Rock music: A response to Andrew Minto

by Mark Fischer

When I submitted my recent article to the Concourse, I envisioned an opportunity to finally enter into a reasonable discussion about a subject known more for the unreasonable debate it generates. In the spirit of the Concourse, I personally invited Mr. Minto to respond, noting in my letter that I believed his response would enrich the debate. Given my viewpoint, I did expect to “take one on the chin.” I most certainly did not anticipate taking one below the belt. Be that as it may, I only ask the reader to consider one man’s “shallow, uninformed opinion, albeit one that is held with personal conviction.” | The modest goal of my piece on modern music was to challenge a certain dogma of social conservatives (I consider myself a social conservative and was surprised Minto shrank from a “tag” gladly adopted by the likes of Richard John Neuhaus, Russell Kirk, William Bennett and so on.) The dogma involves a rejection of all modern music on the premise that such music is utterly incompatible with truths and virtues they—and I—hold dear. Their argument inevitably takes the form of reductionism, i.e. the beat is sex, the beat is self-indulgence, or, in the words of Minto, “Rock music is the language of alienation, the means to self-stimulation emotionally and sexually, and an avenue of escape.” To condemn entire genres in this fashion is, in a word, bold. Those who do so clearly have the burden of proof. What I find so disappointing is that most of these commentators, including Minto, display no substantial knowledge of the genre they criticize. Ultimately, they rest on bald assertion.

Minto’s article, “Rock music: An ethical evaluation,” is a good example of this phenomenon. He goes to great lengths “demonstrating” the uncontro-versial: “First music engages the listener emotionally. Second, music creates a psychological disposition or mood. Third, music functions educationally, introducing the listener to culture and its virtues through role modeling.” I have no real qualms with these conclusions. I do “assume” the communicative nature of music, and all art for that matter. If I believed music to be an unintelligible, functionless pastime, I would not be wasting my time engaging these matters. And if these conclusions are the “hard fought” ones to which Minto alludes, I would suggest that he has spent far too much time reinventing the proverbial wheel.

I am more interested in what Minto does with the above conclusions. What does modern music communicate? He approaches this question by examining the “cultural antecedents” of the genre and by attempting to pinpoint the “ideas” communicated by the genre’s particular “language” of rhythm, melodic structure, and chordal progressions. I find his analysis wanting. Minto “surveys” and sums up the entire body of 20th century popular music, with all its richness and diversity, in one paragraph, the last sentence of which reads: “The marks of alienation can be found at each stage [of musical development]: egotism, sexual promiscuity, despair, and emotional stimulation to stem the tide of that despair.” With the broad brush of “alienation,” Minto has pigeon-holed artists as diverse as Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, James Taylor, Kansas and Amy Grant.

Why should the reader believe him? He demonstrates no knowledge of the genre. While he may understand the general communicative nature of music, he displays no expertise concerning the patterns and nuances of musical phrases that define an idiom, so as to be able to distinguish between phrases that are stereotypical and those that are truly innovative and authentic. Moreover, he shows no familiarity with a body of criticism that analyzes the modern genres, their roots, their strengths and their weaknesses.

A year or so ago, I read a book by art critic Martha Bayles, titled Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. By analyzing in great detail the development of modern genres and by examining the artists, their music, the themes they explore and their musical influences, Bayles concludes that much is wrong with popular music today. Her conclusions are hard fought. She wrestles with the music itself and forces the reader to do the same. She also demonstrates that much can be right with popular music; that artists past and present have produced a significant body of work within the various modern genres and that such artists have successfully communicated a wide variety of worthwhile ideas and emotions.

In contrast, Minto seems to trumpet the fact that he does not mention a single artist in his articles—a fact that impinges greatly on his scholarly credibility. If he wishes to attain “hard fought” conclusions, I suggest that he must analyze actual music and actual artists. He cannot simply cite a few musicologists as if that closes the debate. To analogize in his own field of expertise, I ask what he would think of an outspoken critic of Christian ethics who draws his conclusions by citing other like-minded critics and who demonstrates no familiarity with the New Testament texts. I suspect that Minto would not take such a critic seriously.

Minto raises the important question of how one evaluates a song or genre. My article was not geared to answer that question and it would take much space to address it with any seriousness. I note only that I abhor the idea that art can be validated by the kind of pure subjectivism of which Minto accuses me. When I speak of “authentic artistic expression,” I expected, in the context of a Catholic university, that the reader would understand that the terms “authentic” and “artistic” concern matters of technical excellence, creative effort, faithfulness in lyric to the Christian understanding of the person as revealed in Christ and through his Church, and a specific attention by the artist to harmony between music and lyric. If this was not adequately communicated, I apologize. This framework has led me to reject much modern music, both of the secular and religious variety. But this framework has also helped me discover much that is true and beautiful in modern music, and I will continue to take it on the chin to express this belief.

Finally, I invite Mr. Minto to continue this conversation. I only remind him that a philosophical system, to have any usefulness, must be applied to the object under examination. He appears to have a carefully formulated system and a forcefully stated conclusion, but has neglected the most important step in the process—a thorough application of the system to the object of study. And when that object is music, a certain measure of subjectivity is unavoidable. In the meantime, I hope he will allow me a generous portion of time to brush up on my philosophy, theology, musicology, hymnology, sociology and hermeneutics.

I also invite the opinion of other interested parties, including even those who do not know what a musicologist is and who do not have degrees in philosophy or theology. Popular music is, by its nature, of the people. So when common folk (myself included) listen to Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and for some reason feel like—well—singing in the rain, we shouldn’t have to wonder whether this strange phenomenon is evidence of deep-seeded alienation. We should put on our slickers.