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July 24, 2004

Teens Revisited

Dear Vanessa --

Once again, I've missed my chance. Putting together my posting (here) about how bizarre it is that teenage values have taken over the general culture, out-of-the-loop me didn't pounce on the fact that July 2004 has been settled on by experts as the 50th anniversary of the birth of rock 'n' roll. 2Blowhards: always your first source for breaking news.

In celebration of rock's big birthday, The Spectator's Michael Henderson has written an entertainingly cranky rant. (I'm tickled to notice that he mentions a few of the same sociological facts I wrote about in my posting.) Since the piece isn't online, I'll type out some passages from it. Henderson mentions Elvis' 1954 recording of "That's All Right, Now," and goes on in this way:

The postwar world, increasingly obsessed by youth, needed a standard-bearer to sing its own songs, and anointed a gauche kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, whose gift was to transform the raw music of poor blacks into comforting, bite-sized chunks for white record-buyers. At a stroke, the teenager was born, an unsettling development for men and women who were still coming to terms with the fracturing consequences of a horrible war.

Half a century later it seems that teenagers, and the people who cater for their easy, pliable tastes, have taken over the world. And don't imagine that being a teenager simply means awaiting the key to the door. Some people carry their teenage years into middle-age ...

Let's spit it out. Pop culture may be 50, it may even have provided some innocent (and not so innocent) entertainment along the way, but it has never grown up and it never will ...

With few exceptions, [pop music] is melodically obvious, harmonically non-existent and lyrically execrable ... With its manufactured sense of outrage, juvenile emotionalism, bogus egalitarianism and grotesque sentimentality, pop lacks the capacity to express any feelings other than the most basic: that by trying to be rebellious in some inchoate, let's-goad-the-parents sort of way, it has turned out a succession of illiterate chumps who are more conformist than the 'establishment' figures they find it daring to mock ...

No form of entertainment, not even the film industry, has produced so many unpleasant people, addicted to drink, drugs, sex or self-regard, and no art form (if we can call it that) has been so indulged by the media. Far from it. Drug-taking and sexual excess are held to be an indispensable part of a rock 'n' nroll 'lifestyle'... How many thousands of young people seduced by the promise of 'liberation' have discovered instead that the road of excess leads not to the palace of wisdom but to a life of enslavement? ...

Pop music can supply excitement, but not true joy. It cannot ennoble, but it can demean. It has no capacity for personal growth, and is hostile to the very notion of beauty. It lacks tenderness, compassion and forgiveneess, and without those qualities there can be no art ...

Henderson confesses that as a kid he too had his favorites: King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, and especially Roxy Music. But I get the feeling -- don't you? -- that he's decided the time has come to move on.

So what if Henderson overdoes it a bit -- he makes some good points. And, besides, isn't "going provocatively far out on a limb" what we pay opinion columnists (and especially British opinion columnists) to do? The Spectator's website is here.



posted by Michael at July 24, 2004


"...that by trying to be rebellious in some inchoate, let's-goad-the-parents sort of way, it has turned out a succession of illiterate chumps who are more conformist than the 'establishment' figures they find it daring to mock ..."

Hmmmm. Who is "the Establishment" now? Isn't it the teenagers who are now 50 and according to him won't grow up themselves?? You can't really have it both ways---you can't say the post war generations never grew up, and then claim to have an "establishment" to mock anymore, can you? The folks who reached their forties in the 1960's and were the original "establishment"---are in their eighties now and not controlling too much of anything. So aren't today's teenagers mocking themselves in a few decades? How delicious. Or else...people did in fact do some growing up, whether they still like the Supremes or not, and therefore...Motown didn't prevent people from "growing up."

"Pop music can supply excitement, but not true joy. It cannot ennoble, but it can demean. It has no capacity for personal growth, and is hostile to the very notion of beauty. It lacks tenderness, compassion and forgiveneess, and without those qualities there can be no art ..."

Oh, b%llsh&%. This is like people who say if Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry didn't design the building, it isn't really "architecture." (Did I spell that right?). Anyway, I find Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love With You" or "Too Much" or Marvin Gay's "Heard it Though the Grapevine" or "Hey, Jude" or "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" or "Unchained Melody" (Were those the Righteous Brothers? Or which brothers?) or Creedence's "Fortunate Son" or Prince's "Big Red Corvette" or or The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" (was that The Who?) or Springteen's "Pink Cadillac" or the Police's "Every Breath You Take" or even Madonns's "Material Girl" or many others to embody any and all of those qualities. Plus sexiness plus fun. So there. (But maybe I'm one of those who never grew up and doesn't know any better...that would be the argument, right? :))

Posted by: annette on July 24, 2004 1:56 PM

What she said. Plus "Classical Gas."

Posted by: ricpic on July 24, 2004 2:17 PM

Michael: I'm still honestly wondering what you are proposing as an alternative to what you call "pop" music? If pop is what everybody listens to and has all these negative qualities, what should we all be listening to instead? What do you consider good, not-pop, music, and how would we know if standards changed again such that the music everybody listened to got "good" again according to your standards. Is that possible?

Are you really putting down /everything/ ever written by any "pop" artist?

Posted by: Glen Raphael on July 24, 2004 4:26 PM

How about Van Morrison doing "Crazy Love"? Or Aretha doing "Spanish Harlem"?

Annette -- That whole "who's the rebel and who's being rebelled against" thing is pretty funny these days, isn't it? I mean, who's the establishment? "Avant-garde" architecture's another example. The self-professed avant-garde is sponsored by academia and multinational media money, among others. What's avant-garde about that?

Ricpic -- "Classical Gas" needs to be put permanently in the canon.

Glen -- Nobody else has to buy it, but I find it handy to make a distinction between "popular culture" and "pop culture." For my money, "popular culture" means "commercial culture of any kind," while "pop culture" means "teen-centric post-WWII culture." Popular culture might be Jackie Gleason, "Les Enfants du Paradis," "The Maltese Falcon," Katharine Hepburn, "Gone With the Wind," Buster Keaton, Bette Davis, and "His Girl Friday," all of which are frankly commercial art but none of which target teens specifically. Elvis Presley, LL Cool J, "Road Trip" -- these all target teens.

So "pop culture" is a subspecies of "popular culture." (Incidentally, there are some genuine deep thinkers who make the distinction too, so I'm not being entirely eccentric here.) Seems to help me keep my head screwed on, in any case. And no, I'm not putting down pop culture. It's an amazing phenomenon, and I'm just taking note of it, and marveling at the way it's taken over culture more generally -- as far as I've been able to tell, no such replacement of adult values by teen values at a culture's core has ever happened before. I do worry in a general, Very Large way about whether it's a good idea for teen values to replace adult values as our culture's standard thing. I also marvel at the way so many people seem willing to spend their entire lives in a pop-culture mental universe. There's something about pop culture that's addictive and hard to leave behind, it seems. But such head-scratchings aren't going to prevent me from enjoying Smokey Robinson, Jim Carrey, or The Shirelles.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2004 5:09 PM

He's got some points, but Sturgeon's Law applies to pop music too. Cull out the 5 or 10 percent that isn't crap (however your tastes lead you to do that) and you have some pretty powerful art that can be all of the things he says it can't.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on July 26, 2004 4:56 PM

I could add many to the list but will restrict myself to saying that as many years as I've heard Elvis singing "Are You Lonesome Tonight" (45 years?), it still gives me chills when I hear it. I take issue with the comments in many ways, agreeing in particular with what Annette has said so far.

Posted by: missgrundy on July 26, 2004 6:30 PM

Captain Beefheart? Pop?? How?!!

Posted by: Twn on July 27, 2004 5:35 PM

Long time lurker, but I wanted to throw my two cents in the ring.

To amplify Glen's comments, I would question the underlying assumption that, say, Jazz or "popular" music of the golden age (the 1920s) is really that much more profound than King Crimson. Especially as jazz has degenerated into an intellectual exercise with snobby fans and amazing levels of pretenitousness (imo). And, we won't even talk about the arid nonsense of modern "classical" music.

There is a lot of "rock music" that is lyrically as profound (and pompous) as opera.

Posted by: Brian Miller on July 27, 2004 6:59 PM

Is it possible that the world hasn't been "taken over" by teens so much as the teens, being new to things, are simply more honest about the values of the society they are entering? In a world that over the past few centuries has reduced virtually all notions of meaning to "having a good time now," what kind of higher meaning should a phenomenon that is as mass-culture-o-centric as pop music be expressing?

I'm reading an interesting book by Karen Armstrong that discusses the religious evolution of the past five or six centuries--the Modern Era. She claims that in the pre-modern world, society's intellectual life was divided between what she calls logos or rational problem solving and mythos or meaning-giving stories, and that these two zones were kept fairly separate and not expected to overlap--reason shouldn't be applied to the myths, except in a sort of technical and clearly subordinate way (think 'canon law' or the Talmud) and the myths shouldn't be expected to provide a blueprint to guide your everyday, practical behavior. In fact, when the separation of these principles wasn't maintained, generally things went very badly. She claims Modernization is the process by which pre-Modern mythos was intentionally subjected to logos, which has of course largely destroyed mythos.

I believe that the history of music provides a quite clear example of process of modernization, from, say, Bach to pop music. While pop music is not entirely empty of mythos (the examples above legitimately make this point), everybody has to acknowledge that the mass of pop-culture-music expresses a world view as thoroughly de-mythos-ized as anything I can think of in the cultural sphere.

However, there is some hope that this won't last forever; while the mythos of the Iron Age (note the era in which most of the great world religions arose, i.e. the "long" first Millenia B.C.) may not cut the mustard for most people today, perhaps new developments like sociobiology, will be able to create a new mythos for our age, and lead to a revitalization of pop culture.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 28, 2004 10:41 AM

P.S. I don't want to suggest in the above comment that the progress of logos is a bad thing; in most aspects of life it has been a very good thing. Nor would I suggest that the demolition of the pre-modern mythos is an entirely bad thing; after all, as Ms. Armstrong suggests, the mythos of today's world religions was developed in order to justify, and make sense out of, a pre-modern economy in which most of the people had to spend their lives toiling in agriculture or herding sheep or cattle so that a tiny minority of people could enjoy the benefits of "higher civilization." However, despite the ability of logos (in the Modern Era, science and technology) to grant its users power, presumably to be used in building a better life, it has no ability to provide a meaningful context for failure, pain, suffering, impotence, etc., which are still everyday experiences in the Modern world. Hence, the continuing role of religion in the Modern World, and--for those who cannot accept traditional religion--the need for a new cultural development, something to provide exactly this sense of meaningful context for the negative aspects of life.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 28, 2004 1:27 PM

I think we may be slipping occasionally into the descriptive-vs.-judgmental pit here. Henderson obviously has his opinions, but my main point (FWIW) isn't judgmental, it's simply that "pop music" (music aimed at teens and teen-formed tastes specifically) is a sub-category of "popular music" (commercial music generally), and that (given pop music's enormous success) we lose track of the broader category sometimes. We think that all popular music is pop music, when the reverse is true. That's an indication of how completely the pop music thing has taken over popular music more generally.

One thing Henderson doesn't get into which I'd argue is the fact is that pop music seems more prone to turn into a self-enclosed world than popular music does. It doesn't often lead to much beyond or outside itself. An interest in Chicago blues might well lead to a love of swing or Dixieland, and an enjoyment of Cole Porter or Blossom Dearie might well lead to a love of Handel or Strauss. These musics exist on a continuum. But an awful lot of people who get hooked by pop music never move beyond pop music -- they keep looking for the same buzz. It's as though pop music values (and techniques) lead only to a craving for more such -- ever trying to recreate that youthful, charged-up feeling. Which is fine and dandy and who am I to judge. But there's still a big musical world out there that many, many pop music fans never get around to exploring -- an interesting phenom.

FvB -- Interesting questions, and 'way beyond my competence to address. I'm pretty happy with the idea that demographics-plus-social-changes-plus- commercial-pressures- plus-technology equals the triumph of pop music myself. But maybe there's a lot more to it than just that. Offhand, my hunch is that the pop worldview has become a quasi-religion these days for many people -- stardom, riches, and glamor being the pop equivalent of achieving redemption; the stars themselves providing proof that attaining god-hood is possible, if only for a select few; "believing in the dream" being the pop equivalent of religious belief; and that "once-every-few-years super-high sensation that it's all just working beautifully and the top of my head's exploding it's so great" being the occasional view of bliss that pop affords and trades on. I think it's plausible anyway -- do you buy it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 28, 2004 2:29 PM

A few people might enjoy John Derbyshire's review of the new Cole Porter biopic here. He's beyond anti-pop, but he makes some good points. Well, points I agree with anyway, including: "This kind of smoky, jazzy, grown-up sophistication seems a world away now. Our own popular culture is targeted mostly at illiterate teenagers."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 28, 2004 4:21 PM

Yeah, I pretty much buy that pop music offers people little vignettes intended to remind them of times when everything's going great. And pop touches on some of life's little downers, although mostly of the unrequited love variety (that everybody hopes will eventually get resolved when they find the right significant other.) But as best I can tell, today it steers resolutely away from any more comprehensive discussion of how to live with the Big Problems (e.g., mortality, unrelieved loneliness, the necessity for lifelong hard work, the likelihood of ultimate failure and frustration, etc., etc.) and still not be utterly miserable. Which is why it is, er, a tad superficial.

The worship of pop-music idols is that they are supreme embodiments of how today's logos-oriented society can pay off for people --i.e., pop stars are powerful, they are successful, they can sleep with whoever they want, they don't have to punch a time clock, etc. The problem here, of course, is that when things don't work out, when you end up broke or broken-hearted, pop idols can only tell you to buy their music so you can feel less alone...assuming you've got the purchase price. Not much of a message, or much of a set of values to build a life on. But it's kind of hard to see what values a consumer society has to offer other than... consumption.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 28, 2004 8:30 PM

But as best I can tell, today it steers resolutely away from any more comprehensive discussion of how to live with the Big Problems (e.g., mortality, unrelieved loneliness, the necessity for lifelong hard work, the likelihood of ultimate failure and frustration, etc., etc.)

Well, except for music specifically designed for religious ceremonies, I don't think popular music ever focused too much on these problems, much less gave a "comprehensive discussion" of them in musical form. And some pop music does touch on this kind of stuff, like "Dark Side of the Moon".

Posted by: Jesse M. on August 2, 2004 12:38 AM

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