For never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved.
Plato, The Republic, 242c
And so they say, this the golden age…
U2, “New Year’s Day”
At this point one might well wonder why I am bothering with rock, having abundant reasons to dislike the music and the half-baked intellectualizing that so often accompanies it. I do think its musical and lyrical accomplishments have been overrated, and that the grandiose expectations put upon it have been harmful. This does not mean I have no sympathy for rock’s higher aspirations, or that I am unimpressed when they are achieved.
Moreover, my sense is that at its best, rock has an almost unmatchable facility for catching, expressing, and questioning the passing collective moods of present-day life, whether these are “in the air” or flowing through subterranean channels. Since it is a more immediate form of expression than the grand canvases of the novel or motion picture, and since, unlike poetry or the visual arts, it attracts a lot of attention, it is not surprising that artists tuned to the fluctuations of the zeitgeist gravitate towards it. The latter part of Morely’s claim for Siouxsie and the Banshees(see songbook #14), that they sought to elicit from present-day facts, fantasies, and sounds a “sense of the things that matter,” seems an honest description of an ambition shared by many of the more poetic rockers; I must add, of course, that the crucial question of whether rock is the right arena for such an ambition is one that aspirants to genuine poetic service and excellence, as opposed to aspirants to poetic glory first-and-foremost, ought to let themselves honestly consider. They need to consider the problems raised by the Poetic Wisdom Paradox, and how Rock amplifies them.
I also agree with the idea that rock has “meta-political” significance, as my quoting of Plato reveals. I just think its significance is far more bohemian-libertarian than it is leftist. To put it too simply, the Sexual Revolution, and the autonomy it stands for, is the primary element of the Rock Revolution, which incidentally, also means that a big problem facing rebellion-seeking rockers from the late 70s on was that it had basically been accomplished.
While rock’s primary ideological element thus is sexual/psychic-al libertarianism, its secondary element, I would argue, is a profound ambivalence about modernity. This often is expressed by opposition to corporate capitalism, but it runs much deeper. Fundamental to the best rock’s “timeliness,” I think, is its disappointment with or even despair over the materially well-provided-for modern life. How to best deal with the supposedly good contemporary life and the conformist temptation to resign ourselves to its satisfactions is one of its basic themes. This is why rock resonates in the enclaves of the prosperous around the globe while it never really catches on with impoverished populations, and a major reason why it came to be identified as a white thing in America. For our (rich and middle-class) generations, the best rock artists serve a similar purpose as the romantic poets did for earlier ones—as the rare souls who glimpse the full implications of modern rationalism for living, and whose art seeks to provide an aesthetic refuge and alternative.