Music can play a positive role in moral development by creating sensual attractions to goodness, or it can play a destructive role by setting children on a temperamental path that leads away from virtue. Other cultures have found ways of helping the temperamental self keep time with the social self — that is, with the self that must live responsibly with others.
No, this chapter is not about the latest dirty lyrics in the latest rap group’s latest album (though some are included). Nor does it deal with rumors that the members of such and such a rock group are devil worshipers (though they might be). Rather, it attempts to get at an effect of music that is more basic than the lyrics or the singer’s persona. We can start our discussion of this effect with the common observation that we tend to learn something more easily and indelibly if it’s set to a rhyme or song. Advertisers know this and use it so effectively that we sometimes have difficulty getting their jingles out of our heads. But there are more positive educational uses. Most of us learned the alphabet this way and some of our history as well (“Paul Reveres Ride,” “Concord Hymn” ). Recently some foreign language courses have been developed which employ rhyme and song as the central teaching method. Similarly, one of the most successful new phonics programs teaches reading through singing.
This raises an interesting possibility. If Johnny can be taught to read through rhyme and song, might he also begin to learn right and wrong in the same way? It seems that something like this did happen in the distant past. As I noted earlier, the Iliad and the Odyssey played a vital role in the formation of Greek youth. But the ability of the Homeric bards to memorize these vast epics was due in large part to the rhythmic meter and repetitive structure of the poems. In turn, these epics were often sung to the audience to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. In short, the foundational cultural messages of the Greeks were conveyed by sung stories. “Education in such cultures,” writes Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University, “is largely a matter of constantly immersing the young into the enchanting patterns of sound until they resound to the patterns, until they become ‘musically’ in tune with, harmonious with, the institutions of their culture.”
Allan Bloom, in his controversial discussion of music in The Closing of the American Mind, says that music should be at the center of education. It does the best job of giving raw passions their due while forming them for something better. Bloom feels that music now plays the decisive role in the formation of a young person’s character. In this respect, nothing has changed since the days of Homer, when, in Egan’s phrase, the young were immersed “into the enchanting patterns of sound.” Of course, Bloom is not happy with the results because what today’s youth are “musically in tune with, harmonious with” are no longer the institutions of their culture or anything on which a culture could be built. They are vibrating to the beat of a different drum — usually the one in a rock band.
Bloom’s comments are based on several passages from Plato, who was much concerned with the moral effects of music — so much so that in the ideal society he describes, many kinds of music would be censored. According to Bloom, these observations in The Republic stir up today’s generation of students as nothing else in Plato can. They take music very seriously — as did Plato. Plato’s argument is that certain kinds of music can foster a spirit of lawlessness which can creep in unnoticed, “since it’s considered to be a kind of play,” and therefore harmless. Despite the innocent appearance, however, some kinds of music are capable of subverting the social order. To appreciate Plato’s thesis, and to appreciate the mobilizing power of music, we might recall the role that the “Marseillaise” played in the French Revolution, or the role that “We Shall Overcome” played in the American civil rights movement. But this kind of large-scale revolution is not exactly what Plato had in mind. He was more concerned with music of a sensual or romantic type that would undermine discipline, moderation, and other civic virtues. The most obvious modern analogy — the one Bloom makes — is to the role rock music plays in prompting young people to throw off cultural and sexual restraints. The common adolescent practice of playing rock at a deafening volume in streets, buses, and public parks suggests how readily it lends itself to the violation of the simplest rules of civil behavior. In Plato’s view, music and character are intimately connected. Certain modes of music dispose the individual to “illiberality,” “insolence,” and other vices. By the same token, other modes suggest peacefulness, moderation, and self-control, and dispose one to an “orderly and courageous life.” It’s important to note that Plato is not talking about lyrics (although he was concerned about them) but about the music itself. A man raised on harmonious music, he says, has a better chance of developing a harmonious soul: he will be better able to see life as a whole, and thus “he would have the sharpest sense of what’s been left out,” of what is and isn’t fitting.
Plato also addresses himself to stories, poetry, painting, and craft, and has much the same thing to say about them. Children ought to be brought up in an atmosphere that provides them examples of nobility and grace. This imaginative education is not a substitute for a reasoned morality, but it paves the way for it, making it more likely that the grown child will happily accept the dictates of reason. In this way, the child develops an “erotic attachment” to virtue, by which Plato meant not so much “sexual” as “passionate.” Just as the senses can be enlisted on the side of vice, so (with a little more difficulty) can they be enlisted on the side of virtue. Through the senses the child can come to love justice and wisdom long before he can grasp these notions in their abstract form. As an example, Allan Bloom mentions the statues that graced the cities of Greece, and attracted young men and women to the idea of nobility by the beauty of the hero’s body.
In our own society, however, we seem to have managed to create an erotic attachment to all the wrong things. Or more precisely, parents and teachers have, by default, allowed the entertainment industry (“a common highway passing through all the houses in America” is Bloom’s description) to create these attachments. Rock music in particular, says Bloom, inclines children away from self-control and sublimation. It doesn’t channel emotions, it pumps them up. Instead of a passionate attachment to what is good, noble, and just, youth develop passionate attachments to their own needs, wants, and feelings, and to people like Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson.
Bloom has been criticized for overdoing his attack on rock. And there is some truth in this. He fails to distinguish among various kinds of rock and he seems to believe that sex is rock’s only appeal (“Rock has the beat of sexual intercourse”). Nevertheless, the hysterical tone of some of the reaction suggests that Bloom has hit close to home. William Greider, writing in Rolling Stone, says that Bloom is guilty of a
“nasty, reactionary attack on the values of young people and everyone else under forty,” and of compiling “a laundry list of cheap slanders.”
Another critic of Bloom gives an elaborate (and not very convincing) argument that the beat of rock is not the beat of sexual intercourse but “is, in fact, much closer to the regular motion of the heavenly bodies.”
But the question is not whether Bloom has presented a nuanced portrait of rock and youth. The real question is whether music has the profound influence on character formation that he and Plato (along with Aristotle, Confucius, and Shakespeare) assert. That question alone deserves serious consideration and debate, but as Bloom writes, “That kind of critique has never taken place.” Of the criticism that has surfaced since Bloom’s book, most has focused on the lyrics rather than the music, and it has been hard enough to get a hearing for that. The music itself seems to be a taboo area.
Yet the basic proposition — that different kinds of music produce different effects on the soul — is not entirely radical. Would anyone assert that ” (You Ain’t Nothin’ but a) Hound Dog” has the Same “soul” as Gregorian chant? The one inspires to prayer and contemplation, the other to shouting and stamping. Not that there’s anything wrong with shouting and stamping once in a while, but children these days tend to be raised almost exclusively on that sort of music. Besides, they don’t need much incentive to shout, stamp, whine, and demand. They do these things naturally. Why should we want music that validates and confirms such juvenile states? Shouldn’t children be exposed to other states of soul?
Even if we were to succeed in creating schools that once again took virtue and character seriously, we would still have an uphill fight as long as rock music remains the dominant cultural idiom and as long as children’s “erotic attachments” are formed by an industry that panders to juvenile emotions. What we currently have is a censorship by omission. Either parents don’t know about or don’t have a taste for alternative forms of music because they themselves were raised on rock; or they do know but are afraid to exercise their parental rights for fear that their children’s allegiance has already been captured, and to stand up to the music would only widen the rift. What results, says Bloom, is a pattern of denial:
“avoid noticing what the words say, assume the kid will get over it. If he has early sex, that won’t get in the way of his having stable relationships later. His drug use will certainly stop at pot.”
Bloom is actually more interested in the educational rather than the moral influence of rock: “The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.” This kind of education depends on sublimation. But if Bloom is not mainly concerned with moral effects, we can be. If rock can wreck the liberal imagination (in the nonpolitical sense of the word “liberal” ), it can also wreck or stunt the moral imagination.
Am I shortchanging rock? After all, it’s not all heavy metal and megawatt amplifiers. Many of rock’s defenders say there is a deeper meaning to it than the hormonal one assigned by Bloom — namely, the feeling of spiritual oneness it can create: the feeling that there are no boundaries, that the whole world is one large community. Nietzsche understood the feeling. In The Birth of Tragedy, he writes, “It is only through the spirit of music that we can understand the joy involved in the annihilation of the individual.” Once we can get beyond the barrier of individuation, we can break through to life itself, which is “indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.” The music at Woodstock (aided, no doubt, by considerable marijuana consumption) had this effect. So, apparently, did the Live Aid concert.
But the “soul” of rock music, even at its best and most brotherly, does not seem up to the task of creating a real community of purpose (as gospel music helped to do during the civil rights movement). The brotherhood rock yearns for is one that will come easily and not at the cost of self-discipline. Robert Pattison, in his book The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism, argues that the spirit of rock music is really the spirit of nineteenth-century Romanticism, only with a heavier beat and a faster tempo. It is simply another version of Rousseau’s belief that what is primitive is what is best, and that youthful passions, therefore, do not need to be educated or transformed. The rock myth, according to Pattison, is the same as the Romantic myth: a belief that it is possible to have a community innocent of civilizing restraints in which everything can be done on instinct, and in which everyone is free to express himself to the fullest. Moreover, as Stuart Goldman observes in commenting on Pattison’s book, “the rocker feels that we are kept from this — our natural state of oneness with the universe — by ‘them’: the government, teachers, politicians, our parents. All the usual suspects.”
Pattison is a defender of both rock and Romanticism; however, as Irving Babbitt points out, the essence of Romanticism is that it is never in love with a particular object or person but only with the feelings which that person or object evokes. Consequently, the Romantic spirit is fickle; it is always changing its object of devotion, always in search of a new high. By necessity its interest is in novelty rather than stability. I don’t doubt the sincerity of feeling in listeners who respond to “We Are the World” (the theme song of the Live Aid concert), but I question whether those are the sorts of feelings that can translate into committed and sustained action. The actual behavior of many young people who are hooked on rock suggests that their real agenda is “I am the world” and “The world owes me a living.” Rock music allows us to indulge in expressions of strong emotion while freeing us from the obligation of doing anything.
When one looks more closely at rock, the notion that it is solidarity music falls apart. What it is, essentially, is performance music. It is not intended for participation but for dramatizing the ego of the performer. For the most part, it is too idiosyncratic and exaggerated for any amateur to sing. People do not stand around pianos and sing “Cum On Feel the Noize” or “Let’s Put the X in Sex” ; songs like these are basically unsingable. Even if audiences at rock concerts tried to sing along, they would be drowned out by the amplification. Although there are some forms of participation, they do not involve singing. At heavy metal concerts, for example, the audience can engage in “head banging,” a rapid jerking of the head from side to side to the beat of the music. Or they can try “air guitar.” Any individual in the crowd who is so moved may stand up and start playing riffs on an invisible guitar. If he is lucky, he manages to capture some attention, at least for a few brief moments. At the outset, then, rock music denies its audience one of the most powerful of all unifying experiences, the opportunity to join together in song. In a sense, it is the culmination of the Romantic shift of emphasis from the work of art to the artist himself. The song doesn’t matter; what matters is the artist and his emotions. If one were to seek a fitting motto for rock, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate one than that memorable refrain from The Cat in the Hat: “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now!”
What is the trade-off? What do young people get in exchange for giving up genuine participation? The answer is that like the performer on the stage, they get to feel and show their own emotions — if only through body language. Rock confirms their right to have and express strong, sensual emotions. The message is “Your feelings are sacred, and nothing is set above them.” At the beginning of adolescence the discovery of one’s emotional self seems like a profound discovery. This is the part of the self that adults “just don’t understand.” But rock music does understand, and what’s more, it sanctions these feelings.
This, in its essence, is all that rock is about. And it is precisely because of this juvenile core that rock never delivers on its promise of creating community. Thus, in a recent Newsweek article, John Leland, a writer sympathetic to rock, laments, “The Live Aid concert, and the lesser knockoffs that followed, was the last promise that there was something to pop music that held people of different ages, classes and ideas together. This promise didn’t hold; even then it wasn’t true . . .” Leland is more than a little concerned about all the “adolescent rage” that runs through hard rock and rap music. For example, he cites the following lyrics from Straight Outta Compton, an album by the rap group N.W.A.: “So what about the bitch that got shot / F — her. / You think I give a damn about a bitch? / I ain’t a sucker.” In a similar vein, Billboard in a November 1991 issue criticized rapper Ice Cube for an album titled Death Certificate because its “unabashed espousal of violence against Koreans, Jews and other whites crosses the line that divides art from the advocacy of crime.”
This surprise and shock puts me in mind of C. S. Lewis’s comment about people who “laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in [their] midst.” The kind of lyrics that Newsweek and Billboard complain of were always implicit in the music itself. If unrestrained emotion is to be king, there should be no complaining about violent emotions. There was every reason to predict that rock music would become increasingly violent. A music that proclaims that the gratification of one’s immediate desires is paramount is bound to lead in the direction of frustration and then anger, because the world never provides such gratification for very long.
Of course, there are softer brands of contemporary music that express kinder and gentler sentiments. But much of this is more properly classified as pop music rather than as rock. It lacks the heavy beat of rock, and it bears a strong resemblance to the pop music and the popular ballad that predate rock. Some performers alternate between the two modes. For example, when Elvis Presley sang “Love Me Tender,” he dropped the heavy beat and reverted to the ballad form. And a similar changing of tone has been the pattern ever since. Whenever rock musicians try to express sentiments that aren’t merely self-centered, the distinctive rock sound is either lost or muted.
This reversion to other forms of music says a lot about the limitations of rock. Even more instructive, however, is the attitude taken by rock aficionados toward pop music. For the most part they despise it as being too soft and sentimental. By contrast, the kind of rock that is considered “real” and “powerful” by the critics is almost always laced with themes of anger, frustration, or self indulgence. For instance, a recent review of the “best discs” of 1991 included such terms of approval as “raging guitars,” “angry guitars,” “brutal sonic assault,” “piercing screams,” “barbed wire lyrics,” and “nerve-hitting.” Anger is much closer to the center of rock than is kindness or caring, and it may even be edging out sex as the number-one preoccupation. Anger is, after all, a very common adolescent emotion, and it is easily exploited. “The anger is what helps you relate to the kids,” said W.A.S.P. band member Blackie Lawless in a 1985 interview. “That’s what makes rock ’n’ roll what it is. You’re pissed off. I’m still pissed off about a lot of things . . .”
One of the things that rock and the rock industry do best is to take normal adolescent frustration and rebellion and heat it up to the boiling point. A lot of this hatred is directed toward parents — the people who usually stand most directly across the path of self-gratification. Antiparent themes are quite common on MTV, and heavy metal has been described as “music to kill your parents by.” When I once asked some recent college graduates to explain what they thought was the deeper meaning of rock, I was surprised at how frequently the word “alienation” came up over the course of several separate conversations. Robert Pittman, the inventor of MTV, confirmed this interpretation of the “meaning” of rock in a published interview with Ron Powers: “It’s all attitude. The attitude is: nothing is sacred. We’re all having a rilly good time. We’re all in on something everybody else doesn’t get. We’re special cause we’re keeping everybody else out.” Thus much of the solidarity rock supplies its young audience is a negative solidarity, a bond achieved by excluding those who should be closest.
Parents are not the only focus of anger. Many types of rock have for a long time exhibited anger toward adults in general. What is fairly new, however, is the expression of contempt for age mates as well. Girlfriends — if that is the correct term — are not simply presented as sex objects but as objects of abuse. Most of the world only became aware of this trend with the flap that arose in 1990 over the rap group 2 Live Crew and their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. The album, which sold several million copies, presents the sexual mutilation of women as the preferred way of obtaining sexual pleasure. But the trend was already pronounced by the mid-eighties. The popular Motley Crue, a heavy metal group, specialized in lyrics like the following: “I’ll either break her face / Or take down her legs, / Get my ways at will. / Go for the throat / Never let loose, / Going in for the kill.”
And in a 1984 song by Great White titled “On Your Knees,” the following lyrics appear: “Gonna drive my love inside you / Gonna nail your ass to the floor.”
Just to be sure the album-buying audience puts the correct interpretation on such lyrics, album covers often present graphic illustrations that leave little to the imagination. For example, the cover of the W.A.S.P. single “F**k Like a Beast” shows a close-up of a man with a bloody circular saw blade protruding from his genital area.
This attitude — that hostile sexual relationships are common and acceptable — is not new to rock music, but it is now much more widespread. Exactly what role rock plays in forming youthful ideas about sex is not something that can be quantified. But some children start to listen to the worst of rap and heavy metal at ages nine, ten, and eleven. And according to a report of the American Medical Association, the average teenager listens to 10,500 hours of rock between the seventh and twelfth grades — more time than he spends in school. To say that listening to rock music doesn’t influence ideas and attitudes is tantamount to saying that we aren’t influenced by our environment. Until recently, researchers debated whether or not heavy exposure to television violence and pornography creates greater acceptance of violence toward women. That debate has died down now that new and more definitive studies have shown that it does. Is there any reason to suppose that heavy exposure to violent audio messages will have a different effect? The evidence is that a great many youths are already seriously confused about the relationship between sex and violence. For example, two recent studies conducted in the Northeast revealed that one third of high school girls who are in relationships are regularly abused by their boyfriends. That is disturbing in itself, but the reports went on to say that fully one half of the girls accepted the violence as a sign of love.
One question that logically arises here is whether rock can be reformed. Some seem to think it can be, that it’s simply a matter of changing the lyrics, or attaching the music to a proper cause. Thus teachers use rock in classrooms, and educational films are made with rock sound tracks, and thus we have Christian rock and even Christian versions of rock magazines. The idea is that the energy of rock can somehow be channeled toward virtuous ends. This hope, it seems to me, arises from a basic misunderstanding about the nature of rock. I have already indicated that though the lyrics are important, they are secondary. The music is its own message. No matter what the words might say, the music speaks the language of self-gratification. Rock can’t be made respectable. It doesn’t want to be respectable. A respectable rock is a contradiction in terms. “Some dreamers have hoped to harness rock to propagate the values of transcendent ideologies . . . ,” writes Robert Pattison. “But rock is useless to teach any transcendent values . . . Rock’s electricity . . . gives the lie to whatever enlightened propaganda may be foisted on it.” Pattison, who has written what is perhaps the definitive book on the rock myth, and who is himself a defender of rock, argues that rock in its essence is vulgar and narcissistic, based on a denial of any value outside the self. So, while it is possible to set a Christian hymn or a song about undying love to the beat of rock, it cannot be done convincingly. The music will simply subvert the words. The same holds true for rap, which, though it is different in significant ways from rock, has a similar beat. Some rappers preach positive antidrug, antigang messages in their songs. But it’s not a very good fit of words to music. The music is composed of explosive bursts of sound, somewhat like the sound of a semiautomatic weapon being fired. On an aesthetic level the positive lyrics don’t work nearly as well as the violent ones. No matter how many reforms are attempted, rock and rap will always gravitate in the direction of violence and uncommitted sex. The beat says, “Do what you want to do.”
A child’s musical environment is a large part of his moral environment. Right now, most of that musical environment is supplied by an industry that, as Allan Bloom says, “has all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.” The first step in doing something about the situation is to wake up to its bizarre nature. For parents to give over a large part of their children’s moral formation to people whose only interest in children is an exploitative one is a form of madness. But, as Bloom remarks, “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.”
In what direction does sanity lie? Parents need to realize that there is a Kulturkampf — a culture war — in progress. Rock and its representatives have known this for a long time; it’s part of the reason they have been on the winning side. They have made no attempt to conceal their hostility toward parents and the values parents think are important. When Tipper Gore’s group, Parents’ Music Resource Center, asked the record industry to develop a labeling system similar to that employed by the movie industry, the rock world reacted with vicious personal abuse. And when Nikki Sixx, a member of Motley Crue, was asked by Creem (a teen magazine) how he felt about the concerns parents had with explicit lyrics, he replied, “You know what I say? I say f**k ’em. It’s freedom of speech; First Amendment.”
Parents need to reclaim some territory for their children. Of course, the odds are very much against them. But at least one factor is in their favor. When children are young, they are still open to all kinds of music; they haven’t yet learned they are supposed to like only one kind. It’s a good time to help them cultivate good taste in music against the day when the forces of Pop culture will attempt to dictate bad taste to them.
What kind of musical environment can help to create a good moral environment? Here are some broad suggestions.
1. Music that can be shared. Rock drives a wedge between generations. Parents and children can’t share songs like Prince’s “Darling Nikki” (about a girl masturbating with a magazine) or Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” This divisive effect was evident right from the time Elvis first appeared on television — a moment of nationwide embarrassment for families gathered in front of the set. Our society needs to return (or “move forward,” if you like Phrases with a progressive ring) to music that brings families together in song: children’s songs, folk songs, ballads, show tunes, parlor songs, carols, around-the-piano songs. Singable songs. Songs that don’t need amplification, or stage sets, or a billion-dollar industry to keep them alive.
When the piano, not the television set, was the center of home entertainment, families enjoyed a common musical bond. The music belonged to everyone: not just to adults, not just to teenagers. But singing together is not merely an old-fashioned custom, it is a basic expression of family love. It is one of many rituals of participation that have been lost, and for which we have not found adequate substitutes.
2. Music that channels emotions. The basic appeal of music is an emotional one. Education is not a matter of denying emotions but of civilizing them — of attaching them to fitting objects. This process of sublimation does not weaken emotions; rather, it gives them more power by giving them focus. And serious moral endeavors, whether individual or communal, need such channeling. One such example is the civil rights revolution of the sixties. Churches played the key role, and the music that accompanied this revolution was, for the most part, church music: hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs. Folk songs also played a part. Rock music did not. The civil rights movement was a movement of great seriousness and dignity. It was propelled by powerful emotions, but it was essential to the success of the movement that those emotions be controlled and restrained. Consequently, there was no part for rock to play even though rock derives from black music (the revolution that rock accompanied was the sexual revolution). [See Brief History of Rock] The point is that in both public life and private, we need to be able on occasion to channel our feelings toward goals that go beyond immediate gratification. It’s inevitable that children will be exposed to popular music. It’s important that in addition to the pop sound, they sometimes hear a more profound sound.
3. Music that shapes the soul. Morality is not simply about learning the rules of right and wrong, it is about a total alignment of our selves. Because music moves our whole being, it plays a major role in setting that alignment. Certain types of music convey a sense of order, proportion, and harmony. There is an ancient belief that the stars, the moon, the planets, all of creation, move to a heavenly music. The theme can be found in Plato, Plotinus, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden. According to some legends, God sang creation into existence. And this harmony extends to human nature. Shakespeare wrote:
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Why not? Because, in Milton’s words,
. . . disproportion’d sin
Jarr’d against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed.
O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endless mom of light.
One does not have to share Milton’s Christian faith to appreciate the idea. Aristotle notes that “some philosophers say that the soul is a tuning.” And he agrees that there exists in us an “affinity to musical modes and rhythms.” In the ancient view the right kind of music helps to form character because it helps to tune the soul to the rhythms of a good life.
The trouble is, it is not at all easy to specify what that rhythm sounds like. Aristotle and Plato use words like “harmony,” “melody,” “grace,” “order,” and “proportion.” But although it’s difficult to say what arrangements of notes have the effect of bringing order to the soul, it’s not as difficult to recognize them. We can hear this stately measure in Pachelbel, Handel, Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. We can hear it in Gregorian chant, choral music, and the chanted Hanukkah blessings. We can hear it in ballads like “Barbara Allen,” in spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” and in lullabies like “All Through the Night.” We can hear it in “Taps.” Although we may know the actual composer, such music seems to originate from a higher source. It seems to transcend the composer’s persona. Beethoven’s personal life was rather a mess, but none of this is apparent in his music.
4. Music that has stood the test of time. The music mentioned above possesses another quality: timelessness. Thomas Day, in his short but instructive book Why Catholics Can’t Sing, observes of certain chants, choral works, and hymns that “the melodies sounded important, as if they had existed forever.” Many Christmas carols have the same quality. It is surprising to discover that some of them were written only a hundred years ago.
If I have been concentrating on sacred music, it is partly because rock invites the comparison. As Pattison writes,
The rocker lives his music with an intensity few nominal Christians imitate in their devotion to the faith. He goes to concerts and listens to his music with the same fidelity with which the Christian of earlier generations attended church and read his Bible. One of the most frequently repeated mottos in rock lyrics is “Rock ’n’ roll will never die!” — a cry of belief. The stars of rock undergo literal apotheosis: “Jim Morrison is God” is a graffito now perpetuated by a third generation of rockers.
The question of whether or not rock ’n’ roll will ever die is not one that needs to be settled in these pages. But we do know that some other types of music have withstood the passage of time. The forty years that have passed since the introduction of rock is a short time when you consider that the music of Beethoven and Bach is still alive, or when you realize that in churches and cathedrals all over the world, you may hear hymns composed 500 years ago by Luther, or chants that were sung in monasteries 500 years before that. This timeless quality is not confined to church music or classical music. Some of the popular music of the thirties and forties seems to have this time-transcending quality: songs such as “Night and Day,” “Stardust,” “Deep Purple,” and “As Time Goes By” , When the Beatles were in their heyday, they were hailed as original geniuses. But would anyone today argue that songs like “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” or any of a dozen others are in the same league as Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” ? Paul McCartney himself seems to be aware of rock’s limited scope. His recently completed Liverpool oratorio is in the tradition of Handel, not the Beatles. As McCartney said in an interview on the occasion of its Carnegie Hall debut, “You can’t be a teenager forever.”
5. Music that tells a story. Music has traditionally been linked to story. The Homeric poems recount long and detailed stories, the traditional ballad tells brief and simple stories of love and tragedy, country and western music tells everyday stories of marriage, betrayal, and hard times. Even orchestral music is often composed with a story in mind. “The 1812 Overture,” Swan Lake, Scheherazade, and Peter and the Wolf are examples that come immediately to mind. Opera, of course, is the supreme blending of song and story. At another level the Broadway musical offers the same potent combination.
Songs that tell a story have a natural attraction for us because they suggest that the beauty and harmony of music is potentially present in lives. Put another way, the events of life seem more ordered and less chaotic when they can be given musical expression. Social and personal tragedy or joy, wars, revolutions, and unrequited love take their place in a larger perspective. Life conceived as a comic opera or even a tragic opera is preferable to life experienced as a random collision of random events. This sense of meaning is also, as I argue elsewhere in the book, essential to morality: morality does not thrive in a climate of nihilism.
One of the characteristics of pure rock — that is, rock that is not combined with folk, blues, or ballad — is its absence of story. Robert Pittman is instructive on this point. He describes how he had to explain the concept of MTV to executives who wanted a beginning, a middle and an end to their television. “I said, ‘There is no beginning, middle and end. It’s all ebb and flow,’” boasts Pittman. What these executives failed to realize is that “this is a non-narrative generation.” MTV, accordingly, does away with narrative and replaces it with what filmmakers call montage: a rapid sequence of loosely connected images. This is the perfect fit of medium to music because rock is about the flow of experience, not about making sense out of experience. This is also the reason rock delights in nonsense syllables such as “sha da da da.” They are, according to Robert Pattison, “the most honest form of language . . . because they’re meaningless.”
Non-narrative is not exactly the same thing as nihilistic, but it’s the next thing. Even the term “flow of experience” is misleading when applied to contemporary rock because the term suggests a connection or continuum. What rock presents, however, is not a flow but a series of disconnected episodes. This is also typical of rap. And the chief episodic unit is sexual intercourse. A representative example is a “tune,” which consists almost entirely of one repeated refrain, “it feels good,” accompanied by background groans which leave us in no doubt about what “it” is. There is no development of the story line beyond that single sensation. Every night, big-city radio stations play hour after hour of music that varies only slightly in sound and theme from “Feels Good.” If, as Plato says, “musical training is a more potent instrument than any other,” it means that many youngsters are being trained to see life only as a series of sensual episodes which they are not obliged to connect.
In the world of MTV and rock radio, it is decidedly not “the same old story” of falling in love that song once celebrated and reinforced. For that matter, most of life’s stories are missing from these formats. No connections are drawn to a life beyond the adolescent’s fantasy life. No connections are drawn to past or future. Rock claims to be the most honest music, but this is not an honest picture of life. It does not help young people transmute immediate experience into something more. It does not teach them what happens when the limits are pushed too far, as, for example, country music — a much more honest form of music — does. It does not prepare them emotionally or cognitively for any sort of satisfactory adult life.
In summary, music has powers that go far beyond entertainment. It can play a positive role in moral development by creating sensual attractions to goodness, or it can play a destructive role by setting children on a temperamental path that leads away from virtue. Other cultures have found ways of helping the temperamental self keep time with the social self — that is, with the self that must live responsibly with others. That synchrony no longer exists in our society. Until it is restored, the prospects for a moral renewal are dim.
Kilpatrick, William. “Music and Morality.” Chapter 10 in Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. edited by J.H. Clarke, (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1992), 172-189.