m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

M A R C H  2 0 0 0 

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

Illustrations by John MattosHirsch's mistake lay in forgetting that the old cultural knowledge was not meaningful because it was shared; it was shared because it was meaningful. It all fit into a frame, a generally accepted public system of belief about the way God and history and the world work. And when that frame at last broke, the old knowledge drifted out of public awareness, like the carefully organized contents of filing cabinets dumped in a pile and left to blow away sheet by sheet.

The gap at the center of culture didn't stay empty. It gradually silted up with something much like what Hirsch would later advocate -- something shared even if it wasn't meaningful. It filled with the lyrics of American popular songs -- from "Yankee Doodle" to "Dixie" to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" to "Streets of Laredo" to "Happy Birthday to You" to "White Christmas" to "You Are My Sunshine"to "Heartbreak Hotel" to "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" to "Good Vibrations" to "Billie Jean" to the Titanic theme song. Who can doubt that more Americans know "When You Wish Upon a Star" than know who was President when Walt Disney put the song in Pinocchio?

It would be wrong to say that the composers and performers of those songs never imagine they are conveying actual intellectual content. So, too, it would be wrong to suppose that listeners never take pop lyrics seriously. In sixth grade my friends and I all believed that "One Tin Soldier," the theme song to the 1971 movie Billy Jack, was the deepest thing ever thought. A roommate I had in college felt he was handing on the wisdom of the ages when he tunelessly punctuated conversation with more or less apt quotations from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Teach Your Children," John Lennon's "Imagine," Aerosmith's "Dream On," and Kansas's "Dust in the Wind."

Mostly, though, no one bothers to think for long that the words to songs should mean anything in particular. We just share them. Far more important than any of the Beatles' songs -- or even than the murder of John Lennon, in 1980 -- was the fact that everyone in a particular generation knew the band's hits. Far more important than any of Nirvana's songs -- or even than the suicide of Kurt Cobain, in 1994 -- was the fact that everyone in a particular generation knew the Seattle grunge band's recordings.

The 1990s decline of rock as the dominant pop music has made available for general knowledge many other forms. We have the widest and most widely shared knowledge of the range of music the world has ever known. What defines an American these days better than the ability to hum along with both Handel and Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones and Charles Wesley, Ella Fitzgerald and Hank Williams, Richard Wagner and the Nestlé's-chocolate-bar song?

Memories of Meaning

THEODOR Adorno has proved spectacularly wrong in his 1938 prediction that broadcast music would make us "forcibly retarded." He did correctly observe that "regressive listening" -- the passive submission of listeners to a bombardment of new pop songs everywhere they go -- is "tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly by advertising." That's the joke when a rising San Francisco rock band plays an advertising jingle with a wink and a nod for a knowing crowd of teenagers. But even Adorno, the most culturally observant of the mid-century Marxists, was too much of a traditionalist to guess that the stupidity of popular music would make us not stupid but ironic.

If decadence is what happens when intelligence turns entirely to trivia, irony is what happens when intelligence wraps itself around stupidity. How could we not become ironic when so much of our public knowledge consists of thousands of lines of song lyrics written for the most part after the collapse of a common metaphysics that might have given them a purpose and an order? We share an enormous amount of information, and we know it doesn't mean anything, and we smile wryly at one another as we sing along.

Last year in a New York Times essay about attending a lecture given by George Martin, the Beatles' music producer, Richard Panek wrote,

Shortly after hearing [Martin's lecture], I found myself attending an impromptu solo performance of a Beatles song in the privacy of my own living room. My 8-year-old son announced that he was now going to sing "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

"The Anthology version," he added.

Ah, yes: the Anthology version, recorded 3, 4, 5 July 1968, an outtake that "included overdubs of three saxophones and conga drums," according to the liner notes.... Yet halfway through the song, my son added a telltale "Ha ha ha ha" that was not in the Anthology rendering of the song. I looked at him.

"I switched to the White Album version," he explained. Then he resumed his performance. Yet at the end of the song, I had to look at him questioningly once again. Where were the whoops and wheezes and falsetto "Thank you"?

He shrugged. "I switched back to the Anthologyversion."

And I thought: Lucky him....

At a certain age boys delight in knowing things simply for the sake of knowing them; Panek and his son could just as well have been talking about baseball or movies or cars. But they were talking about music, and there's something disconcerting in a story about an eight-year-old with this level of knowledge of a piece of popular music recorded twenty-three years before he was born. It has to do in part with the "lowbrow scholasticism" (in the words of David Denby) involved, the induction of a child into the complex trivialities of popular culture. And it has to do with that "Lucky him" -- the father's earnest irony about a son's memorizing his father's music.
From the archives:

"Napoleon in Rags," by Francis Davis (May, 1999)
Bob Dylan's creative peak lasted only three years, the author writes, but in that brief span "Dylan altered the course of popular music more fundamentally than even Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or the Beatles."

The most disturbing thing in Panek's account, however, is the meaninglessness of the knowledge the boy and the father share, the way it doesn't fit anywhere or do anything -- for somehow we still expect more than this from music. You could learn how to live from Woody Guthrie's songs, Bob Dylan once claimed. It isn't true, of course; mostly what you could learn from Woody Guthrie was how 1930s political radicalism, when fitted to the guitar chord progressions of West Virginia, could masquerade as the ancient wisdom of the American soul. But Dylan was on to a truth about certain pieces of music.

You can feel that truth in William Byrd's Mass on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, and Handel's Messiah. There's an echo still lingering in old blues tunes and in Mahalia Jackson's gospel. It's there in the Enlightenment confidence that runs from Mozart to Beethoven, trailing off in Brahms. The instrumentalist Robbie Robertson has said of the long 1967 recording sessions with Dylan that became The Basement Tapes (and are the subject of Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, one of the best books ever written on American music) that Dylan's songs always sounded as though he'd just found them in a collection of old folk songs. Taken line by line, folk lyrics may seem as silly as the words to twentieth-century popular music. But you can nonetheless sometimes catch in genuine folk tunes a glimpse of the real depths -- a world where, even if only tragically, God and man and nature still make sufficient sense that there can be a cathartic purpose to the emotion the music evokes.

The trouble is that these depths can't be faked in a different kind of world. With Blood on the Tracks (1974), Dylan came as close to succeeding as anyone. Bruce Springsteen made one effort, with the relatively slow-selling 1982 album Nebraska, and fled back to pop. The 1950s Woody Guthrie line of folk populism devolved into middle-class leftism, ending with a song like John Prine's "Paradise," the unofficial theme song of the Sierra Club's supporters: "Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel, / And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land." The mid-1960s folk-rock boom collapsed into the Mamas and the Papas.

Of course, we do have innumerable recordings of the old, meaningful works to listen to nowadays, from Saint Ambrose's fourth-century hymns to Beethoven's late quartets to the American folk standard "Wayfaring Stranger." But our ability to sense that they are meaningful is not the same as an ability to sense their meaning. Their purposefulness is not a purpose; knowing that they once fit somewhere is not knowing where to fit them now. What does a genuinely tragic folk song tell us, except that we no longer know what to make of tragedy?

Purposeless Emotion

IN 1923 Wallace Stevens published a poem, "Peter Quince at the Clavier," that runs, "Music is feeling ... not sound; / And thus it is that what I feel / Here in this room, desiring you, ... / Is music."

Stevens is the American poet most fascinated by formal logic, and he probably intended us to notice that the argument in these lines commits the fallacy that logicians call illicit conversion: the fact that all cows are mammals doesn't make all mammals cows; the fact that music is feeling doesn't make feeling music.

Or perhaps Stevens didn't intend us to notice, because this is the fallacy that seems to define the modern experience of music. It's as though music were trying to convert us to the belief that we are professional performers on the instrument of our emotional selves, producing the great music of feelings.

The result can hardly be anything other than the emotivism that Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue. We translate everything, even morality, from a system of ideas to be judged true or false to a set of emotions to be judged only pleasant or unpleasant. And as the constricting intellect is forced out, consigned to cataloguing the vast range of sounds available, modern music promises that there will open up for us the free play of imagination, the fantastic improvisation of feeling -- an emotional wealth undreamed of by the cramped rationality of ages past.

I wonder. Just as intelligence turns decadent when reduced to sophistication and complexity for no reason, so something peculiar happens to emotion when it has no coherent purpose except to be felt. Listening, say, to one of Byrd's sixteenth-century antiphons, do we actually feel the intensity of religious mood felt by his Renaissance audience, who shared a use for that mood? Do we actually feel as much as Beethoven's Enlightenment listeners, for whom his thunder echoed in a landscape of generally accepted ideas about God and man and nature? Certainly there is pleasure to be taken in the elegant mathematics of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." But you can sense something thinning in the twentieth century when Frank Lloyd Wright changed the title to "Joy in Work Is Man's Desiring" for his disciples.

The tragedy we feel listening to a folk ballad, the grace we feel listening to a gospel song, the humor we feel listening to one of Haydn's symphonic jokes, and all the rest of the feelings we can use our vast knowledge of music to call upon: are these actually living emotions, or only their ghosts? Adrift on America's sea of sound -- washed by constant waves of the Monkees in a clothing store, Frank Sinatra in a café, the Cowboy Junkies in a bar -- we have to wonder whether Wallace Stevens and Theodor Adorno didn't have it exactly backwards: the promise of modern music to make us performers of the music of ourselves didn't stupefy us intellectually, it stunted us emotionally. After almost a hundred years of our being increasingly surrounded by music, the emotions of public America seem to have grown poorer and sadder, as though we were no longer fully capable of feeling what we feel -- as though our breadth of musical knowledge had been gained by sacrificing depth of musical emotion.

Even sex has not survived undiminished. The rock-and-roll vision of love is an adolescent one, and hardly does justice to the fullness of human experience. But something more than seeing love through an adolescent's eyes is at work. D. H. Lawrence, the first great apostle of sexual salvation, wrote a poem in 1918 about music -- music and impotence, curiously enough. Called "Piano," it tells the story of a woman singing seductively to a man in the dusk. In spite of his willingness to be seduced, the narrator is seized by "the insidious mastery of song," and the music arouses in him not passion but childhood memories of "Sunday evenings at home," sitting under the piano and "pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings." The poem concludes,

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor,
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child
for the past.
Lawrence's evocation of a womb with the cave beneath the keyboard is worth noticing, as is his play on his "manhood" being "cast down in the flood of remembrance" -- meaning both that the adult is formed by his childhood and that he has been rendered impotent by the memory of that childhood.

Music is tied to sex in innumerable ways: through courtship lyrics, dance, seduction, the Dionysian promise to unleash primitive emotion -- yet somehow we do know, as Adorno put it, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. All one has to do is listen to the relentless beat of Maurice Ravel's Bolero (1928) to realize that the sexual power of music is real. But the gap between the music and its object is real as well. It may sound absurd to ask, but what, nowadays, is sex for? Where does it fit in the scheme of things? Even as the demand for an aroused sexual desire pours out in music all around us, the emotion itself seems sadly weakened, tinged with an awareness that it used to mean much more than it does now.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom remarked on the sexual obviousness of rock and its masturbatory power to arouse teenagers in the absence of any reason, but he neglected rock's simultaneous sorrow. An oddly constant nostalgia runs through popular music alongside the sex -- a sense of having somehow missed better times. Revivified Beatlemania appeared almost within days of the Beatles' breakup. With "American Pie," his 1971 ballad of rock's sad decline, Don McLean had by far the longest song to that time to receive wide play on AM pop radio. And there's that curious scene in the 1983 film Risky Business in which while Bob Seger roars "Take those old records off the shelf" on the stereo, the young Tom Cruise, not even born when those old records were made, dances around sexily in his underwear. The "insidious mastery of song" that D. H. Lawrence observed is based on its cruel mixing (as T. S. Eliot put it) of memory and desire. Even the music of sex becomes impotent under our awareness of its now-lost purpose.

Music is not culture. It's the mist that plays above culture. A people that takes its music as fundamental art -- as we have taken music, making the all-penetrating surround of recorded noise the single most apparent fact of American society -- has mistaken the foam for the sea. "I am fond of music," Hermann Hesse observes in his novel Demian, "I think because it is so amoral." Hesse was right about music's genuine amorality: in a culture organized around good thought, music will express the moods fitting that thought, whereas in a culture organized around bad thought, music will express the moods fitting that, too.

But what happens in a culture without thought, a culture with expression but nothing to express? The way we listen to music re-creates, more than anything else, Hesse's Glass Bead Game: a complex and sophisticated rite filled with delicate connections perceived by its priestly scholastics, lacking any meaning, and consuming the culture's intellectual and emotional energy. All that remains is ironic incongruity and the decadent moods that can survive irony: memory and desire -- or, rather, nostalgia and concupiscence, the feeling of memory without anything to remember and the arousal of desire without any object of desire.

It seems a cruelly small profit on our enormous investment, our vast sophistication, our wiring of the entire nation for sound. Everyone I know adores music, as I do. But our elevation of a secondary art costs us something. Music cannot build a culture, and in America today music is in the way -- keeping us from the higher arts that could aim at a unified idea and a public metaphysics, a purpose and meaning for our all-encircling noise.

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


J. Bottum is the books and arts editor of target="outlink">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 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 3; page 56-70.