The ‘role’ of rock: Beauty and truth in the not so fine arts

by Mark Fischer

“Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse.”1—Allan Bloom

“The beat says ‘do what you want to do.’”2—William Kirk Kilpatrick

“Rock music is the language of alienation, the means of self-stimulation emotionally and sexually, and an avenue of escape.”3—Andrew Minto

Modern music does not have many supporters among social conservatives. It is blamed for a plethora of social ills, ranging from drug use and promiscuity to the demise of American education. And some of the criticism is well-deserved.

While outrageous rap and heavy metal “artists” grab headlines for songs about random violence and deviant sexuality, much damage is also visited upon the average teen by more “mainstream” artists, selling their gospel of self-indulgence, irresponsibility and new age unity through the medium of rock music. In the typical modern lyric, the world would be a better place if we all just followed our feelings.

These criticisms are all reflected in various books and articles of the above-quoted writers, all three of whom were concerned enough about modern music to focus their capable minds on attacking the subject. For these writers, however, it is not enough to criticize the particular lyrics, music or worldviews of certain artists; they take aim at the genre itself. For them, no good can come of rock music. The music itself is about uninhibited sexuality and selfism. To wed any other theme to rock music is to be untrue to its essence, or so the argument goes—an argument, interestingly enough, which is shared by the editors of Rolling Stone and other rock “purists.”

Not only do I believe this argument is false; I believe it exposes a regrettable degree of musical ignorance.

I write as one who likes rock music. I have played in rock bands and have composed rock songs. But to present a fuller picture, I should say that I also love Mozart’s Mass in C Major, Billie Holiday’s version of “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” and Gershwin’s “American in Paris.”

That I list all of the above among my musical tastes is not to say that I ascribe to the school of aesthetic equivalence. Certain readers will no doubt breathe easier when I say that I believe the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach exhibits a level of beauty and a sophistication of composition far above any music bearing the tag “modern.” But to acknowledge this does not end the discussion; it begins it.

Rock music is admittedly a youthful genre. It is often energetic. It can be driving and emotional. But it can also be fun, joyful, sad or thoughtful. It is certainly not as emotionally limited as many of its critics contend.

One of these critics, Allan Bloom, bluntly asserts that the beat of rock is sex. If this is true, I must confess to having often utterly missed the message. Bloom insists that youth know this to be true. I insist that youth know this to be false. Such statements are easily made in the abstract, as a way of winning debating points, but they are difficult to sustain when actual music is examined.

Surely, if Bloom pleased, he could have restricted his condemnation to the likes of the Rolling Stones, Madonna and 2 Live Crew. Clearly rock and sex are inextricably linked by such artists. But consider the following sample: Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park,” with its happy melody, light groove and supporting brass section; U2’s “Pride,” a driving, guitar-dominated song about Martin Luther King; Kansas’ “The Wall,” a haunting rock anthem about spiritual searching; and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” a realist piano ballad about an assortment of individuals holding onto life in a bar. These writers all used the rock genre to paint a picture, to evoke an emotion, and to express an idea. That is to say, they are artists. And as artists, the more appropriate their musical backdrop is to their ideas, the more they succeed. I believe they all succeeded, and that countless others have as well. Anyone who listens to such songs and hears only “sex” might ask himself whether he judges honestly, or rather prejudicially—allowing a general theory to overwhelm his experience of the music.

William Kilpatrick rejects Bloom’s Freudian reductionism as too simplistic. In an attempt to be nuanced, Kilpatrick distinguishes among various classifications of modern music. Rock music (which he condemns), he says, can be recognized by its heavy, overbearing beat. Thus, for Kilpatrick, harmless “popular music” seems to become dangerous Rock music when the decibel level of the bass and snare drums reach a certain level.

In any case, rock music can do no good for Kilpatrick, who claims that anyone who thinks it can be used to express a variety of healthy ideas simply misunderstands its nature. As he sees it, the music is its own message, and that message is self-gratification. So much for nuance. With this McLuhan-like statement (i.e. the medium is the message), Kilpatrick concludes that the genre cannot be made respectable. But Kilpatrick reaches this conclusion by limiting his analysis to artists I would classify as vulgar and dehumanizing—such as N.W.A., Van Halen, W.A.S.P., Moetley Cruee and Prince—as if such artists represent all that rock has to offer.

I suppose that for those who are justifiably angered by the rock culture in general, it is easier to “blame the beat” than to take up difficult musical and philosophical questions. The beat is sex and the beat is narcissism are the answers Bloom and Kilpatrick give. How do they know this? It is self-evident. No discussion.

To his credit, Professor Minto parts company with Bloom and Kilpatrick in offering some genuine musical analysis for his readers. He rightly identifies the Negro spiritual as an early antecedent of rock music. Minto, however, views the Negro spiritual as a variation of the work song, where “the tempo and beat no longer expressed the joy of fruitful labor but the misery and alienation of slavery.” 4 According to Minto, the Negro spiritual eventually gave way to the Blues, which focused on despair, and advanced the trend of marginalization and alienation. The succession continued through Jazz, Swing, Rock ‘n Roll, and Rock, with themes of alienation and self-gratification passed along at each stage, presumably in greater doses.

While Minto made a laudable attempt at making sense out of his distaste for modern musical trends (indeed, much of his cultural criticism is valid), his analysis still leaves much to be desired. Modern American music is essentially black music. Its rich rhythmic flavor flows from the source Minto tried to identify. But to marginalize its emotional range by limiting it to themes of alienation and self-gratification drastically underrates black culture.

The Negro spiritual, in a Psalm-like fashion, offered hope amidst terrible oppression. This music was honest; it refused to sugar-coat the realities of human existence—there was hope, but there was also pain for the time being. This musical honesty was transferred to the Blues. The themes explored by the Blues greats—brokenness, loves lost, oppression—do often depict despair and alienation. Yet unlike much of today’s literary, musical and popular culture, the Blues did not celebrate decadence and faithlessness. It lamented them. The traditional blues artist recognized that the world can be better; that bad choices have been made, and that better choices can be made. Within temporary despair, is permanent hope. This is not escapism; it is exactly the opposite.

Modern music, at its best, borrows the musical honesty of these genres, and thereby serves a valuable cultural purpose. But if we accept Minto’s argument, we are forced to reject the great American tradition of gospel music, the richness and variety of American jazz and swing, and even, dare I say, the emotional power of rock, which when joined to appropriate themes, portrays them with particular power and convincingness.

Amy Grant’s “Lead Me On” project is an example of an artistic and positive use of the rock genre. I am not a big fan of Grant, whose latest work consists of mediocre dance pop music, lacking in substance. “Lead Me On,” however, probes questions of young faith, sexual temptation, spiritual pride, marital love, and courage under oppression—in a manner that takes these questions seriously and provokes reflection. The project is musically diverse, including delicate ballads, traditional rock, and hints of the blues and country. The musical backdrop accentuates the questions raised in Grant’s lyrics, so that the music and lyrics work as a unified whole. Nothing in the project suggests Dionysian sexual indulgence or self-gratification; instead it suggests a thoughtful artist’s treatment of challenging issues.

As an aside, I note that many critics of “Christian Rock,” including Minto, argue that one cannot justify “using” such a inherently perverse genre to “evangelize” non-Christians (Minto compares the notion of using “Christian Rock” in evangelizing adolescents to the hypothetical use of “Christian Pornography” to evangelize those in the pornography industry). Putting aside the assumption that rock is somehow inherently destructive, I reject the notion that I, as an artist, am merely using a musical genre as a tool or prop in winning converts. When an artist has this viewpoint, as a multitude of contemporary Christian artists undoubtedly do, their art becomes unduly self-conscious and contrived. It ceases to be art and becomes a sort of gospel-tract set to an awkward and often inappropriate musical background. Thus, I believe such critics miss “the point” of music. I justify my musical writing not by its evangelical usefulness, but by its merit as an authentic artistic expression.

All of this is not to say that the modern genres cannot be abused. They can and they are. More than at any time in history, music which can only be described as ugly and degrading has obtained a large measure of popularity. Rhythm tracks that overwhelm all melodic structure; throbbing electric guitars that rob all nuance from composition; and vulgar lyrics joined to shrill and screaming voices—this is becoming standard fare in mainstream culture. But none of this reflects on the idiom of rock music—as if something in the structure of the idiom itself makes perversion inevitable. These are artistic problems; bad art; art created only to shock and disturb. Nor is this problem confined to the musical realm. Modern pictorial art, movies, literature and television are all infected with this decadence—a decadence with philosophical roots which are beyond the scope of this article.

That a musical idiom can be abused is not to say that the idiom itself is abusive. I find much of modern music, from Jazz and Blues through Rock, quite refreshing. When done well, they provide a unique medium for exploring a multitude of themes—themes which involve life in all its fullness, and which could not (perhaps) be adequately expressed in other genres. While modern music may not give expression to the aspirations of sacred music or the exquisiteness of classical, it has a way of expressing life in its everyday manifestations. The sturdiness of friendship; the pain of separation and loneliness; the elation of young love; even the undulations of one’s spiritual search—these are the raw materials of modern music at its best. Critics such as Bloom, Kilpatrick and Minto are surely misguided in their attacks on those who faithfully and artistically explore such themes through the idiom of rock music.

Mark Fischer is an alumnus of the class of ‘89 and Contributing Editor of the Concourse.

  1. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987, p. 73. ↑
  2. William Kirk Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, 1983 ed., p.182. ↑
  3. Andrew Minto, ‘Rock Music: An Ethical Evaluation’ (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, April 1990). ↑
  4. Andrew Minto, ‘Is ‘Christian Rock a Contradiction?’’ (Ibid). ↑