To continue where we left off in Songbook #14, rock intellectualizing not only involves dismissal of the musically fine, but also of intellectually fine. It’s very activity demonstrates its ambivalence toward the core activity of the life of the mind, the wrestling with thinkers of first rank. Rather than wade into Dante, Tolstoy, or Kant, the rock intellectualizer will trace the lyrical themes, of say, Bruce Springsteen or Nine Inch Nails.
This ambivalence characterizes the entire rock phenomenon, whose real shape is in only discernable when set against its natural backdrop: that of higher education. Its musical roots in rock and roll notwithstanding, rock undeniably came out of and remains most crucially sustained by the contemporary college or art school.
(The dates for the arrival of rock and the arrival of higher education for the masses [UC Berkeley being the paradigm] line up pretty closely. Also, it requires effort to think of a significant rock group or artist whose origins were not closely connected to either a college/art-school scene or a college-linked bohemian one. The formation and early gigs of the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Sex Pistols, and R.E.M. are instructive on this score. One should also note the disproportionate impact of students/drop-outs from the disciplines of art, film, and literature.)
More precisely, the suburban home, the college campus, and the downtown bohemia mark out rock’s basic social geography—its essential activities occur at these three sites, and its essential exchanges occur between them. The most important exchange occurs when the poetic young person turns away from academia’s highest treasures, often before even glimpsing their true beauty, and instead looks to bohemia as her ideal. Bohemia is where she sees the authentic life of the mind, and of the body and spirit, being lived amid whirls of artistic creativity, of which rock creativity has pride of place. Rock, consumed and created by such types, is thus an inescapably intellectual phenomenon, but also a sort of anti-intellectualism of the willingly half-educated. For once our poetic student has determined, correctly or not, that the higher intellectual or artistic life is not suited for her, she commits herself to a scene determined to tear down the very notion of the high. Such a scene has little but contempt for the old middle-brow route she might have taken, the route of partaking of the high from time to time.
So both fine arts music and great books education are left in the dust, but with vague aspirations for higher things…er, better make thatavant things, left festering in the soul.
None of this is to deny that there are (more and more) collegiate institutions so vapid or so technocratic that dropping out of them into bohemian pursuits, or simply milking them for every last drop of technical knowledge one can and ignoring everything else, might really be the way to go. In any case, the more you couldn’t find “Socrates” and “Homer” in academia, the more liberal-arts-minded students drifted off, heart-wise if not physically, into the bohemian Rock-world. How our new internet-world changes this dynamic, if it does, goes beyond my own experience.