Taking the Popular out of Popular Music

Hole In Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, by Martha Bayles, New York: The Free Press, 453 pages, $24.95

Bewailing the content and character of American popular music is often a sport of intellectuals and would-be culture critics who try their hardest never to have to listen to pop music. So this book starts with an advantage: Its author, Martha Bayles, is a serious, credentialed cultural critic who claims no inherent antagonism toward popular music. Her stated goal is to grapple with exactly what has happened to her once-beloved American pop to make it ring so harshly in her ears.

Coarse, vulgar, nihilistic, grating, unlovely in every sense -- those are the qualities that Bayles hears in today's pop music. The problem, she says, is that the pure stream of life-affirming Afro-American music, which gets a loving historical overview from her, has been polluted by an injection of attitudes and approaches imported from the European modernist avant-garde. She parses out three strains of modernism, which she calls "introverted" (overly self-obsessed, hermetic, unconcerned with connection with an audience), "extroverted" (striking a balance between skilled formal innovation and respect for tradition), and "perverse" (obscene, nihilistic, obsessed with shocking the bourgeoisie). The middle one, she argues, has been salubrious; the first and last have proven venomous to the system of American pop.

Bayles praises the "tough, affirmative" spirit of the blues, and it is in general a good- natured humanism -- and a perceived lack of obscenity, violence, and bombastic romanticism -- that she seems to admire in it. (The material of the blues was not, of course, actually devoid of obscenity and violence.)

But only jazz enjoys extended musicological definition or appreciation from her. It is not the multi-leveled and multi-influenced tradition of the American popular song that really excites Bayles. While posing as an open-minded lover of America's multifarious Afro- American music tradition, she reveals herself instead as that stuffiest of 20th-century musical nuisances, the jazzbo.

As for funk, hip-hop, and most rock 'n' roll, well, that's not even authentically black to her. It's a corrupted nugget of Afro-American root coated with an unpalatable layer of European "perverse modernism." She longs for the old days of buoyant, positive, rhythmically syncopated music made with a certain degree of compositional and melodic complexity and rooted in Afro-American musical traditions. In other words, she misses jazz, a music that hasn't been considered "pop" by most people for around 50 years.

With certain elements of the Republican Party calling for a "culture war," matters that could be considered personal taste -- such as appreciation for modern popular music -- are becoming presumptive signs of being an alien influence. (Bayles echoes this charge about the aspects of modern pop she dislikes.) Certain questions are entering the realm of politics (which of course, in the end, is the realm of force) with disturbing regularity. Is culture, especially modern culture, "good for you"? Are there essential differences in being good aesthetically and good morally? Is it enough, if you care about a healthy and humane culture, to simply let people like what they like?

Cultural criticism runs a strong risk of reading to many otherwise intelligent readers as if it is written in a foreign tongue. Discussions of the relative beauty or syncopation of popular music might seem like irrelevant babble to someone who isn't a devotee or scholar. Though Bayles tries to deny it by her insistent linkage of the aesthetic and the moral, much of this really is a matter of taste and relative refinement of ear. I suppose she wouldn't believe me if I told her that her judgments about such bands as the New York Dolls, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and the Velvet Underground are signs of an untutored ear when it comes to rock. Bayles has already declared that I am "a fool with a tin ear" for loving the Ramones, and I'm sure she considers my inability to enjoy most jazz a sign of ignorance or spiritual corruption on my part.

But though it is a matter of taste, dominant cultural taste is at least as important as the fate of Dan Rostenkowski to someone who cares about their civilization. Maybe that old Platonic saw about the walls of the city crumbling when the music changes is overly melodramatic, but we are all forced to hear pop music even if we don't give a damn about it: in restaurants, bars, malls, even on ferries.

Bayles decries the foolishness of those who deny the links between cultural expression and the real world; she wants it understood that bad music has practical repercussions. She doesn't quite blame gangsta rap for street crime, and she does make a much-quoted statement that "the censorship of popular culture is both a practical and a constitutional impossibility." Later, she makes a less widely quoted statement that "the burden of proof lies with those who would repeal the law against offensive crudity, not with those who would enforce it," so her liberalism appears to come and go in syncopated time.

The reason why she is forced into that contradiction is that, in the end, you can't make aesthetic judgments for others; nor is it even as easy to "convince" someone aesthetically as it is to convince them on more intellectual questions, through rhetoric and argument. If people prefer harder and simpler rhythms, faster tempos, or lyrical subject matters that are more cynical, dark, or despairing than Bayles does, well, what are you going to do?

It doesn't help her argument that she overdramatizes, either. She consistently mistakes scabrous cynicism (as in the Sex Pistols) or wounded romanticism (as in the New York Dolls or Nirvana), rooted in a sense that the world has betrayed deeper values, for nihilism or perversion. She has a hard time seeing through media images or hearing through a sound that can be harsh to the untrained ear. Rock music strikes many ears (including mine) as very often beautiful and meaningful indeed. While she touches on some accurate and depressing sociological observations about the role of heavy metal and gangsta rap as a repository and encourager of the worst sorts of attitudes and behaviors among adolescent males, she fails to make her case about the causes of the problems she sees in pop music, and in the end posits no useful method of solving them.

Political critics of popular culture treat it as a sociological aberration; highbrow critics of popular culture like Bayles treat it as part of the same ecosystem of ideas as higher culture and criticism. Neither of them seems prepared to deal with the material of pop culture according to its own nature: as a folk art -- even when sold by corporations -- reflecting the aesthetic values and concerns of those who make it and those who buy it. Ignoring this is Bayles's major flaw, one all too common when professional highbrow critics stoop to conquer baser fields. Bayles and her colleagues need to be reminded what popular culture means -- that what defines it and shapes it is the taste of the people who create and consume it.

The most obvious way her error manifests itself is in how much of her argument leans on tedious repetition of the sterile futilities of old leftist cultural and literary critics, rehashing ancient Stalinist or Frankfurt school arguments of no importance to or influence on the actual performers or audiences of the music she is allegedly trying to understand and explain. Ignoring them for the dubious joys of verbally fencing with dead Popular Fronters is a major structural error. Popular artists and audiences are not, with rare exceptions, taking their cues from the high culture of fine art or, God knows, fine art criticism (or the Comintern!).

Her scandalized account of what she calls "perverse modernism" is certainly very interesting. Tales of nihilistic anti-art perverts obsessed with shock and obscenity above meaning and beauty are entertaining enough -- though I pity the desiccated sensibilities of someone who sees only destructive, violent tendencies in the often hilariously absurd antics of dadaists and noise musicians.

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