There’s nothing more embarrassing than someone from an older generation commenting on the present one. Think of the aging hippie professor, clad in jeans and t-shirt, trying to prove his bona fides by showing he is hip to his students’ latest taste in music. It never fails but to provoke amused giggles from the back of the classroom, followed up by the inevitable tweet : “I mean this guy is so out of it; that’s stuff, like, from a month ago.”
Having repented of my foolishness a couple of weeks ago in bringing to our readers’ attention an article by Charlotte Allen on the current sexual mores of the young, I now repeat my folly by turning to the parallel issue of, precisely, the musical tastes of the young. I say parallel because the article I now commend suggests that the music of yesterday is the prolegomena to the sexual mores of today. Put more simply, who says rock says hook up. The author is the renown philosopher Roger Scruton, and the essay can be found at http://www.aei.org/article/101717 or, in the fuller version, at http://www.american.com/archive/2010/february/soul-music . And we will all await, as we did last time when the youth movement spoke up to set matters straight on the effective truth of the alpha male, for commentators still in touch with the current generation (is it X, Y, Z or AAprime?) to show us where, perhaps, Scruton may have gone astray.
Scruton is a wonderful writer and an expert on music (among a thousand or so other things that he has studied and mastered). The current essay, “Soul Music,” is highly reminiscent of the famous chapter on music that appears near the beginning of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s chapter is also on the music of the youth. Interestingly, too, Bloom and Scruton both begin from Plato, referring to the Republic. The theme is that music shapes the soul, and thus shapes the way of life or the regime. (“The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city” Republic 424c). And sure enough, as our music has changed, so have our mores and laws, in the direction, as Cole Porter put it even before the revolution in rock, of “anything goes.” And consider for a moment not the music but the lyrics of that one:
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.
The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
Stop. “Good is bad today.” Porter saw not only where mores were heading, but what was to be a precise linguistic transformation. Kool! Of course, the dictum “anything goes” would be strictly libertarian, whereas the new ethic is in fact more restrictive: it permits only that which allows anything to go, while excluding anything that does not. This is what is known as political correctness or the dogmatism of relativism.
Returning to Bloom, he was known best for his attack on rock music. One line stands out: “life is made into a non-stop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy” (p.75). His chapter on music, incidentally, is commonly thought to have been the reason for which this work of theory was able to burst out from beyond the narrow circle of academic readership to find its way to the top of the New York Times best seller list, earning him the envy and enmity of the academic establishment. Not even John Rawls, in his wildest, er, philosophical fantasy could top that.
There is more to the last point about selling books than meets the eye. I can testify to this first hand, for I knew Alan Bloom, as he once jokingly said to me, “before he was Alan Bloom,” meaning before he became a household celebrity. No one can say that Bloom knew he would become famous by writing Closing, as its success remains at the end of the day one of the more inexplicable events of modern culture. Still, I think its popularity was not a one-thousand percent accident. Bloom attacked rock music in large part to create a scandal. For a philosopher to jump into the mosh pit and talk about hip hop and MTV was to make him a shock jock avant la lettre. And the purpose was not so much to sell books—though the man could sure spend money!—as to try to reach and educate a portion of the youth generation. He attacked rock—he says as much at the beginning of his chapter—because he knew that modern youth would defend it. Indeed, he thought it was about the only thing they would defend as such, i.e., not on relativistic but absolute ground. And this was the kicker in his pedagogy: Defending something absolutely and with indignation is a precondition for philosophical inquiry. You have to love something first to be capable of beginning the ascent; you have to be in the thrall of a prejudice, to cling to something absolutely, before going through the wrenching experience of giving it up and opening up to the pursuit of truth. A student open-minded to everything would remain that way forever. “If a student can . . . get a critical distance on what he clings to, come to doubt the ultimate value of what he loves, he has taken the first and most difficult step toward the philosophic conversion.” (p.71) Bloom no doubt meant most of what he said about Mick Jagger, but the analysis was secondary to his “rhetorical” purpose of engaging some of his students and helping them to get some satisfaction.
Roger Scruton’s article is much more about music per se than Bloom’s chapter, but the two together make for some good reading. Make sure you get the version of the Scruton essay that contains the musical clips, and have your headphones ready.