…the rock and roll apparatus affectively organizes the everyday life of its fans by differentially cathecting the various fragments it “excorporates” along these three axes. …It involves vectors (quantities having both magnitude and direction) that are removed from the hegemonic affective formation.
Lawrence Grossberg, rock theorist
He’s way off…I don’t really know if there’s enough material in my songs to sustain someone who is really out to do a big job. A fellow like that would be much better off writing about Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky.
Bob Dylan on Allen Weberman, the self-proclaimed “Dylanologist”
Allan Bloom’s infamous, profound, and yet finally over-the-top denunciation of rock music at one point ruefully notes that “talking about [rock] with infinite seriousness” has become “perfectly respectable.” Although I approach high-minded discussions of rock with low expectations, and cringe at many of the claims made for the academic study of pop-culture, I nonetheless have unleashed the Songbook on the world. To reassure skeptical readers that my seriousness about rock is of a finite sort, but that it is ultimately merited, for the next several Songbook entries I will be discussing rock-intellectualizing , and why most of it is so poor and predictable.
The last several entries sketched the difference between rock and roll and Rock. I have made no efforts to explain the change from the former to the latter, circa 1966-1969, but most can discern its basic outlines and the fact that a demand for seriousness was a big part of it. The rock intellectual’s usual take is that Rock turned rock n’ roll into an adult art form. My take is that the change was more often than not for the worse, with plasticine porters appear on the shore seeming a rather questionable improvement over she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. That is, in the effort to connect the cerebral high with the vital low most rock artists wound up with neither, resulting in pretentious lyrics, and what is worse, leaden music. (“Strawberry Fields” is okay, but wouldn’t you rather hear a languid classical piece if you’re in such a mood?) It is no accident that rock intellectualizing came about at exactly the same time, and that it retains to this day a prejudice for pop/rock music which strives to “blow our minds” with big-time meaning. Here’s a specimen of this desire circa 1981, from liner notes by rock critic Paul Morley:
I was scratched, fiercely and justly, by “Hong Kong Garden” and was never the same again. Siouxsie and the Banshees, on the nightmare edge of our sheltered world, were concerned with nothing less than breaking the rules of logic, space, and time. Accepting, exploiting and confusing pop music’s universal vanity, futility and profound quality, they set about eliciting from life’s facts and fantasies a sense of the things that matter.
Perhaps this little gem of metaphysical hype was printed on the album without the knowledge of Siouxsie and co., but I suspect it was approved by them and represents their mindset at the time all too accurately. And make no mistake, for the postpunk/alternative set Morley was a major critic, and the Banshees a major band. In any case, my Siouxsie album is filed between Sibelius’ Suites and Sun Record’s Greatest Hits, but unlike those, it seldom winds up pulled for listening.
So the first flaw of rock-intellectualizing is a tendency to overestimate the value of the rock “middle” at the expense of the solid rock and roll low, a tendency regularly taken to ridiculous extremes due to the many half-educated intellectual bluffers who set the scene.
Its second flaw is a related tendency to belittle the claims of the truly high. It does so both in terms of music, and in terms of intellectual life.
Let us consider the musical case first. Distinguishing the fine arts from the rest is a complex task, and one that has admittedly been fraught with ethnocentric standards or ones otherwise merely customary; however, we can never entirely elude it. In music, the distinction in many ways traces back to the fact that the drawing-room is a quite different socio-aesthetic context than the night-club. The former is aristocratic, the latter, democratic. But more fundamentally, it has to do 1) with the musical resources of an expert orchestra or ensemble, and the sorts of compositions and improvisations these make possible, whether the tradition is that of European classical music, or Afro-American jazz, or another of comparable sophistication, and 2) with a greater tendency to imitate and thus stimulate the higher as opposed to the lower passions, a tendency which often means it rewards more attentive listening. Consider also Allan Bloom’s claim of a Dantean/Shakespearean tradition of philosophic poetry, touched upon in Songbook #4, and how such efforts might distinguish the “fine.” I admit that questions about how jazz, some operas, and some genres of “world music” do or do not fit in the class of fine arts are live ones, and also that lust and mayhem are represented by many works of classical music, but I stick by my generalizations. Having sketched the distinction, the relevant fact is this: rock intellectualizers largely ignore fine arts music and they never seriously ponder the claims it might make against their focus on pop/rock music. We have become used to this de facto dismissal of the artistically fine by supposed intellectuals, but it really is a strange phenomenon.