Sunday, August 02, 2015

Rock and roll as the real opiate of the masses, an old polemic about it from half a century ago courtesy of The Atlantic

So powerful was the rock beat that all other attributes of the music were presented as secondary, or totally inconsequential. “‘Positive’ lyrics are mostly a sop to minds that do not want to know what they are thinking,” he wrote, before describing a rock-gospel vocalist futilely singing praises to God even as the “the music itself rocked on and out away from the words into a new wild night of nihilism.” This nihilism, he said, allowed rock to placate adolescent angst, not by channeling it toward the outer world but by making it a pleasure in itself: [emphases added] “Through exposure to rock ‘n’ roll, teen-agers learn to handle their aggressions and discontents—not through understanding, criticism, and self-conscious social rebellion, but through surrendering them to manufactured purgative.”

“Manufactured” is a key word here. Larner devoted a lot of words to the major-label songwriting machine, the practice of payola, and the trend of white artists making money by covering black songwriters. Rock wasn’t art, it was product, designed to transfix through its brute effect on human physiology. In the most devastating passage, he made the medium sound like aural toothpaste:

What teen-agers need in music is more or less what modern adults need too: not music to be listened to but background music as they hurry through their appointed activities. The background may be throbbing RnR or tinkly Muzak, but it all comes from the same package. On opening the package, the buyer finds a clearly labeled, constant stream of facile stimulant, factory guaranteed to jazz you up, smooth you out, purge your violence, and leave you kissing-sweet and ready for maudlin love.
But it is here that a rift between an Old Left and a New Left can be observed before long.  The Matthew Arnold/Adorno ideal of art as for-betterment and whether you're entertained by it be damned is not the only way people have approached the arts.  What's funny is that whether we're looking at a Kyle Gann for the Left or a Terry Teachout for the Right (bear with me, I'm simplifying based on a few online polemics you may not already know about), it's interesting that there are those who are self-described as not seeing a necessary divergence between the pleasure art gives as entertainment and its capacity to engage and embrace more substantial metaphysical and epistlemological values.

And if I felt like invoking Taruskin's sprawling treatise on Stravinsky I might mention how there are aesthetes and decadents who can define the arts by virtue of formalism.  But that gets into Leonard B Meyer stuff that would ideally be saved for some other post.

You're going to find that's a pattern here. 

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