Try to identify the source of the following quotation:
I'm frustrated by what I hear [in popular music]. Maybe it's not meant for me. Personally, I'm way too bright for a lot of the hip-hop lyrics to affect. I'm much too smart to think that jewelry or how cool I am is really going to change much about my personality. If you're dumb enough that it entertains you, have a great time. But I am seeking more than that.
Bill Bennett? Michael Medved? Actually it's Tom Petty, the craggy middle-aged rock musician, interviewed in Rolling Stone last Fall. Petty is barking mad these days. He thinks most radio stinks and pop music is terrible, too often delivered by pubescent girls made up to look like street walkers. "It's disgusting," Petty grunts. "It's not just pop music, it's fashion, it's TV, it's advertising, it's every element of our culture. Young women are not being respected, children aren't being respected. Why are we creating a country of child molesters? Could it be that we're dressing up nine-year-old women to look sexy?"
Because God loves irony so much, Petty's words appeared the very same issue that featured a bare-naked Christina Aguilera on the cover. Not long ago, Aguilera was a teen pop singer who worked for Disney. These days she's trying to maintain her position in rock's pecking order by defining herself down.
Petty's words reflect something that I've been anticipating for quite some time a conservative reclamation of popular music. Since the 1960s, the countercultural Left has had a stranglehold on pop musicor rather, a stranglehold on the conception of what popular music is supposed to be about. For almost 40 years now, we've been told constantly that "It's all about rebellion," despite the fact that the music of the Beatles and Elvis had more in common with swing and Tin Pan Alley than punk and rap. But, no, the received wisdom is that pop is about annoying parents, clearing rooms, and, of course, sex.
In fact, music is about sound. This accounts for how conservatives can dance their stiff butts off to a song whose lyrics may be calling for a jihad against Mother Theresa, and liberals, even if only in private, can enjoy supposedly lightweight teen pop music. (Liberals often refer to good, catchy pop songs as a "guilty pleasure," thus exonerating themselves from an irony-free appreciation of a decent melody.) The lyrics are not that important to a song. What moves the soul is the sound, the ability of the sonics and certain chords to elicit certain moods. There is an art to sound. Part of Tom Petty's gripe is that the cheap plastic clanging and derivative sampling of rap at once steals and deadens that art.
The point about sound undermines the chief tenet of modern rock culturethat the music is about left-wing politics. From Elvis traumatizing the censors to Woodstock and Bruce Springsteen scalping Reagan for lifting "Born in the U.S.A.," the point is to scandalize the squares, which nine times out of 10 are Republicans. But it is crucial to understand that this is a matter of faith more than reason or reality. In his new book American Studies, critic Louis Menand notices the same thing, although from a different angle. "The [1960s rock] counterculture wasn't hedonistic," he writes, "it was puritanical. It was, for that matter, virtually Hebraic: the parents were worshipping false gods, and the students who tore up (or dropped out of) the university in an apparent frenzy of self-destructionfor wasn't the university their gateway to the good life?were, in effect, smashing the golden calf."
In place of the calf, the '60s generation erected "the new god of authenticity." This god "demanded an existence of programmatic hostility to the ordinary modes of middle-class life, and even to the ordinary modes of consciousnessto whatever was mediated, accomodationist, materialistic, and, even trivially, false." Menand notes that "there are two places in American society where this strain of Puritanism persists"the academy, and "pop-music criticism."
Menand makes a second vital pointthe touchstone that suffuses rock culture with authenticity rests on a foundation of sand. According to the myth of rock and roll's creation, the music evolved directly from the blues, a music, as Menand notes, "whose authenticity it would be sacrilege to question." The problem is, rock and roll has very little to do with the blues, as anyone with two ears can hear for himself. Only someone with an ax to grind would claim that blues artists like B.B. King and Buddy Guy sound like the Beatles (the Rolling Stones are another story). Indeed, some of the best rock music is so good because it finds its inspiration in forms that pre-date the blues or stretch in directions that have nothing to do with the blues. The Beatles' "White Album," the harmonies of the Hollies or of wonderful modern artists like Sade, Coldplay, and Neil Finn draw comparisons not to the 12-bar swagger of Muddy Waters or Sonny Boy Williamson, as compelling as they are, but the soft, elevating structures of pre-rock songs.
Yet to admit this would be to undermine and eventually to dismantle the blues-to-rock genealogy, and to risk a recrudescence ofgasp"middle-class values" in pop music. Fortunately, the human ear seems naturally drawn to pretty melodies, and all the pseudo-iconoclastic posing in the world simply can't stop nice songs from becoming hits.
Menand's thesis also reveals the reason why so many conservatives so badly misunderstand and falsely criticize rock and rollthey buy into the mythos rather than challenge its presumptions. In his wonderful book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, conservative cultural critic Roger Kimball nails the drug culture, hedonism, the takeover of the universitiesand stumbles over rock and roll. Kimball notes that the "dangerous Dionysian" ethos of the Beatles "was overlooked in the rush to claim them geniuses." Kimball admits that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were "talented song writers," and that "in comparison with the pop music of today, the Beatles almost do seem like Monteverdi. Almost." Then he moves on. This is entirely too dismissive, and reflects the snap judgments often made by conservatives about rock music. What Beatles songs does Kimball like, and why do they not quite measure up to Monteverdi? What modern pop songs is he referring to? What was the last pop music album he listened to? I might recommend the Beatles "White Album" to Kimballsure, it's got the song "Revolution," a bluesy sop to the counterculture, but most of the album is comprised of songs my mother enjoys"Julie," "I Will," and "Martha My Dear," which has more in common with ragtime than rock.