anybody of the pre-Bloom generation faces: Most of us have prejudices: we may not like ballet or golf, but we don’t have to worry about going to the deli and ordering a ham on rye while some ninny in tights prances around us or a fellow in plus-fours tries to chip it out of the rough behind the salad bar. Yet, in the course of a day, any number of non-rock-related transactions are accompanied by rock music. I was at the airport last week, sitting at the gate, and over the transom some woman was singing about having two lovers and being very happy about it. And we all sat there as if it’s perfectly routine. To the pre-Bloom generation, it’s very weird—though, as he notes, “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.” Whether or not rock music is the soundtrack for the age that its more ambitious proponents tout it as, it’s a literal soundtrack: it’s like being in a movie with a really bad score. So Bloom’s not here to weigh the merit of the Beatles vs. Pink Floyd vs. Madonna vs. Niggaz with Attitude vs. Eminem vs. Green Day. They come and go, and there is no more dated sentence in Bloom’s book than the one where he gets specific and wonders whether Michael Jackson, Prince, or Boy George will take the place of Mick Jagger. But he’s not doing album reviews, he’s pondering the state of an entire society with a rock aesthetic.

That’s another reason I don’t like the term “popular culture”—because hardly any individual examples of popular culture are that popular. I don’t mean that whatever the current Number One single is this week will sell far fewer copies than the Number Ones of the 1940s, but in the sense that a gangsta rapper is not as popular as Puccini was ninety years ago, or Franz Lehár a century ago, or Offenbach. Popular culture has dwindled down to a bunch of mutually hostile unpopular popular cultures. The only thing about it that’s universally popular is its overall undemanding aesthetic.

So Bloom is less concerned with music criticism than with what happens when a society’s incidental music becomes its manifesto. The key to what’s happened is in the famous first sentence of the book. “There is,” writes the author, “one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” To quote the African dictator in a Tom Stoppard play, a relatively free press is a free press run by one of my relatives. A relative culture ends up ever shorter of any relatives to relate to. In educational theory, it’s not about culture vs. “counter-culture” but rather what I once called lunch-counterculture: It’s all lined up for you and you pick what you want. It’s the display case of rotating pies at the diner: one day the student might pick Milton, the next Bob Dylan. But, if Milton and Bob Dylan are equally “valid,” equally worthy of study, then Bob Dylan will be studied and Milton will languish. And so it’s proved, most exhaustively, in music.

Recently, I was sent a clipping from Newsweek’s 1964 cover story on the arrival in America of the Beatles:

Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.

There was nothing unusual about those sentiments in 1964. As Bryce Zadel of the Instant History website put it, “The Beatles generation became so mainstream that nobody can imagine that people felt that way, but Newsweek wasn’t just being stuffy, they were representing the overwhelming feelings of the vast majority of people over, say, twenty.” Including some quite cool people over twenty. That same year, in the film of Goldfinger, James Bond compares drinking unchilled champagne to listening to the Beatles without earmuffs. Nobody at Newsweek would be so confidently dismissive of any pop culture figure on the way up today. Compare and contrast that analysis with this MTV show more or less exactly forty years later—2004. The interviewer asks his guest: “Well, we know that you were into rock and roll when you were in high school, and we know that you play the guitar now. Are there any trends out there in music, or even in popular culture in general, that have piqued your interest?”

And the guest—presidential candidate John Kerry—replied: “Oh sure. I follow and I’m interested. I’m fascinated by rap and by hip-hop. I think there’s a lot of poetry in it. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of social energy in it. And I think you’d better listen to it pretty carefully, ’cause it’s important. I’m still listening because I know that it’s a reflection of the street and it’s a reflection of life.”

Really? John Kerry is “fascinated” by rap and “listening” to hip-hop? Think if you broke into the Kerry household and riffled through John and Teresa’s CD collection you’d find a single rap album? I didn’t mind Senator Kerry when he was being mocked as a flip-flopper, but I find him even less plausible as America’s first flip-flopper hip-hopper. You can smell the fear in his answer.

And consider his recitation of rap’s virtues: there’s “a lot of anger, a lot of social energy . . . it’s a reflection of the street.” That’s something else that happens in a relativist culture. First, if Tupac Shakur is just as good as Milton, then everybody drops Milton. Then comes the second stage: once Milton’s dropped, and Bach and Keats and Mozart, you no longer have a very clear idea of who exactly Tupac Shakur is meant to be as good as. It’s not comparative anymore: he’s all there is. The argument is that, oh, well, you uptight squares are always objecting to stuff: you thought Sinatra exciting bobbysoxers was dangerous, and the Viennese waltz was the mating dance of a hypersexualized culture. No. Benny Goodman, noted by Bloom, was a huge pop star but he could play the Mozart clarinet concerto. Popular culture used to be very at ease with the inheritance of the past. One of the trends of the last forty years is not just the vanishing of “high culture” but of low-culture jokes about high culture—the variety-show sketches in which Schubert’s mates urge him to come down the pub with him and he says “No, I’ve got to stay in and finish my symphony.” It assumes a residual familiarity—from some half-recalled school lesson—with a bloke called Schubert who wrote an “Unfinished Symphony.”

Likewise, P. G. Wodehouse is stuffed with literary and classical and Biblical allusions: “He conveyed to young Mr. Rastall-Retford the impression that, in the dear old ’Varsity days, they had shared each other’s joys and sorrows, and, generally, had made Damon and Pythias look like a pair of cross-talk knockabouts at one of the rowdier music-halls.” Wodehouse assumes you know who Damon and Pythias are: They were best pals back in the fourth century BC. Ran into a spot of bother with Dionysius of Syracuse. You could junk Damon and Pythias and replace them with Damon and Affleck—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck: They’re also best pals, they make movies together. But eventually you dwindle down to a present-tense culture unable to refer to anything beyond itself. You can make the argument that, say, Jerome Kern, the first great Broadway composer of the twentieth century, is at his best as harmonically sophisticated as Schubert. But to do that you would first have to know something about Schubert. I think it’s harder to make the claim to harmonic sophistication in the Beatles, but William Mann, the music critic of The Times of London, gave it a go in 1963, comparing the Aeolian cadence in “Not A Second Time” with the end of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth.” But, as I said, to do that you have to know about Mahler.

And once Mahler’s gone and Schubert’s gone, you can no longer make musical claims for rock and rap, so all you do is hail it for its authenticity and its energy and, as John Kerry did, its copious amounts of “anger.” Thus, the loss of a high-culture aesthetic eventually undermines your pop culture, too. Imagine if talking pictures hadn’t been invented in 1927, but eighty years later, in 2007. Do you think Hollywood studios today would conclude that they needed to hire house composers and full orchestras to accompany the drama with symphonic scores? Something we take for granted about the form of modern talking pictures—dialogue accompanied by orchestral music—arose from a particular kind of cultural aspiration that no longer exists. Allan Bloom quotes Gotthold Lessing on Greek sculpture: “Beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” “This formula,” writes Bloom, “encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. Young men and women were attracted by the beauty of heroes whose very bodies expressed their nobility. The deeper understanding of the meaning of nobility comes later, but is prepared for by the sensuous experience and is actually contained in it.”

What happens when, instead of beautiful men making beautiful statues, angry men make angry songs? “Keepin’ it real,” in the current black vernacular, means the rapper Nelly making a video in which he swipes a credit card through his ho’s butt. “Keepin’ it real” means songs in which men are “angry” (as John Kerry says) and violent and nihilistic, and women are “sluts, bobbing chicken heads, and of course bitches.” “Authenticity” is surely a more reductive view of the black experience than your average nineteenth-century minstrel show ever attempted. I think we can guess how Nat “King” Cole would have felt about gangsta rap. Duke Ellington has more in common with Ravel than with Snoop Dogg. Scott Joplin had far more reason to be “angry” than any hip-hopper but he didn’t put it in the music. To eliminate a century and a half’s tradition of beauty and grace from your identity isn’t “keepin’ it real,” it’s keepin’ it unreal in deeply unhealthy ways.

Rap is, of course, an outlier, as the statisticians say, but it illustrates what happens when pop culture becomes unmoored from its inheritance, and can only justify itself in social terms. Bloom distills rock lyrics into three dominant themes: “sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love.” First the sex: “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, conflictless, universal society that necessarily results from liberated consciousness—‘We Are The World.’”

The music biz have been humbug revolutionaries ever since 1955 when Bill Haley and Elvis put them in the permanent-revolution business. The kids tore up movie seats to “Rock Around the Clock,” even though its composer wrote it as a foxtrot, and its lyricist was born in 1890. When Max Freedman was a rebellious teenager, the big hits were “The Merry Widow Waltz,” Kipling’s “Road To Mandalay,” and “When A Fellow’s On The Level With A Girl That’s On The Square.” And, unlike most revolutions, the regime itself—in the shape of RCA, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and the other corporate entities that dominate the business to this day—proved far wilier survivors than Louis XVI. They’ve made a very nice living out of ersatz revolution.

Well, they’re the suits in the back room. What of the revolutionaries themselves? The last time I saw Paul McCartney on stage he was urging us all to give our money to Africa. Yet I found myself thinking of Sir Paul’s late wife. Linda McCartney had been a resident of the United Kingdom for three decades, but her Manhattan tax lawyers, Winthrop Stimson Putnam & Roberts, devoted considerable energy in her final months to establishing her right to have her estate probated in New York state. That way she could avoid the 40 percent death duties levied by Her Majesty’s Government.

At the Live8 extravaganza in London two years ago, Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd said: “I want to do everything I can to persuade the G8 leaders to make huge commitments to the relief of poverty and increased aid to the Third World. It’s crazy that America gives such a paltry percentage of its GNP to the starving nations.”

No, it’s not. It’s no more crazy than Linda McCartney giving such a paltry percentage of her estate—i.e., 0 percent—to the British Treasury. Africa is a hard place to help. Madonna urged the people to “start a revolution.” Like Africa hasn’t had enough of those these past forty years? The rockers demand we give our money to African dictators to manage, while they give their money to Winthrop Stimson Putnam & Roberts to manage. Which of those models makes more sense?

That’s the impact of a pop-culture aesthetic: The revolutionary principles Warner and Sony and BMG pay mere lip service to as a necessary façade for maintaining market share have been taken up for real by the rest of us. Recall Bloom’s list of what he calls “the three great lyrical themes: sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love.” That’s not a critique of pop music but of society as a whole. First, sex: The narcissism and self-gratification of adolescent romance—the “slavery to self,” as Professor Robert P. George called it, that Bloom asks us to rise above—is now presumed to be the only basis of true fulfillment in the modern world. Then, hate: the bogus “social reform” that’s little more than a bit of cover for trashing the past. And finally, the “smarmy, hypocritical brotherly love,” the sappy one-worldism in which we sing songs about global brotherhood in order to avoid having to give a thought to the world.

This is the heart of the Bloom critique that “such polluted sources issue in a muddy stream where only monsters can swim. It is of historic proportions that a society’s best young and their best energies should be so occupied. People of future civilizations will wonder at this and find it as incomprehensible as we do the caste system, witch-burning, harems, cannibalism and gladiatorial combats.” Confronted by these sentiments, many young readers just shrug: The old man doesn’t get it. Not his fault. He’s just old. In a way, their reaction or lack of it vindicates his final point: “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.” He’s mouthing away but they can’t hear. Like Britney when the lip-synching goes awry.

And most of us of Sir Mick Jagger’s age and younger don’t want to hear, either. To be sure, this or that gangsta rapper is a bit much, and Britney’s a sad old slapper, and Madonna’s a clapped-out provocateur, but what’s wrong with a bit of rock and roll? Nothing. Except that, when it’s ubiquitous, it’s stunting. Paul Simon and I once had a longish conversation about this and eventually he conceded that even the best rockers had nevertheless been unable to develop beyond a very basic harmonic language: There isn’t enough there to teach in a “music” course. But what else is left? The old middle-brow middle-class couples who subscribed to the symphony every season and dutifully sat there through Beethoven, Bartók, Brahms, and Bernstein are all but extinct, and pitied for their inability to cut loose and boogie in the same way we feel sorry for those trapped in a loveless marriage. What a difference it would make if grade-schoolers could know just enough of a smattering of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to recognize the excellent joke “The Simpsons” makes of it. What an achievement it would be if every high-school could acquire a classical catalogue as rich as that used in Looney Tunes when Elmer Fudd goes hunting Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. Carl Stalling, who scored those cartoons, often fell back on formula: If someone was in a cave, the orchestra would play “Fingal’s Cave.” But you can’t even do that any more, because no-one gets the joke.

Shorn of the other seven-eighths of the iceberg, the present-tense culture is insufficient. At my local school in New Hampshire, the music teacher eschews the classics and teaches boomer rock, much to the bemusement of her young charges for whom forty-year-old pop songs are as remote as 400-year-old sonatas. Children are asked to pick a favorite Beatle. Why would a six-year-old have such a thing? The Fab Four split up thirty years before he was born. It’s like my old music teacher asking me to pick my favorite member of Paul Whiteman’s Yacht Club Boys.

But she never did. And that’s the biggest difference between 2007 and 1987. What Allan Bloom observed in his students can now be found in the teachers.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 3, on page 18
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now