Thoughts from the Music Man

What’s so funny about A Musical Joke? I’m sure Alex Ross or Jay Nordlinger could tell you, but my knowledge of classical music is limited, to put it charitably. I possessed a “Peter and the Wolf” read-along record as a … Read More

By / November 5, 2007

What’s so funny about A Musical Joke? I’m sure Alex Ross or Jay Nordlinger could tell you, but my knowledge of classical music is limited, to put it charitably. I possessed a “Peter and the Wolf” read-along record as a child, but it couldn’t have been many years later that I got my first tape—either Pearl Jam’s Ten or U2’s Achtung Baby—and from there, if Allan Bloom is to be believed, it was all downhill into a morass of “arousing and cathartic music” the lyrics of which “celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions” and inure one to “traditional ridicule and shame.”

Well, not quite. I was lucky enough to have parents with eclectic musical tastes, so when I wasn’t listening to “Jeremy” over and over again I might hear Pat Metheny or the Allman Brothers Band (my father was magnanimous enough to take me to see them live, too), Ella Fitzgerald or Etta James, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade or Miles Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro. And our traditional soundtrack for decorating the Christmas tree was none other than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—which brings me to another music joke altogether. Mark Steyn writes:

We are all rockers now. National Review publishes its own chart of the Fifty Greatest Conservative Rock Songs, notwithstanding that most of the honorees are horrified to find themselves on such a hit parade. The National Review countdown of the All-Time Hot 100 Conservative Gangsta Rap Tracks can’t be far away. Even right-wingers want to get with the beat and no-one wants to look like the wallflower who can’t get a chick to dance with him. To argue against rock and roll is now as quaintly irrelevant as arguing for the divine right of kings. It was twenty years ago today, sang the Beatles forty years ago today, that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. Well, it was twenty years ago today—1987—that Professor Bloom taught us the band had nothing to say.

Steyn is referring to the “music” chapter of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which he notes is “the most difficult for young fans” of the book. Perhaps it’s difficult because, like much of the doomsaying one hears about music, it reveals a crude, generalizing ignorance of the thing it condemns. That’s precisely why Mark Steyn is just the man to parse it: He knows from music. He was a professional radio DJ. He can casually remark, “Paul Simon and I once had a longish conversation about this.” Meanwhile, Diana West’s The Death of the Grown-Up includes an excellent chapter about the music business, but when it lumps the sentimental but well meaning U2 in the same category with the violent and misogynistic 50 Cent, it loses credibility.

Why? I say this not because West ought to care about looking cool, but because commentators would do well to acknowledge that the chasm between kinda bad and truly, irredeemably bad is probably about as vast as the one between classical music and kinda band. Let’s not forget, either, that Bloom dismisses a category of “not classical music” that includes a hell of a lot more than terrible pop. Of course, Steyn came prepared with an objection to my objection, and that’s why this essay is better than most of the stuff in the tut-tutting genre:

Bloom’s not here to weigh the merits of the Beatles vs. Pink Floyd vs. Madonna vs. Niggaz with Attitude vs. Eminem vs. Green Day. They come and go, and there is no more dated sentence in Bloom’s book than the one where gets specific and wonders whether Michael Jackson, Prince, or Boy George will take the place of Mick Jagger. But he’s not doing album reviews, he’s pondering the state of an entire society with a rock aesthetic.

I really must step aside and let you read it for yourself, but not without remarking a funny coincidence. Just after reading Steyn’s thoughts on the consequences of lost musical as well as biblical literacy, I heard a spot on public radio about a peculiar ecological problem affecting a Hawaiian island. One woman told the interviewer that it was like something from the Bible, a plague of locusts or something.

Or a plague of frogs, even—which is exactly what she was talking about.

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