We know it’s considered uncool to sound an alarm about any aspect of pop culture these days. Rock, rap, and their even more extreme offspring--horrific movies, loathsome television shows, and pornography on the Internet--are now established as mainstream culture. The conventional liberal--and libertarian--wisdom is not only that there is nothing to be done about it but also that nothing should be done about it. No matter how vulgar or violent or corrupting our pop culture becomes, we are expected to take the debased products of the pop-culture industry in our stride and let them prosper without criticism or censure. We know that there will never be a Million Mom March in Washington to protest such stuff.
Never mind the debilitating effect of this pop culture on the kids who are its principal consumers and principal casualties. Adults like this stuff, too, so it’s OK. This includes allegedly adult artists--you know, the kind that exhibit their work in galleries and museums--who are more and more drawn to both the content and the techniques of pop culture for what used to be called aesthetic inspiration.
We all know, too, the kind of momentum that drives the market for pop culture. It's not only the decibel levels that must constantly be raised, but also the level of shock to the nervous system and the assault upon the moral sensibilities of young and old alike. Like drug consumption, inducements to derangement must constantly be increased lest their effects disappoint expectation and the products suffer in the marketplace of incendiary sensations.
Consider, as a recent example, this excerpt from a report in The New York Times of May 4 on “The Pop Life”:
San Antonio--It was a spellbindingly intense and brutal performance, and the concert hadn't even begun. Slipknot, an explosive rock nonet from Des Moines, was seething in a large holding room backstage at the Live Oak Civic Center just outside the city, warming up like a football team psyching itself for a particularly fierce playoff game. Its members, each masked and wearing orange prison coveralls, were pacing across the room in different directions. A musician in a grotesque clown mask menacingly swung a large PVC pipe as he choked a rag clown doll in his other hand; another, in a gas mask, squirted bottled water onto a lone groupie’s T-shirt; others brandished wooden planks, punched walls or dropped to the floor to stretch.
Suddenly they met in a huddle, threw their hands to the center, and let loose a ferocious scream that drowned out the 3,000 fans chanting “Slipknot.” Then, one by one, they emerged onto the stage, driving the crowd--wearing shirts pledging allegiance to other new hard-rock bands like Sevendust, Staind, Papa Roach, and System of a Down--into a frenzy. Two teenagers had already been treated for injuries before Slipknot had even finished thrashing, banging, and raging through its first song about exploding angst. “It feels so easy to make a connection with these kids,” said Matt McDonough, or Spag, the drummer in Slipknot's opening act, the face-painting scream-rock group Mudvayne. “They're wanton. Slipknot have them so pumped up that you could walk up to a mike and burp, and they'd go crazy.”
According to Neil Strauss, the pop music critic who wrote this report and two other pieces on Slipknot for that issue the May 4 edition of of the Times—accompanied, by the way, with no fewer than six photos—Slipknot is “one of the most exciting and enigmatic of rock's current crop of new bands.”
What is noteworthy about this enthusiastic endorsement of mindless decadence in our so-called “paper of record” is not that it is unusual. On the contrary, such encomia are a staple of contemporary “arts coverage,” not only in The New York Times, of course, but also in practically every mainstream media outlet. But it is worth pausing, we think, to ask ourselves what it means that an institution like the Times should lavish such attention to discriminate for its readers between the merits of “grunge,” “heavy metal,” “punk,” and other species of nihilistic anti-music. Mr. Strauss notes that none of the bands he discusses “represents a new direction for rock.” What matters is their outlet of adolescent rebellion: “Teenage angst demands its antiheroes,” Mr. Strauss explains, “and in the absence of any other popular rock uprising since grunge these acts . . . have made it exciting again to grow up a rock fan.”
“To grow up a rock fan?” In an important sense, to be a rock fan is precisely NOT to grow up. We have had occasion in this space before to cite Allan Bloom’s criticism of rock music. It is worth repeating some of our earlier reflections now. “Rock music,” Bloom wrote, “provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially produces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors.” We know that Bloom’s point was difficult to accept even for some people who were otherwise sympathetic to his argument. How could rock be such a bad thing? Hasn’t it become just one more middle-class entertainment, enjoyed by kids everywhere?
To be sure it has, as CD sales and performances like Mr. Strauss’s attest. But for Bloom that is precisely the problem. The fact that rock has been domesticated and commercialized, that it is now big business and mass entertainment, does not change its essential character. Its appeal is the appeal of the Dionysian: rock is anti-order, anti-verbal, anti-intellect. It is about unconstrained sexuality and polymorphous gratification. That is why its main enthusiasts are adolescents, young and old. They are right that rock music is a liberation: it is a liberation or vacation from civilization. In the deepest sense, it is a liberation from music, whose essence is order. Bloom came down hard on rock because, like Plato, he understood the power of music to educate our emotions at the most basic level. Rock is an education for chaos and narcissism. There are, of course, many competing claims for a child's emotional allegiance; rock music is only one of a host of attractions besieging young people for attention. But because “the first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life,” Bloom was right to call attention to the dark, seductive side of rock music. “Nihilism,” he observed, is often “revealed not so much in the firm lack of beliefs, but in the chaos of the instincts or passions.”
Toward the end of one of his pieces on Slipknot, Mr. Strauss quotes the band's drummer: “A guy at Sony told us, ‘If this is the future of music, I don't want to be alive.’ I just thought, ‘If that's what he thinks, then we are doing something right.’” The real question is, what have we—our culture—done wrong?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 10, on page 1
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