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.

But Bayles's attempt to trace the links of the chain between the ideas of André Breton and the Cafe Simplicissimus and the antics of the likes of Iggy Pop and Genesis P-Orridge is strained and almost certainly irrelevant. Just because a critic can detect patterns doesn't mean that a direct causal influence exists. Bayles shows that the attitudes and tactics of certain punk performers are not new to the earth, but the history of those strategies is hardly relevant to the decisions being made by individual artists decades later in an entirely different context.

Cultural strains such as those Bayles painstakingly traces have significance only to people who are knowledgeable and concerned about culture and tradition. The pop world is all a lot more hermetic than a critic, professionally required to look for connections and big pictures, is prepared to admit. Most pop performers are reacting blindly to their own impulses about what's fun and interesting and what the market will bear. Humor and wit are also far more of an impulse behind all of the rock 'n' roll silliness she chronicles, from Alice Cooper to the New York Dolls to Pere Ubu, than Bayles acknowledges.

Another place where her too-keen critical intelligence overtakes the realities of how audiences relate to her subject matter is her inability to see the trees of individual experiences—songs, in the case of pop music—for the forest of her overarching theoretical structures. She's so busy attempting to prove that the icons of modern rock are at the same time talentless plagiarists from and ruinous corrupters of the Afro-American tradition that she ignores the fact that it is their individual songs that, in the end, make them so beloved, not their "sound" or image.

She gives lip service to the Beatles' ingenuity but makes tortuous attempts to link every aspect of their approach to black forebears. This mutually exclusive damning of modern rockers as having a) stolen everything from the blues and b) ruined and corrupted the blues is an old, sad refrain from musty traditionalists.

While it is difficult to argue with the threads she traces back into pop's black past in the music of the Beatles or the Stones, it's also difficult to point to anything in the Afro-American tradition that sounded just like, say, "And Your Bird Can Sing" or "Street Fighting Man." The genius of pop songwriters isn't just about "sound" or "approach" or the other abstractions of the critics—it's actual songs manifest in particular performances on record that make the pop world go round. It's easy to gloss over that reality with words on a page. For example, to slam Public Enemy as phony perverse modernists destroying the black tradition becomes difficult once you actually listen to the impossible-to-ignore rhythms and rhymes of their best song, "Bring The Noise."

Bayles also ignores the realities of audience response in her frequent confusion of her own theoretical understanding of modern rock with the effect the music had on its listeners. Some of these errors are simple, though smugly judgmental and puritanical, such as assuming that because Sly Stone had a personal drug habit, the meaning his music transmitted to its listeners was all about drugs as well.

Some are more complicated. Bayles indulges in revisionist history on the nature and influence of '50s rock 'n' roll, some of which is well-taken. She makes much hay out of detecting elements of their Pentecostalist upbringing in the musical and performance styles of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and uses this to damn mainstream rock critics for overstating both the shocking novelty and sexual undertones of rock in the '50s. But it strains credulity to think that it was in a Pentecostalist framework that their larger audience understood the physical and emotional burst of energy that their music represented.

Bayles and everyone else does agree that rock brought something new to our culture, and that that something had to do with the public display of sexual energy. And while Chuck Berry and Bayles can see links in his music to previous jazz and blues styles, it is also undeniable that it doesn't sound exactly like that old stuff. Something new was molded—out of old ingredients, to be sure. But again, look at the reactions of the fans and listeners: Did they think Berry's music was the same ol' same ol'? Did all the musicians he's influenced, all the lives his music changed?

Besides its fundamental error, the book is rife with incidental errors as well. While presented as a serious intellectual work, with dozens of pages of footnotes, it's loaded with factual errors relating to the book's alleged central topic, contemporary popular music. Bayles gets dates wrong, spells names wrong, misidentifies what album songs appear on, badly mischaracterizes the sounds or careers of bands, and makes critical howlers that smack more of ignorance than opposing critical judgment.

I suspect it is lack of real respect or concern for her topic, not general scholarly slovenliness, that compels her to not bother looking at a Led Zeppelin album to see how John Bonham's name is spelled; to somehow hear the absent Elton John playing nonexistent boogie-woogie piano in the Who's original Tommy LP; or to erroneously state that the publicity flap about Professor Griff's anti-semitic comments to the Washington Times preceded the release of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by placing the album's release date in 1989, not the actual 1988. Getting a date wrong is perhaps not a cardinal scholarly sin, but it does seem improper to base an uncharitable inference—that the flap was integral in boosting the band's sales—on your own mistake, as Bayles does.

Despite all the areas where my rock critic ears find fault with Bayles's judgment, let's judge this book on its own terms: What did it try to do, and did it succeed in its aims? Bayles says she wants to help influence popular taste intellectually. She starts, however, from a vantage point so far away from current popular music taste that her task is hopeless. Fans of Nirvana or Ice Cube will not be turned into fans of Dr. John and Wynton Marsalis by exhortation. They can be encouraged to widen their horizons and give new things a listen, but probably not by people who write in The Atlantic and New Criterion.

As my comment above about Chuck Berry's music "changing lives" reveals, rock's unique yoking of physical musical expression and tune with verbal meaning is something more than a mere idle entertainment for many devotees, and anyone who has bought as many records, seen as many bands, and written as much on the topic as I would have to be included in that number. On self-reflection, I stand as a rebuke to Bayles's thesis that following modern pop music is corrupting. In actual fact, except for how clumsy and stupid much of it is, listening to rock is probably harming no one, except perhaps by monopolizing some people's attentions beyond its merits. Listening to music that seems harsh, too cynical, and too sordid is neither damaging to society at large nor even bad in and of itself.

Why Bayles wishes to restrict pop music from dealing with dark, perverse subjects that she surely wouldn't deny literature is mysterious, or perhaps merely patronizing of a form she considers useful only for toe-tapping tunes and a chin-up optimism. As Lou Reed, songwriter for one of Bayles's bêtes noires, the Velvet Underground, always insisted, his only formal innovation was tackling subject matters that were always available to the novelist within pop songs.

So Bayles's problem is on one level a non-problem. But even if one grants that the dominance of crude, harsh musical and lyrical themes in pop is disagreeable, Bayles unfortunately disdains the one real hope for advancing her cause of good music: accepting the plurality of a dynamic market culture. In her concluding chapter, Bayles praises musicians she admires who keep flowing, to her ears, the life-giving currents of pure and decent Afro-American music. (Most of these artists are as dull as matzo, but never mind.) So music she loves still exists; some of it, like Marsalis, Paul Simon, and Bonnie Raitt, does quite well for itself in the market.

(At the same time, some of the music she disdains, like heavy metal and gangsta rap, while high-selling, is largely restricted to small and homogenous fan groups of young men and gets played on the radio only in strictly segregated formats; if not for the occasional media brouhaha about it, the people not buying it hardly would know it existed. And the social pathologies Bayles sees inherent in them are not strictly spawned by them.)

So why sweat the existence of music you don't enjoy, or even hate? The pop culture marketplace is huge; mass production, distribution, and increasing wealth have created space for almost any kind of music imaginable, sometimes selling in editions of 1,000 (or less), sometimes played only on low-wattage radio stations, sometimes performed in only the smallest of venues. Market capitalism, while it may create the Black Sabbaths and Funkadelics Bayles hates, also leaves available an enormous range—and ever widening—of music from both the past and present, including much that even a Bayles could love. In the current pop marketplace, the religious chanting of Spanish monks can top the charts.

"I am no libertarian, expecting the market to do magic tricks by itself," Bayles writes. But she doesn't notice that the market has already performed all the tricks she could hope for, short of suppressing music she hates by force. Abracadabra, more music is available to all of us every day. Maybe the music she likes (or I like) is no longer the dominant cultural trend. Bayles is obviously not happy with everything she sees. But in focusing her attention and energy on what she sees as ugly and destructive in pop, she ignores the obvious option to simply search out what she likes and to treasure it. As that satyriacal plagiarist Mick Jagger crooned, you can't always get what you want, Ms. Bayles. But if you try, you'll find that you can always get what you need.