Rock intellectualizing’s third basic flaw is its captivity to bohemian/New Left assumptions regarding morals, culture, and politics. The Songbook will examine rock’s largely uncritical promotion of the sexual revolution as it unfolds, but here we consider the oddity of its leftism.
On one hand, most rock intellectuals broadly endorse the leftist fight against various injustices of our social order, which is assumed to be radically flawed because it is essentially capitalist, but on the other, they have broadly endorsed the youth culture music scenes, all of which are fundamentally sustained by acquisitive consumerism.
(By “youth culture music scenes” or “rock youth culture” I refer to the pattern of youth identity centered around music which has involved many sorts of music, such as hip-hop or ska, that are not really rock despite the efforts of rock intellectuals to tie them together as one package.)
Rock intellectuals try to elude this contradiction by insisting that the control of the modern capitalist “structure” extends far beyond the economic and political realms, into our thoughts, psyches, and everyday lives, so that fighting against it requires cultural means. Such struggle cannot avoid the utilization of commodity-linked identities and communities, and that the rock intellectualizers say, is what the youth are in fact up to with their music scenes.
But amid all their talk of battles over cultural symbols , one detects a tone of defensiveness. For from a sterner leftist perspective, rock youth culture could be seen as a channeling of the (naturally leftist) idealism of youth into rock activity, and thus as a continual transmutation of this rebel spirit into mere revolt in style, that is, into a particularly self-important sort of lifestyle consumerism. The gist of this critique was articulated by the socialist Irving Howe as early as 1966, but a much harsher version of it became imaginable by the 1980s, given the huge amounts of money and passion young people were putting into recordings, fashions, and shows whether “underground” ones or not.
I think the possibility of this sterner critique goaded the more political rock intellectualizers to construct ever more ingenious contraptions of Theory to demonstrate rock’s “meta-political” leftist impact. But beyond the implausibility of such arguments, they tended to generate truly atrocious prose: see the opening quote from Lawrence Grossberg in Songbook #14.
And make no mistake, that incoherency and pretentiousness is rock’s. It won’t do to mainly blame it on the likes of Derrida. The rock theorizers simply spelled out the Marxisant nonsense (of a sort that Marx would have found noxious and which serious socialists like Howe in fact loathed) you had to hold if you were to really believe that rock youth culture’s “rebellion” had a politics, or at least a potentially positive political impact. Their horrid prose showed us what rock’s celebrated political seriousness amounted to, if you took its celebratory self-description seriously.
A QUALIFICATION: the stance described above is the one held by typical rock intellectualizers, usually in a far-less-rigorously-theorized mode, and often subject to an oscillating interest in political radicalism typical of bohemians, from about 1975 to 2000. It is not so clear to me whether many of them, especially the younger ones, hold it today. Things began to change in the late 1990s, so that a good deal of the air had gone out of the stance even prior to 9/11. It has faded out into low-volume background noise, never being openly forsworn by its old proponents nor openly rejected by younger rock bands and writers. Thus while there seemed to be a continuity between 80s and 90s “rock radicalism” and the Bush-hatred/Obama-love frenzy of 2004-2009, something had changed. The rhetorical stakes, for one, had become more mainstream, i.e., more about “America” and its honor, and less about “Amerika” and attacking the entire system, even if the tone had somehow become more shrill. The (democratic) socialism involved had become stealth, election-smart, and highly gradualist, all of which tended to alter its character more than many on the right think. In any case, while you might see a rock-oriented member of Generation X, such as your truly, voluntarily read, or at least try to read, a radical “cultural studies” book about rock back in the 1990s, my sense is that Millennial Generation rock fans do not bother with such stuff, unless they have professors who force them to. And as for the radicalism of the late 60s-early 70s, it did not theorize in the fulsome 80s-90s manner about rock identity. The pattern was more one of rock following and reacting to the (already-existing) radical theory, than the reverse. I can further explain that difference, and why the quasi-political pretensions of Rock nonetheless began in the 60s, if needed.