Thursday, April 23, 2009

In Defense of Rockin': Part 1


I'm listening to Pandora radio and trying to train her to my tastes. She's trying real hard, but she doesn't quite get me yet. She's got The Clash on now so I'll get started. It's in this mood that I'd like to draft a proposal or brain dump for a paper I've wanted to write for some time -- a defense of rock n' roll.

Let me preface the dump by saying I really have been mulling this over for about a semester now. I'm taking a philosophy of aesthetics class and I have managed to bring up rock music and successfully include it in serious discussions of mostly august (some crazy) philosophers and their various art theories. My professor, who is sort of my go-to guy for testing theories, has let me get away with my arguments for complex music such as Jethro Tull being held up as examples of what an artwork should aspire to, or of what art can do to/for us.

While Freebird has also come up several times, the prof. is not as accommodating to my exaltation of less orchestral and less overtly classically influenced bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin (who I think are very classically influenced), and Credence Clearwater Revival. I have not even considered bringing up that even lower category of bands which give me quick and easy pleasure like Boston, REO Speedwagon, Journey, or Styx. Those would get shut down immediately.

This professor likes rock music, to be sure (as Pandora puts on the Zep, "Rock and Roll"), but even though he genuinely enjoys it, I think he keeps it separated from his high culture musical tastes. We all do this to some extent. But there is something about rock music, for me, that lets it transcend being marginalized or pushed out of the way by high art merely because it is popular. The first weak argument that came to mind for me was that we like so much popular music, all of us do, and everyone with an artist's soul takes some of this music seriously -- even people with Ph.Ds and opera subscriptions. Other art forms are not like this. Popular movies are only taken seriously by fame-obsessed folk, and there is really no such thing today as popular plastic arts (i.e. painting, sculpture, etc) except for things that are made only for buying and selling (IKEA) -- hence the exploded "design" industry.

Pandora dug some Velvet Underground out of her box for me. (Ha! There's a sentence for the psychoanalysis bunch.)

Anyhow, the above weak argument was answered with "Well, everyone likes fast food too, but it's not good is it?" I don't think that's a sufficient rebuttal, even though I know my thinking is full of holes. I think what I need to make clear is that rock music -- the CANON of rock music, because I really think there is one -- transcends being degraded by its associations with the popular, or by its tendency to be commodified by soulless record execs. There is bad popular music. If we're talking about today's music, most of it is nauseating to me, to be honest. But the musical rut we're in (I think it's the malaise of post-modernism and music just took longer to get there than the rest of the arts) is a totally different topic.

Pandora is playing me way too much Beatles. That's another topic too.

I don't intend to defend rock as something totally literary. I'm looking at this from a philosophical perspective, but yeah, I'm obviously going to be influenced by my literature leanings. I think music needs its own categories. Rock would be like the beat poetry of music, of course. Not everyone would dig it. But the rock canon's locus is definitely in the "real "music canon. There needs to be a term for what makes music the stuff of studies and contemplations in the first place, like "literary" says what is worth studying and contemplating when it comes to words.

Speaking of literary, Pandora just turned on "Moby Dick." Instrumentals are more conducive to thinking.

So we all know what rock music does for us and to us -- it carries us away, it makes us move, it transfixes us, and paralyzes us (wonderfully!). When a popular film or nicely designed doohickey does this, it only works once or twice, and only for a moment or two. Good rock can do this again and again, no matter how well we know it, no matter if we've learned all its tricks, no matter if we know it's meant to be ironic or trying to tell us something we don't want to hear.

I have so much more to say (especially about Nietzsche and music!) but I want to wrap up the thoughts for today. So I'll make this "Part 1." And I'm going to keep bothering my professor about this as long as he allows it. Since he likes the rock, he can empathize with me. But he's also coming from a slightly "higher-art" place than I am. (He's got scores of classical CDs and probably has an opera subscription...I have one JS Bach CD in my car, and last night, after some deliberation, I chose Mr. Bungle instead and put Bach back.) So it's nice to have a place to go where I know I'll get some of these arguments immediately wasted; which will save me some time when this is someday presented to the real snobs out there.

One last note: I have noticed even lowly television series condemning any attempt at "scholarizing" rock music. I think it was Law & Order that had an episode where the "perp" was a guy doing a (floundering) dissertation on Bob Dylan. He was in his tenth year and everyone made fun of him. Coming from a TV writer (ACK! GAG!) that hurts, man. That really hurts. I'm gonna fix this.

Now to let Ian Anderson tell me about "The Secret Language of Birds." I think Pandora is finally getting to know me. Good girl.

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