Rock Music and Progressive Emotiology
Awhile back, powerline published an excerpt from an article by Edward Azlant on the ideology of rock, entitled Who stole the Rollin' Stone? In it, Azlant writes that
“Rock and roll lyrics may stray anywhere, but they are everywhere soaked in adolescent rebellion and the quest for identity. The bigger question is: where does all this come from, what are the roots of rock and roll and how did it develop?”
He points out the truism that rock music “derives from the blues, from the Delta through Chicago; from gospel, through R&B; and from hillbilly music through country and western. The various contributions of the key figures and precise mixes of these elements constitute the enormous library of rock history, but there is little dispute that these are the basic ingredients.” But these forms of music are hardly adolescent, much less politically "progressive" in content. Rather, they are adult music with adult concerns.
As I have noted in the past, what makes the diverse forms of American roots music so great is that no one invented them. Rather, it is as if they emerged spontaneously from the earth, making their appearance in various human communities. The way I think of it, just as there are “celestial revelations” in the form of various authentic scriptures that have been vouchsafed to mankind, there are “earthly revelations” that emerge from the body and from our collective experience--not our ideological experience, but out of a much more primordial, archetypal matrix of universal human experience: man-woman relations, the clash between reality and our unlimited desires, and just the toil and trouble of day to day life. Roots music is very much existential, not ideological. And it is anything but politically correct.
Rather than thinking of the blues as an exclusively African American idiom, you might say that each American community developed its own form of the blues. Early country or "hillbilly" music is structurally and lyrically no different than the blues. Likewise, there is a more sophisticated form of blues that emerged when blacks migrated north to the big cities, reflecting a new urban sensibility instead of a rural one. I would even suggest that something like doo wop, the early form of a cappella rock that emerged from the streets of New York, was just another spontaneous form of blues reflecting its time and place.
Azlant notes that the ingredients of rock music “are all deeply rooted, traditional folk materials. Gospel is spiritual music; soul means the presence of belief and inspiration. To listen to The Soul Stirrers or the Dixie Hummingbirds, who would contribute basic elements and lead singers to R&B, is to listen to black fundamentalist Christian music. Country music is but a couple heartbeats from the old Celtic lyric and instrumental traditions that were preserved in America’s back country. To listen to C&W music is to listen to the Scots-Irish mountain music the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers reworked and recorded. The Blues, while evolving from field hollers and work songs and containing the pain of servitude, derives much of its furious beauty through the tangled duplicities, angry melodramas, and tragic endings of the ancient war between men and women....”
However, “there is little in rock’s early ancestry to support a ‘progressive’ sensibility, hardly a sliver of grand historical perspective, little mention of a benevolent natural world, nary a social heaven on earth.” There is no Marxism, feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, or queer theory in any of the tributaries that contribute to rock music.
The question is, “How does all this get so turned around, appropriated?” How and why did rock music get hijacked by moonbats? Unfortunately, Azlant’s article has yet to appear in its entirety, so I can only speculate.
One factor that readily comes to mind is the emotionality of rock music. There is no correlation whatsoever between musical virtuosity and rock & roll greatness. Bad, even unlistenable, rock music is routinely produced by highly schooled musicians (e.g., "progressive rock"), while most of the greatest rock music was produced by musical primitives--Elvis, John Lennon, John Fogerty, The Clash, Keith Richards. Likewise, lack of complexity is no barrier to producing transcendent rock music. Most of the greatest songs--say, Gloria, by Them--probably have only three chords, and some--like Eight Miles High, by the Byrds, or Tomorrow Never Knows, by the Beatles--have only one.
Therefore, since contemporary liberalism is largely rooted in feelings rather than the intellect, rock music emerges as its ideal medium. What could be easier than affixing a simplistic and primitive political message to a simplistic and primitive musical vehicle?
Still, it can get awfully tedious. I am a somewhat serious collector and amateur scholar of pop music trivia, and one of the most annoying aspects of this is wading through liner notes that routinely contain obnoxious and gratuitous political asides. For example, just a couple of days ago I picked up an otherwise outstanding compilation of R.E.M.’s early work on the independent IRS label between 1982 and 1987, long before they became such insufferable musical and political loads. I think this string of early albums is among the finest body of work produced by anyone in the annals of rock.
But the portentous and vacuous (yes, it is possible to be both) liner notes by rock critic Anthony DeCurtis are torture. To place the music in context, he writes that “the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 had marked a seismic shift in the political consciousness of the U.S. Compassion, community and the utopian dreams of the Sixties were out.” Yes, this awful reality had been foreshadowed by “the murder of John Lennon in December of 1980,” which “seemed a frightening premonition of the harsh, unforgiving world being born.”
Yeah, right. It's bad enough to get murdered by a psychotic nut, but Lennon had to go and get killed by someone who, for moonbats, represented a frightening symbol of Ronald Reagan. Talk about lack of perspective. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, “progressivism is deeply ahistorical, for it merely examines the now, pronounces that it does not like the now, and proposes radical policies to change the character of the now.” Can anyone with a shred of historical awareness even compare the world of the 1980’s to the harsh and unforgiving world reflected in early blues and country music of the 1940s? Whose fault was that? FDR?
But all was not lost with the ascendancy of Reaganism: “Suddenly, but in a quiet way, R.E.M. suggested a smarter, sweeter, more generous alternative.” This is such a pathetic analysis. I mean, back then I was as much an anti-Reagan moonbat as anyone else, but it never occurred to me that I enjoyed the music of R.E.M. because they were a “sweet alternative” to Ronald Reagan--or that Reagan was a "harsh alternative" to R.E.Mism, for that matter. Rather, I liked them because they were good. They were probably the best band to emerge from that decade, and I knew at once that their music--like all true art--had a universal and transcendent value, not some sort of time bound, ideological value. The latter type of didactic art is almost always disposable--think “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. But if you listen to those early R.E.M. albums, they do not belong to any distinct time or place. They are very ambiguous, mysterious, and dreamlike, which is a big part of their charm.
And in fact, their fourth and fifth albums began to suffer because of the increasing politicization of band. (You can definitely say that the quality decreased as Michael Stipes' previously mysterious lyrics became increasingly intelligible.) Naturally, the morally preening left always describes the descent into mooonbattery in a self-congratulatory way, as an ascent into higher consciousness, “political awareness," or "social responsibility." Not coincidentally, this “ascent” marked the beginning of the slow descent of the music into pandering, mass-market arena rock. DeCurtis calls it their “sharpened political sensibility”: “By the mid-Eighties, Reaganism was in full swing," and Stipe, in particular, became determined to “summon a new generation to activist ideals" and "indict the failures of that ideology.” What failures would those be? Oh, for example, “environmental and Native American issues."
Again, the pretentiousness and lack of historical perspective are stunning. Blaming Reagan for “Native American issues?” What, they had no issues before Reagan became president? Ironically, primitive Native Americans most certainly had some serious environmental issues of their own, as they had no word for “environment,” much less “environmentalism,” and simply despoiled whatever environment they happened to inhabit before moving on the the next pristine campsite. And why no indictment of communism for producing Chernobyl? For that matter, why no indictment of Jimmy Carter's harsh and unforgiving (but progressive) economic policies, which produced a staggering 13.3% rate of inflation, usurious mortgage rates of 20%, and unemployment at 8%, not to mention a crime rate that increased 50% during the 1970’s?
Memo to Michael Stipe: the evolutionary journey from primitive kinship structures to the classical liberalism of Reagan is called “raising consciousness” or "gaining political awareness." Also known as "growing up," or "dealing with reality."
But in any event, don't let the bad liner notes and silly politics stop you from enjoying this superb music. Otherwise, it's as if the errorists have won.