The Soundtracking of America

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

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.

"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.

Plato was deeply suspicious of music for much the same reason Nietzsche celebrated it: in its direct appeal to the emotions, music seems to reach behind our rational faculties. "When a man abandons himself to music," Plato declared in the Republic, "he begins to melt and liquefy." Nietzsche wanted to end inhibition. He denounced Richard Wagner for committing a "crime against what is highest and holiest" by composing such moralistic, anti-emotional operas as Tristan und Isolde (1859) and Parsifal (1882).

Both Plato and Nietzsche would have been surprised by how undangerous America's indulgence in music has proved to be. Why music hasn't melted us down into Nietzsche's unconstrained beasts is hard to say. Rock-and-roll certainly sounds as though it has this goal. But even as we recognize that music claims to unleash emotion at its most primitive, we also understand that it never will. "The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises," Adorno wrote. "All it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu."

Perhaps this perpetual unfulfillment is what has made sophisticated musical ironists of us all. Certainly Americans are given little credit by their cultural detractors for how knowledgeable they are about the breadth of music. You can see this breadth in Web sites that offer complete discographies of every diva ever recorded, or in the game by which oldies-radio-station listeners can link the countrified 1970s Flying Burrito Brothers to the British Invasion pop harmonies of the 1960s Hollies by tracing the band members through the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

You can see it even more clearly in the expectation that Americans will appreciate the "Hallelujah Chorus" in TV ads for Baskin-Robbins ice cream and Bayer cat and dog flea treatment, will prefer elevators with piped-in snatches of middlebrow classics like "Flight of the Bumblebee" and the William Tell Overture, and will be pleased that shopping malls provide them with musical clues to decorum and the appropriate emotional attitude.

Music's traditional defense against overelaboration has itself created a new kind of overelaboration. In all previous ages of music a new musical form succeeded by replacing its predecessors. But now each new form joins its predecessors in our endlessly expanding library of music. This is what Adorno missed when he claimed, in "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening" (1938), that Western pop songs make us "forcibly retarded," because they're so shallow and because we're compelled to hear the same ones over and over again. It's what the long-haired classical-music lovers and the culture warriors overlook, and what the nostalgic bemoaners of popular music's decline fail to grasp. We live in the most elaborate age of music in the history of the world. Ours is an extraordinary kind of musical sophistication that can never be rejected without creating yet more sophistication, shallower but wider, and yet another musical form to know.

Thus Paul Simon can swing from African music to Cajun to Chicano without penalty and get top billing on a concert tour with Bob Dylan after having spent the early portion of his career being dismissed by pop sophisticates as the poor man's Dylan. Cher, like one of those bottom-weighted inflatable dolls that won't stay down, bobs from folk rocker in a shag vest to family-hour TV minstrel to slinky torch singer to chart-topping techno-rocker at age fifty-three, with the success last year of her single "Believe." In the soundtracking of modern America neither musical sophistication nor musical rebellion can make anything go away. Not even Cher.

Ideas, Yes. Ultimate Purpose, No

NEARLY every art seems to have diminished in the second half of the twentieth century. Dance, painting, fiction -- it's not that we lack talent, interest, or financing for them; it's that we seem to lack sufficient reason to employ them. The last thing a shared world view does before it dies is to provide a target for revolt. The lengths to which artists go nowadays to make sure someone notices their revolt may be the best measure of how nearly complete is the decay of our old-fashioned, ultimately classical and Judeo-Christian sense of unified purpose. The handful of notorious works in recent years -- Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi -- mostly prove how desperate artists are to feel like rebels. And the relatively mild reaction to them proves how hopeless this aim is. We have come a long way from Dublin's brawling outrage at John Synge's comic The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and from New York's nativist response to the British actor William Macready's appearance as Macbeth in 1849, which left twenty-two dead outside the Astor Place Theater while a mob howled, "Burn the damned den of the aristocracy."

Yet music has survived the decay of a public metaphysics -- a shared belief in the coherent relations among God and nature and human culture -- because, more than any other art, music produces its effect without demanding a philosophical frame. To appeal to and create an emotion, a piece of music needs to make no particular gesture toward its purpose.

The late-nineteenth-century proponents of art for art's sake were after this when they proclaimed, as the Victorian Walter Pater put it, that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." Susanne Langer was aiming for the same thing when she demanded "expressiveness, not expression" in her book Philosophy in a New Key (1942), which for a time was the most widely discussed philosophy text in America. In the 1920s Ernst Cassirer attempted, in his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, to define an aesthetics for a modernist, post-Kantian age that lacked confidence in metaphysical goals. Langer's brilliance twenty years later lay in recognizing that Cassirer's analysis applied most of all -- perhaps only -- to music. "In music," she argued, taking the situation of her own day as art's universal condition, "we have an unconsummated symbol, a significant form without conventional significance." It exists "probably below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking," and thus "no assignment of meaning ... is permanent beyond the sound that passes."

Indeed, no matter how serious and elaborate, a musical composition cannot create its own metaphysical frame entirely from within the music. Even those who appreciate music in all its forms must recognize that music is not a rational art and cannot express an actual idea. I once knew an aspiring music reviewer -- in some ways as intelligent a man as I've ever met -- who couldn't stop himself from writing things like "the sunshiney arc of the symphony's second movement" and "the darkling power of the adagio appassionato." (Music critics hate to use an English phrase when there's a perfectly good Italian one.) He knew he wouldn't stomach anything similar in a review of poetry or fiction. But what was he to do? He felt it all so deeply, and there just didn't seem to be a vocabulary for what he felt. "Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us?" Thomas Carlyle asked in one of his nineteenth-century lectures on heroes and hero worship. Music is "a kind of inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the Infinite."

That, of course, is the problem. There aren't any words for it, because there really isn't any it: no intellectual content, no idea in the melody. Even in, say, Vivaldi's Four Seasons -- in, that is, a deliberate effort to make music express something rational -- the ideas it takes forty-five minutes to convey amount to little more than winter is cold and summer hot, in spring things grow and in fall they don't.

There is, anyway, something artificial and incidental about forcing ideas into music. Handel's Messiah, by a long mile the most-often-performed piece of classical music in America, is full of small examples of this effort to slip in some extra rationality, the score drawing little explanatory pictures of the libretto. God has made the "rough places plain," Handel's tenor informs the audience -- and the word "rough" he trills roughly, and the word "plain" he holds plain. "All we like sheep have gone astray," the chorus sings from Isaiah 53 -- and the singing voices go astray, every one to his own way. It comes across as stupendous. It sounds superb. And considered purely as an idea, it's on a par with what might occur to a child asked to illustrate with crayons an uplifting text from a second-grade reader.

Plenty of genuine ideas exist in music, of course; they're just not what we mean by "ideas" in any nonmusical sense. They express musical techniques and music's root mathematical structure, and exactly what they have to do with what we experience while listening is something no one has ever satisfactorily explained. The fascinating elegance of music's mathematical technicalities made a Pulitzer Prize-winner of Douglas Hofstadter's book on formal recursion, Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979), and a best-selling album of Switched-On Bach (1968), with its synthesized fugues so absurdly accelerated that nothing survived except the underlying geometry of the music.

But these are ideas like the ideas in chess or math. They don't mean anything, and have no purpose in and of themselves. It's no accident that child prodigies -- with the skill of adults and the experience of children -- appear in music, chess, and math but never in poetry or philosophy. One pretentiously highbrow class of music criticism -- George Bernard Shaw said he could teach a poodle to write it in two hours -- involves nothing more than explaining music's underlying technicality.

What we experience in music is something else. Music stands, at last, as "evocative" -- a word whose only other use is in advertisements for expensive perfume. Music is chess drenched with perfume.

The Futility of Musical Poetry

I HAVE a cousin who is a musician, a keyboardist who played in Faith No More, a band that found some real success in the early 1990s. In its start-up days in San Francisco, while the musicians warmed up the audience for a concert headliner or pounded away above the hubbub at a club date, they would sometimes perform a version of the theme song for Nestlé's candy bars: "Chocolate dreams you can't resist, N-E-S-T-L-E-S." It was funny how marvelous they could make that absurd advertising jingle sound. But when you think about it for a moment, the comedy and irony begin to seem much too easy. Where, in fact, does one find any profundity in song?

The problem begins with the general failure of lyrics, the incapacity of sung words to introduce and maintain in music the ideas the music itself lacks. "Nothing is capable of being well set to music that is not nonsense," gibed the eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison. The most famous poem set to music undoubtedly remains Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (1785), which -- Freude! Freude! -- Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony made sound as though God himself were speaking, but which as poetry ranks somewhere between Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime" and William Ernest Henley's "I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul."

Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is perfectly serviceable parlor verse, but "profound" is not exactly the word for it: "He who has a noble wife, / Let him join our mighty song of rejoicing!" And it doesn't magically become profound when sung by massed choirs backed with roaring timpani and trilling violins. It only sounds that way. What Schiller becomes in Beethoven's hands is not wise but only sensible. We grow confused and imagine that we must be having a deep thought because we feel it so deeply.

You can see the failure of musical poetry even in the short span of rock's dominance. The Canadian poet Leonard Cohen turned to music in the late 1960s after listening to Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono and realizing that an imperfect voice need not be a hindrance to pop success. If Cohen wrote a higher class of lyrics than some other rock-era composers (the song "Suzanne," the lines "God is alive, / Magic is afoot"), it was at the price of writing a lower class of poetry. The Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed studied as an undergraduate with the complex and serious poet Delmore Schwartz, but that didn't stop Reed from making an early recording (as Andy Warhol told the story) by tuning all the strings of his electric guitar to the same note and banging away at it, screaming "Do the Ostrich" over and over again until the studio technicians came in and made him stop.

And the quality of musical verse falls off rapidly from Schiller and Cohen and Reed. Most opera lyrics are second-rate poesy, most musical-theater songs are worse, and most popular tunes are worse yet. Can anyone ever actually have sat down and read Stephen Foster's lyrics without the music? It's interesting to imagine what Edgar Allan Poe, a contemporary critic scribbling devastating newspaper reviews for a pittance, would have said if Foster had published as straight poetry lines like "Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea, / Mermaids are chaunting the wild lorelie; / Over the streamlet vapors are borne, / Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn." Poe wrote in 1849, "There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit, but the case of song-writing is, I think, one of the few."

Today's critics are equally skeptical about the profundity of lyrics. The columnist Dave Barry, for instance, has succeeded in making the inanity of 1970s pop lyrics a staple of American humor. From Carl Douglas's "Everybody was Kung Fu fighting. / Those cats were fast as lightning" to Neil Diamond's "I am, I said, to no one there, / And no one heard at all, not even the chair," you can hear, across America, offhand ridicule of the music of the 1970s. Even the brief disco revival in the 1990s was kept afloat with mockery, mostly involving the impossibility of doing anything but howl at lines like "MacArthur Park is melting in the rain. / I don't think that I can take it / 'Cause it took so long to bake it / And I'll never have that recipe again."

The interesting thing is not that millions of Americans can laugh at the bad lyrics they know but that millions of Americans know the bad lyrics. Old pop tunes are our major source of shared knowledge. Not everybody knows literature or politics, but everybody can sing along with "A Hard Day's Night." Not even the heavily recycled 1950s and 1960s television series, movies, and sports heroes of the aging Baby Boomers are anywhere near as recognizable among younger generations.

When E. D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), he unwittingly exposed the strangeness of our modern predicament. Attacking contemporary education for trying to teach techniques without content, Hirsch told an anecdote about his father's writing in a business letter the tag "There is a tide" with the reasonable expectation that the recipient would catch the reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Hirsch was right that it is hard to imagine a pair of businessmen corresponding this way anymore, just as he was right that such shared tags help to communicate complex thoughts in efficient ways. But he was wrong when he concluded his book with 5,000 references (subsequently expanded in a cottage industry of dictionaries and encyclopedias) that were useful for average Americans to know. What was odd about Cultural Literacy is odd about all recent collections of quotations. To look through any of them -- the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, the latest edition of Bartlett's -- is to realize that they are not tools for pinning down what we already know vaguely, the kind of thing John Bartlett thought he was providing in his 1855 Familiar Quotations. They are instead unfamiliar quotations -- useful crib sheets, curiosities of literature, and after-dinner speakers' handbooks filled with lines their users don't know and are not in the least expected to know.

Hirsch'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.

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.