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The Soundtracking of America

Illustrations by John Mattos

Music made sense when the world did. Now the sense is gone, but the melody lingers on -- everywhere. We live surrounded by music, from torch songs at Starbucks to the Beatles in the elevator, and the barrage may be turning our minds to mush

by J. Bottum

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

A WRITER my wife and I knew in New York would sometimes invite us down for drinks on a late-summer afternoon. There in his apartment off Washington Square he would load into the stereo his latest CD -- with an odd, expectant look of pride, as though by discovering an album he were somehow responsible for making it -- and turn the music up so loud that the windows would rattle in their casements and the neighbors would dive to catch their toppling vases.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

More on arts & culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Secondhand Music," by Toby Lester (April, 1997)
The chance harmonies of everyday sounds may mean more than we think.

"Classical Appeal," by David Schiff (August, 1997)
Many symphony orchestras think that luring jazz, blues, and rock audiences is their salvation -- but neither musicians nor listeners get what they expect at crossover concerts, the author learned from experience.

"Cut Out That Racket," by John Sedgwick (November, 1991)
"Unmuffled motorcycles, blaring car alarms, and roving boom boxes come first, second, and third on my list of most obnoxious noise offenders.... Yet what technology has done, other technology is now starting to undo, using computer power to zap those ear splitting noises into silence."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Digital Culture: "The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
A new technology may carry us back into our musical and cultural past.

American Graffiti: "Thank You for Coming and La La La," by James Surowiecki (June 12, 1997)
"A rock band whose songs are somehow the products of this culture of persistent irony without really belonging to it."

"Isn't it lovely?" he'd bellow above the din, and we would nod and smile dutifully before slipping off to the bathroom to cower, like dogs during a thunderstorm, in relative quiet until the terror ended.

The first time anyone openly acknowledged music as a weapon may have been during the 1989 invasion of Panama, when U.S. soldiers bombarded the Vatican envoy's house with rock-and-roll in an attempt to chivy out the fugitive Manuel Noriega. But the truth is that we all are terrorized by music nowadays. It's not so much the high school kids parading down the street with boom boxes, or the college students partying away a Saturday afternoon, or the insomniac in the next apartment pacing up and down to Beethoven at 3:00 a.m. It's, rather, the merciless stream of 1960s golden oldies drenching suburban malls, the disco-revival radio thumping out Donna Summer in the back of a taxi all the way to the airport, the tinny Muzak bleating from storefronts as you walk along the sidewalk, the tastefully muted Andrew Lloyd Webber seeping from recessed speakers above the urinals in the men's room. America is drowning in sanctioned music -- an obligatory orchestration cramming every inch of public space. There's hardly a bar in which to nurse a quiet drink or a café in which you don't have to shout your order above the upbeat swing of 1940s big-band standards.

Perhaps it was Hollywood that taught us to expect life to come with background music, a constant melodic commentary on the movie of our lives. But we are soundtracked nowadays with relentless demands for only the most obvious and officially appropriate emotions. You should be as bright and bubble-gummy as the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" when you shop for a new pair of blue jeans. You ought to be as sophisticatedly ironic as Frank Sinatra's "They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil (The Coffee Song)" when you go out to eat. There's something wrong if you aren't as moody and melancholy as the Cowboy Junkies' whispery version of "Sweet Jane" when you sit in a midtown bar. Popular urban chains such as Pottery Barn and Starbucks even sell CDs of the proper ambient melodies for shopping in their stores.

Of course, the movie sort of soundtrack never quite works, because in real life it's delivered entirely in snippets, as we cross from one stereo zone to another -- the radio suddenly blaring out as the car starts up, the jukebox suddenly cut off as the door to the diner closes. In a Washington, D.C., office building I was recently subjected first to a stomach-churning fifteen seconds of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" as the elevator rattled up to my floor, then to five jangly seconds of guitar in the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" from a deliveryman's radio down the hall, and then, as I stood by the receptionist's desk, to a minute and a half of one of those insane seventeenth-century Scottish folk tunes whose purpose was to make the tartan clans seize their two-handed battle swords and wade through English blood, howling like the sea. We've all been damned to a perpetual quarter-final round of Name That Tune.

And it's not just in public spaces. Private life in America is equally littered with dissociated musical fragments, from the moment the clock radio turns on in the morning until the "sleep" function turns it off at night. You can snatch five minutes of Copland's Appalachian Spring while you gulp your first cup of coffee, take in the second act of a Mussorgsky opera during the morning commute, slip a CD into the office computer and squeeze in a little Villa-Lobos between department meetings, recognize a scrap of Holst's The Planets in the theme song for the evening news, and fall asleep after dinner in the middle of Dvorák's New World Symphony.

Children at summer camp, college students in their library carrels, soldiers at war in the desert: Americans seem incapable of going without music. It pours from the open windows of the apartment house across the street and the car in the next lane at the stoplight. "Let us rather spend our time in conversation," the doctor Eryximachus tells Socrates as he dismisses the after-supper flautist in Plato's Symposium -- but when did you last go to a dinner party at which the stereo didn't rumble through the evening? When you add up the radio stations, the local philharmonics, the jazz clubs under the freeway, the dingy used-record stores, the movie studios, the $1.3 billion market for rap music, the $1.9 billion spent on revivified country-western, and all the rest, American music represents an enormous cultural investment.

In 1981 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published After Virtue, an influential attack on the fragments of Enlightenment philosophy that constitute much of our contemporary moral discourse. Part of his argument is a devastating account of the rise of twentieth-century "emotivism," and nearly the only thing he missed is its curious parallel in the rise of recorded music. People began to imagine that morality was a set of feelings rather than a system of ideas at around the time they began to be able to evoke any mood they wanted by putting a 78 on a phonograph.

The significance of this parallel has gone largely unremarked. In his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom did complain a little. Remembering Plato's warning in the Republic against dangerous art, Bloom suggested that Friedrich Nietzsche had been perfectly right to seek in music an anti-rational weapon with which to savage nineteenth-century Christian culture. "In song and in dance," Nietzsche declared in The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, man "feels himself as a god, he himself now walks about enchanted, in ecstasy." This is the power that "freed Prometheus from his vultures," the "fire magic of music." If, Bloom seemed to argue, we want to reject Nietzsche's call for ecstatic irrationality -- if we want to preserve a classically derived, religiously informed, rationally enlightened social order -- then we must swallow Plato's bitter pill and banish music from our lives.

But it turned out to be only rock music -- "a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy" with "all the moral dignity of drug trafficking" -- to which Bloom really objected. He even ended up mildly praising the effect of classical-music recordings on his undergraduates at the University of Chicago.

This faith in the power of music seems universal nowadays. We have come to believe in music's power to shape not only our emotions but our very beings. In 1998 Governor Zell Miller, of Georgia, asked for $105,000 from the state budget for a program to send every newborn child home from the delivery room with a classical CD titled Build Your Baby's Brain -- Through the Power of Music. The idea grew out of a hopeless misinterpretation of a study suggesting that listening to Mozart might improve the grades of college students. But it was in its way a marvelous example of what far too many people, liberal and conservative, seem to imagine we should do: get people to have the right behaviors by inducing the right feelings, rather than by transmitting the right knowledge. Since music is the greatest creator of moods that human beings have ever discovered, why shouldn't we swaddle newborns in the properly chosen music?

Recorded music long ago relieved us of the hard labor of performing what we wanted to hear. It relieved us of the necessity of going to a concert hall. And now it has even relieved us of any need to listen. In the soundtracking of America -- in the constantly segueing fragments that fill our public and private spaces -- music is merely the inescapable background, the relentless mood-setter, the arbiter and signal of proper behavior. Those poor babies down in Georgia may never know an unorchestrated moment in their lives.

Endless Sophistication, Endless Irony

HARDLY anyone seems to remember that music stands fairly low on the traditional list of devices by which we try to understand human experience. Who ever learned anything from music except the emotional power of music? It's a thin rather than an intellectually thick art form, and a people that takes music as the highest expression has cut itself off from narrative, epic, allegory -- from the explanatory arts that could put to any use the emotions music represents.

A handful of the most serious composers may have sought with their music a philosophically complete account of human emotion. For Beethoven the aim may even have been conscious: "Music," he once said, "is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." But we have no one with such a grand scheme today. Even to attempt one requires that the composer's world contain what we in contemporary America lack -- what our artists and intellectuals have, in fact, spent the past century systematically rejecting as anti-democratic and exclusionary: a culturally shared idea of the goal of human existence.

John Cage, with his 1952 avant-garde adventure in which a concert pianist sits silent at the keyboard for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before bowing and walking off the stage, seemed to aim -- along with his fellow modern American composers -- at breaking down the last vestiges of philosophical coherence that music still reflected. Even Philip Glass -- who, with the mainstream triumph of his minimalist Einstein on the Beach (1976), became perhaps the most successful opera composer since Puccini -- seems never to have entirely escaped the feeling that he was rebelling against some tyrannical remnant of purpose expressed in traditional forms.

Today such acclaimed and prizewinning composers as Lowell Liebermann and Tan Dun have left the Cage generation far behind. The subordination of music to an intelligible account of human purpose is so thoroughly lost that a contemporary composer can even indulge in a little old-fashioned coherence while he constructs a musical pastiche like Appalachia Waltz -- Edgar Meyer's 1996 classical-and-country crossover hit, performed by the symphonic cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the down-home fiddler Mark O'Connor.

Critics of contemporary culture typically imagine that the problem lies in the music. It seems to make little difference whether the critics are the local college radio station's classical-music snobs, or the intellectual journals' wry, nostalgic Irving Berlin and Louis Armstrong fans, or the cultural conservatives and anti-pornography feminists who formed an uneasy alliance to denounce 2 Live Crew lyrics and Marilyn Manson tracks about rape and torture. They all speak as though we merely need different music to clear up our cultural confusions -- as in that almost perfect moment in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, tried to banish what he thought of as the drug-using, 1960s-loving Beach Boys from Washington's annual Fourth of July concert and replace them with Wayne Newton, fresh from a Las Vegas lounge show.

This is an understandable impulse. In a day in which the melodic line of a typical pop song runs fewer than twelve bars, the thirty-two-bar scope of a Broadway number from the 1920s -- to say nothing of the 200 bars of a nineteenth-century symphonic melody -- may seem like the solution to our listening woes. But it isn't, of course, or music would have done nothing but improve since the days of medieval motets, and an elaborate show tune like Cole Porter's 108-bar "Begin the Beguine" would do more than shimmer above the tinkling cutlery down at the local brass-railing-and-blond-wood café. In fact, the sheer accessibility on CD and cassette of things like Porter's cultivated songs is what has created our modern musical problem.

The mechanism by which this happened isn't all that complex. Like every other art, music naturally grows more sophisticated over time, as its creators and audience become more educated about a particular form -- and then it naturally rebels against its sophistication, as musicians become sated and listeners prove unable to follow their technical advances.

You can see this pattern play out in almost any swath of music history. The rise of something like punk rock in the 1970s seems to have been inevitable, given the convoys it took to transport the orchestral stage show of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, whose rock version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition may be the most pretentious performance ever attempted by a chart-topping band. The brief mainstream popularity of folk music in the early 1960s derived at least in part from the mind-numbing complexity that jazz had reached at the end of the 1950s. The enormous European audiences for opera turned to other music when confronted with a work such as Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone Moses und Aron (1932) -- whose uncompleted third act, Schoenberg guilelessly suggested, could simply be read aloud to patient listeners.

This natural and probably healthy pattern of sophistication alternating with primitive rebellion has undergone an odd skew in the twentieth century. The invention of the phonograph may well have been the original cause. For the first time, performances of a successfully rebelled-against music could be preserved unchanged -- vastly increasing the range of music a listener might know.

A second and more important cause was the rise of the music business, made possible by phonographs and by radio stations with hours of airtime to fill. "Concern with the social explication of art has to address the production of art," the twentieth-century philosopher and music critic Theodor Adorno claimed in one of his most dated Marxist rants against the West's commercialized culture. In this case Adorno was right. The appearance of a huge industry seeking new products, trying to both predict and create shifts in popular taste, gave rise to a wild acceleration of the cycle of sophistication and rebellion. By now any musical form is overwhelmed by its counterform before professional musicians have made more than a gesture at giving the form real sophistication.

A third and even more important cause of music's skew was the disappearance of the shared, Beethovenesque belief in the intellectual coherence of human beings and the world -- a belief so faded that even much possibility of rebelling against it has disappeared. Music used to have a purpose: to express and, indeed, to perpetuate this shared sense of coherence. What, nowadays, is music for? We have a name for sophistication and complexity to no purpose: decadence. But in an age without a public philosophy about at least the most important things, all sophistication is purposeless and all complexity decadent.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

J. Bottum is the books and arts editor of The Weekly Standard and the poetry editor of First Things. His work has appeared in National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary.

Illustrations by John Mattos.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; The Soundtracking of America - 00.03; Volume 285, No. 3; page 56-70.