Monday, November 05, 2007

Rock around the Clock

Writing in the New Criterion this month, Mark Steyn is a bit perturbed by how ubiquitous the barbarous dissonance of Bacchus and his revelers has become. Indeed, a bloodless coup seems to have taken place in the shadowy back rooms of malls and shopping markets: elevator music has fallen under the boot heels of the mellow rock and pop legions. 101 Strings has fallen into the memory hole and Cheryl Crow now sits on the throne as a benevolent dictator. Steyn: “To argue against rock and roll is now as quaintly irrelevant as arguing for the divine right of kings.”

Steyn reminds us that Allan Bloom did indeed argue against rock'n'roll exactly twenty years ago in his jeremiad The Closing of the American Mind. In perhaps the cleverest lines of his 'Music' chapter, Bloom writes “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.” Let's make that 'the IPod'. Many conservative fans of the book have been put off over the years by Bloom's salvos against rock music- nobody really wants to be the old fart yelling to no one in particular about the current generation's claptrap. Besides, rock music is everywhere now. It's often compared to a soundtrack for our lives, but it's more like the relationship between fishes and water. We can hardly move outside of it long enough to even take note of it.

Steyn sees how jarring this is for the older generation. “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.” One wonders if the New Criterion would be as quick to point out how many conservative radio talk-show hosts open their programs with blaring 60s rock music while they spit in the face of the non-establishment. But he's right that rock music is now an environmental factor in our lives. Personally, I often wonder if I'm autistic or if it really is impossible to find silent places outside of the home. You don't have to like it, but you can't stop the music. It's like the continuous loudspeaker propaganda recordings of a regime whose real message is, “Shut-up and buy.”

Not that I protest too loudly. As one who grew up in this environment, it's hard for me to see music as a field of battle. I adore Mozart and Madonna, Schubert and the Flaming Lips alike. Actually, in many cases, and I don't think Bloom ever got this, I adore them for very similar aesthetic and emotional reasons. Besides, the real reason to love any art is for the way is affects you, not because you've been guilted into it by some angry polemicist. And great art endures, thank god, while feathery pop music floats off into the past, never to be heard from again. ''Your what? brings all the who? to the what?'' So I've never understood the Blooms of the world that see 50 Cent as sounding the death knell of Western culture, while they themselves march valiantly into battle- bass beats to the right of them, booty-shaking to the right of them... Nor do I really understand those of the younger generation who insist that ''all art is equal'', and they'd really rather stick with whatever art is the least challenging and most lowering, thank you very much. Again, who can go to a buffet and eat nothing but croutons?

Twenty years ago, Allan Bloom bemoaned the fact that college students have no use for anything ennobling or sublime. Today, my colleagues and I often bitch about the fact that our students have no use for anything ennobling or sublime. Could the kids actually not be getting any worse? Steyn seems to think that we university-dwellers are all teaching the finer points of hip-hop, but observing an actual university, what I've found is that those academics teaching The Poetic Voice of P-Diddy tend to be young academics looking to prove how cool they are so as to get good student evaluations. The rest of us have proudly accepted the mantle of Sir Uncool Dork-wad, otherwise known as the lonely stewards of culture.

Besides, it could well be that the students aren't any deafer now than they were twenty years ago. Last year, a student told me of his profound discomfort at having never listened to classical music, since his teachers had always told him how wonderful it is. He truly seemed worried about this, so I recommended going to see Taffelmusik perform in Toronto. But I've seen this before in students- a sort of nagging sense that life in the contemporary environment might, for all of its oppressive 'fun', actually be somewhat empty and meaningless. This ache is what college is for, of course. Instead of sounding the refrain that the kids are getting dumber, I'd like to suggest that this nagging sense is really a mental health condition that we in the humanities exist to treat. In fact, I'd say that this is our only real duty, but that it's one of the most important ones in my life.

Another Sky.

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