This piece was published almost twenty years ago, in the Winter/Spring 1985 issue of The Hillsdale Review (under the title “True Blues: Rock, Jazz, and Conservatism”). I dug it out a few months ago after an intermittent discussion with Jesse Canterbury about rock and jazz in which we discussed among other things the different criteria by which each ought to be judged.
The world of music—not just of pop music, but of jazz and classical as well—has changed significantly since then, and when I re-read the article with an eye toward publishing it again, I considered revising it extensively. But although certain parts of it now seem dated, my views have not substantially changed and I have decided to leave the piece almost as it was published. I am not entirely confident that I am entirely correct in my observations about the history of blues, jazz, and country music, but I think they’re close enough to the facts to support my main argument. The only substantive change is the removal of some remarks about “the exhausted modernist mode” of twentieth-century classical music; the phrase now seems to me to describe a period which, happily, has passed.
Conservatism, too, has changed. The whole question of conservatives and rock music is less significant than it was in 1985, and it is no longer “hard to find a conservative who likes or understands rock-and-roll.” Well, not as hard anyway. There are now quite a few conservatives who were children when I wrote this essay and don’t seem to have any reservations at all about the style itself, although they may complain about what it preaches. But I still occasionally hear the same sort of ill-founded denigration of rock which is my topic here.
April 28, 2004
Conservatism and Popular Music
“Conservatives worship dead radicals.”
I often heard that piece of left-wing triumphalism in the 1960s, and I suppose those who said it had in mind radicals like Tom Paine. Obviously they knew nothing of the conservatism of Russell Kirk, who knows and dislikes a radical when he sees one in any age. Still, it is true that the conservative sometimes comes to cherish an innovation which he might have deplored had he been present at its birth.
Consider the question of popular music, for instance. It is hard to find a conservative who likes or understands rock-and-roll. For the most part the conservative reacts to rock with anger and disgust—a reasonable reaction, as most rock is highly toxic. Yet it seems legitimate for him to like jazz; he may play it, as Keith Bower does, or write about it for National Review, as Ralph de Toledano does, and most of his fellow conservatives find no fault with him. I hear that at one of the new conservative Catholic liberal arts colleges music for parties is supplied by a swing band.
I say that this is not a consistent or reasonable position, because jazz and rock have enough in common that whatever is objectionable in rock as such is also found in jazz. I have no quarrel with anyone who has a taste for jazz and none for rock. I allow as reasonable, while not necessarily conceding, the proposition that jazz is the superior art form. But to hold, as some conservatives seem to, that rock by its nature is evil while jazz is not is mistaken on at least one of two counts.
First, when rock is condemned as a genre there has often been a failure to make proper distinctions. The range of music which can be lumped into the category is too varied for the generalization to hold true. Those who make this mistake are as a rule simply uninformed, having heard only the garbage on the radio. When I was a teenager I thought jazz was what they played on the Lawrence Welk show.
Second, if it is argued that rock is aesthetically so perverted as to be inherently wicked, then one must disallow a great deal of jazz as well. Now, there are good reasons why much rock, especially since the mid-1960s, merits on moral grounds a condemnation which jazz does not. We will look at these shortly. But the point I want to make is that the two styles grow from the same roots, that they are as much alike as they are different, and that the truly objectionable elements of rock are not inherent in it—unless they are also inherent in jazz.
Both rock and jazz are developments of that difficult to define but easy to recognize music called “blues,” which appeared among Southern blacks late in the 19th century. For this reason they have many technical elements in common, notably the blues scale and the driving rhythms characteristic of all African-American music. It can be argued that rock is the child of jazz. This is not perfectly accurate, because there were other elements involved: the hard amplified blues of urban blacks and the country-western music of urban whites. But one stream feeding the development of what emerged as rock-and-roll in the early 1950s was the continuation in small towns and rural areas of the cruder “hot” styles which had passed out of favor in the jazz world as jazz became more and more a sophisticated and complex instrumental style. There were bands touring with county fairs in the South in those years who played what they would have called jazz but which would sound more like rock to us; it certainly did not feature the virtuoso improvisation which we now think of as being the essence of jazz. One could describe much early rock-and-roll as simply crude jazz. And there is a great deal of music which seems to fit no category: is Ray Charles a jazz, rock, or blues singer?
To state the matter in a simplified but reasonably accurate way, jazz was the encounter of blues rhythms and melodies—that is, the characteristic American black musical sensibility—with the relatively sophisticated popular music of the early 1900s: marches for brass bands, piano solos, sentimental love songs. And rock was the encounter of blues and jazz with the relatively unsophisticated music of white people recently moved from rural areas into cities after World War II, the semi-folk music (as it was at the time) which we call country or country-western.
There was one basic objection made immediately to the music resulting from each of these encounters: to put it as coolly as possible, the music was conducive to a physical excitement suggestive of sexuality. The objection in both cases was reasonable. Surely no one will maintain that peculiarly compelling rhythms are not one of the main characteristics of the music made by Africans in most places where they have encountered European music, or that these rhythms are not often used in a way which implies a very strong connection with sexuality. Even in religious music they are used to whip up an ecstatic frenzy. And blues lyrics have always treated sex in a very explicit way; many of them are about sex, and the word “jazz” was originally a verb meaning “to copulate.” The words “rock and roll” were a standard euphemism for copulation in the blues.
When jazz first began to attract the notice of the white world, public standards regarding the degree to which sex might be explicitly mentioned were, to put it mildly, very different from what they are now. Thus it was necessary that jazz lyrics be cleaned up considerably in order for the music to be accepted by middle-class audiences. The same thing was true of rock in the beginning, because society was still trying to hold the line against the sexual revolution. (The apparently nonsensical lyrics of Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti,” a song which became a hit for the bland Pat Boone, were all that remained, after censorship, of a rather vulgar song.)
Note that I say that society was, in the fifties, “trying to hold the line” against that collapse of traditional morality which is popularly called the sexual revolution. We tend to think of that revolution as a phenomenon of the sixties, but the sixties were its consummation, not its beginning. It began not long after the turn of the century. I suppose most readers of this magazine would agree in seeing it as an aspect of the general deterioration of respect for Western religious traditions. I want to make here only the observation that to blame the decline on the corrupting influence of popular entertainment is partially justified but insufficient. Popular entertainment is as much a mirror as a window; had we not been willing to be corrupted, we would not have tolerated the advertisements for immorality which music, films, and novels have presented to us since fairly early the in the 1900s.
Nevertheless, one can hardly claim that the entertainment is harmless. And the popular music of the twenties, thirties, and forties was as blameworthy as anything else: of necessity it resorted to euphemism and leers when speaking of sex, but its themes of sex and “romance,” which was often only a sentimentalization of sex, were corrosive of the idea of sexual restraint.
White radicals always understood this and felt black music to be a useful tool of assault, both morally and aesthetically, against the European tradition, praising in it exactly the same things which traditionalists like Chesterton and Weaver condemned. But the practitioners of jazz for the most part did not see themselves in the way that their radical admirers did. They were simply playing the kind of music they liked. If their private lives were often disreputable that was a matter to be hidden, not advertised as being a superior way of life. And now we come to one of the reasons why so much of rock really does merit a condemnation which jazz does not.
The early rock-and-rollers were as innocent as most jazz musicians, in the sense that they had no designs upon society and intended no message other than a sort of cheerful hedonism to be conveyed by their music. But in the 1960s, as we all know, something drastic happened to rock-and-roll. The rebels of the baby-boom generation, who had grown up listening to rock, made it their voice of alienation. This was not altogether a bad thing, as the alienation was not altogether a bad thing. Flannery O’Connor said of the beatniks that at least they knew what to run away from. (And let us note in passing that a consciously radical movement also appeared in jazz, but its anarchic music had little popular appeal.)
The wave of innovation which swept over pop music in the sixties introduced into the music topics of more import than teen-age love, constituting the first step toward transforming rock into an adult music. Nevertheless, I don’t suppose my readers need to be persuaded that the bohemianism of the sixties had its very dark side, which showed itself most blatantly as an obsession with drugs and sex. In the twenty or so years which have passed since the first appearance of rock glorifying these amusements, the music produced in this vein has become steadily more offensive. I would not hesitate to say that eighty or ninety percent of the rock being played today is evil in effect and much of it in intention, so I have no argument with the conservative who has been listening to the radio or watching rock videos and condemns most of what he has heard and seen. Some of the music is like television and other popular entertainment, probably not greatly harmful except as a steady diet. But much of it glorifies a greedy and brutal sexual lust which seems devoid even of honest pleasure. In particular there is a sort of sub-genre known as heavy metal which often claims to be, and leaves one no reason to doubt that it is, Satanic in origin.
And yet I still defend rock. Any adult rock fan can tell you that there is hardly ever anything worth hearing on the radio (except in big cities where there are specialty FM stations). There is rock music whose energy is not evil in origin, which has as much intelligence as it does vitality (well, almost as much) and which is musically very rewarding if you accept the style as such. That “if” is crucial. I have insisted upon the similarities of rock and jazz; now I will note some important differences.
Jazz fans typically fault rock for its technical simplicity. They miss the point. Simplicity is part of the style, and anyone who can’t enjoy an unaccompanied English ballad with twenty-five musically identical verses, a three-chord Carter Family lament, or a Muddy Waters blues is not going to enjoy rock (or is going to enjoy it for the wrong reasons, mainly that it is powerful). A decent jazz musician has a command of his instrument rarely attained by even highly accomplished rock players. But rock is not a purely musical form. Like the blues and country music to which much of it remains very close in spirit, rock requires words. It is entirely based on the idea of the song, of words set to music, whereas in jazz (at least since the fifties) a song is a theme and a set of chord changes upon which to build variations. Furthermore, a good rock song is based on relatively simple musical structures which do not stand alone very well. Long instrumental passages, whether improvised or arranged, are simply not part of the style at its best. Most rock musicians who are good at this sort of thing drift into jazz. If they keep playing rock they often produce bad music, technically still inferior to jazz but ruined as rock by its pretensions.
Rock is not a folk music. In fact a great deal of it is manufactured by the same “entertainment industry” which sells us movies and television shows. But it has folk roots and can best be understood by a comparison to folk music. The typical rock musician is more or less self-taught and starts off by copying what he hears on records. The simplicity of the style makes it possible for him to produce creditable results without the extremely long apprenticeship required for classical music, which anyway has as an explicit goal that the instrumentalist (except for a very few very gifted soloists) should be a passive instrument for composers and conductors. If he inclines to composition, he will enter a musical culture that prizes innovation, eccentricity, and complexity far more than ordinary musical appeal, and will find many obstacles in the way of his music being heard at all. But the rock musician in his naiveté is free to return to the simple eternal elements of music. For this reason, if for no other, the conservative ought not to despise him.
Understand that I do not exalt the primitive. I make no false opposition of technique to emotion, nor do I claim that some writer of catchy pop songs is our Mozart. I wish there were a Beethoven or a Shakespeare around who could turn the raw material of life in our time into art worthy of those two names. But there isn’t, and nowadays many of our trained artists are so contemptuous of their audiences and so bent upon novelty at any price that they have abandoned large areas of human concern as matter for their art. Some of the unsophisticated artists who rush in to fill this vacuum are gifted and inventive, and a rock musician who is not a mere hack may strike nearer to the heart of his people than a poet who despises meaning or a composer who despises melody.
A typical conservative reaction to rock is that expressed by Chilton Williamson in a recent National Review column, where he called it a “clangorous orgy of robotic copulations.” Mr. Williamson, however, unlike many who share his opinion, also condemns jazz (mainly for having spawned rock). He then goes on to recommend, among others, Wagner as more suitable. I was a little surprised at this, as Wagner seems thoroughly decadent to me, nor could one ask for a better instance of conservative admiration of a dead radical.
I say that if one wishes to avoid the gratuitous excitement of questionable emotions in music one must go back at least to Mozart and possibly much further. I own that a part of me always inclines to the opinion of a character in a short story by John Anthony West who scolds his girlfriend with the words “How many times must I tell you that there hasn’t been any music written since Scarlatti?” I resist that inclination and stand with the editors of this magazine, who in their introduction to our Fifth Anniversary Issue argued that “our humanism should look with openness to the challenge of the modern, secular world.” That means neither uncritical acceptance or rejection, but attentive discrimination. I hold that this discrimination has not been practiced by most conservatives in the case of popular music. In this age, so dehumanizing in so many ways, the human spirit finds odd and often flawed ways of making known its resistance. The best rock music is one of those ways: not a music for the ages, it nevertheless has its very fine moments, and he who rejects it out of hand is so much the loser.