Hello, First Thoughtsters! One of the things I’ll be carrying over from my blogging for Postmodern Conservative, now that it’s been incorporated into First Thoughts, is “Carl’s Rock Songbook.”
What is the Rock Songbook?
It is a series of posts, each of which focuses on a particular rock song, or on a particular rock-related issue. It has also involved some analysis of relevant films.
My favorite posts are those that analyze a song, artist, or style, that I really love. Here are a few of those:
- 5. U2, “New Years Day”
- 6. Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”
- 7. Duke Ellington, “Come Sunday,” and The Velvet Underground, “Sunday Morning”
- 13. The Ramones, “Bliztkrieg Bop”
- 18. David Bowie, “The Prettiest Star”
- 23. The Beach Boys, “That’s Not Me”
- 25. Simon and Garfunkel, “Sounds of Silence”
- 32. The Zombies, “A Rose for Emily”
- 34. The Kinks, “Waterloo Sunset”
- 47. Surfin’ the You-Tube with the Noise-Pop Beach Goths
- 66. The Greatness of Dave Gonzalez
- 80. Joan Baez, “Silver Dagger”
- 84. The Allah-Las, “Busman’s Holiday”
- 87. Karen Lafferty, “Seek Ye First”
Once the First Things web archives get back up to speed, you’ll be able to access all of these using the search engine feature above (click on the magnifying glass icon). So if you’re interested, book-mark this post.
Some of these songs, you’ll notice, are not really rock songs, although for various reason discussing them advances my overall project. I don’t regard disco, rap, jazz, or folk, as being rock, although I have had posts on all of these. Most controversially, I don’t regard old-time rock n’ roll as being rock. I actually often attack rock from the standards of both “above” (classical, jazz) and “below” (rock n’ roll, etc.). However, I do admit that rock is often better able to capture the modern democratic/middle-class zeitgeist than any other art-form.
There are also songbook posts that deal with rock criticism. There are a number that discuss my debt to Martha Bayles, probably our greatest pop music critic. One of my series of posts considered Retromania by the rock critic Simon Reynolds. He gets us thinking about the issue of “recyclement,” that is, the contemporary pattern of returning to, while slightly reconfiguring, older rock styles:
- 48. Critical Notes on the Indie Rock Noise-Pop Boom
- 49. Simon Reynolds, Retromania
- 50. When the Future’s Over, Turn out the Lights
- 51. Simon Reyonlds and Kurt Andersen on Our Cultural Cul-de-Sac
- 52. Rock’s Recyclement Explained
Other series deal with themes that run through rock, sometimes linked to a particular style. Lately, I’ve returned to a series that deals with the hippie creed of love:
- 72. The Beatles, “It’s Only Love”
- 73. The Beatles, “All You Need Is Love”
- 88. Jefferson Airplane, “Let’s Get Together”
- 89. The Love-World of Jefferson’s First LP
My first Songbook posts for First Thoughts will develop this furtherlook for a post on Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” soon.
Like most all of the Postmodern Conservative writers, as Peter Lawler described below, I am a Strauss-influenced thinker, but one grounded in Biblical religion. I am an evangelical Protestant, presently attending an Anglican church. As a scholar, I am a Great Books generalist, with particular expertise in Tocqueville, Plato, and American Political Thought.
Now obviously when younger I had a more intensive-than-average enthusiasm for rock music, culminating in a stint as a college-radio DJ. But why would a middle-aged Gen-X-er like me be returning to that now (particularly when his own musical diet consists far more of classical, jazz,and roots-music)? And why would a person blessed with a Great Books education be making such a big deal about rock?
Allan Bloom in 1987 sniffed about the fact that that talking about it [rock music] with infinite seriousness has become perfectly respectable.
Well, my seriousness about it is of a finite sort, but I nonetheless think my Songbook is a worthy and important project, a step forward in the critical understanding of popular music, and particularly in the way social conservatives understand it. I eventually will make a book out of it.
The basic reason pop music matters was long ago expressed in this famous saying of Plato’s: for never are the ways of music changed without the greatest of political laws being changed. In essence, for Plato, a change in the music heralds a change in the regime; and we must note that for him, regime stands for both a society’s set of institutions and laws, and its overall way of life.
Our society, curiously, is one that has experienced a revolution in its cultural order, but not necessarily in its politics. There was a Cultural Revolution that occurred in the 1960s. That fact has to be faced. Its most obvious impact then and to this day has been in the area of sexual mores, but everyone knows that this happened in tandem with a musical revolution. Pop music in general became regarded much more seriously than it had been before, and something that had been called rock n’ roll began to be called Rock. Indeed, so many fascinating musical changes occurred that anyone with good taste in pop music has some love for the music of those years, 1964-1969, and the rock stars of those days have entered into a kind of pantheon. We speak with all seriousness, because we are really forced to, of a Rock Mythology. The legends about Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison matter to us as much as those about Achilles did to the ancient Greeks.
However, while we correctly speak of a Cultural Revolution, one that began in the 60s and whose full implications and regularization occurred over the course of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, we also correctly speak of an ongoing Culture War or Cultural Divide. We note that the U.S. Constitution, a rather key part of the American regime, remains the law of the land; we note that Christianity remains the dominant religion of the land, and shows few unambiguous signs of fading away; we note that efforts to at least try to practice monogamous marriage continue to characterize the behavior of more adults than not, despite the heavy blows the institution has suffered. We finally note the presence, strikingly absent in much of Europe, of a powerful conservative movement.
In sum, we have experienced a Cultural Revolution, but at least in America, this Revolution has not decisively won the day, or somehow cannot win it. The regime remains divided. To use the sort of symbolic imagery Plato would, our polis seems to have two citadels rather than one, and only one of these has been seized by the revolutionaries. And to some extent most of our own souls, whatever side of the culture divide we might place ourselves on, are divided as well.
So in a way, my basic reason for why rock music culture matters is identical to my suggestion of how to understand it. We need to study it most of all in an effort to understand our culture, a basic aspect of which is the ongoing effort to revolutionize it that began in the 60s. Rock Song is both a cause and a signpost of changes that have occurred, of changes which did not fully occur but remain very much on the table; even more interestingly, it is likewise a record of how certain changes did not turn out the way we expected, and what our emotional reactions have been to the new world created by the Revolution.
As a social conservative, I have a general (but not at all comprehensive) tendency to oppose the changes brought by Revolution, and am thus particularly interested in pointing out ways in which the creeds of the 60s, so often embodied in rock song, have come up short. Part of my motivation for doing this with the help of rock song is that it allows me to give the positions I oppose a poetic power they wouldn’t otherwise have, and it allows me to show how certain general ideas have political and philosophic implications.
And religious implications, too. I am quite serious about the need to approach Rock as a mythological phenomenon; that is, Rock Song to some extent is a poetic storehouse of our times, containing a set of symbolic images, phrases, sounds, and heroes that can be employed, as Socrates employed quotations from Homer, or as St. Paul employed ones from other Greek poets, to more vividly illustrate the truly fundamental issues.
Here are some Songbook entries about songs, artists, or styles I do not particularly like or recommend, but which I regard as keys to understanding our culture:
- 1. The Zombies, “Time of the Season”
- 8. Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”
- 12. The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
- 21. David Bowie, “Sunday”
- 31. The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
- 41. The Cramps, “Goo-Goo Muck”
- 58. Revolution’s RushOliver Stone’s The Doors
So, my fellow First Thoughts readers and writers, I hope you can see how my project fits into the overall mission of First Things. Know that I am at least aware of the dangers of neglecting the Fine for the Popular, and of the dangers of exposing oneself to the temptations of the World even as one seeks to better understand them. Still, I don’t need to tell readers of First Things that arriving at a truly Christian stance towards our culture, and at strategies for making it more Christ-seeded, cannot occur without a serious and open-minded consideration of its main tendencies.