Great Paintings shouldn’t be in museums. …Museums are cemeteries. Paintings should be on the walls of restaurants, in dime stores, in gas stations, in men’s rooms. Great paintings should be where people hang out. The only thing where it’s happening is on the radio and records, that’s where people hang out. …Music is the one thing that’s in tune with what’s happening. It’s not in book form, it’s not on the stage. All this art they’ve been talking about is non-existent. It just remains on the shelf.
Bob Dylan, 1965
So we left off the longer consideration of rock intellectualizing by asking the following question. Why did the particular pop music form rock (which both in its hard rock and “pop-art-ish” flavors was not fully synthesized until ’66-’67) become and remain the preferred artistic medium for democratic heroism and timely poetic reflection?
Part of the answer has to do with post-WWII young persons trying to live authentically,which among other things involved trying to live true to the fact that their lives were wed to a zone between the low and the high. Keep in mind that universal high school education is not completely achieved in the U.S. until around 1950. But back to the music: in the 50s and especially early 60s many of those who yearned for something beyond mainstream pop began to turn, not to classical or modern jazz, but to folk or R & B. The classical tradition spoke to them less and less, and many felt jazz had become too abstract. They thus came to intensely admire, often in a populist Sandburg-like manner, the old hillbilly and blues musicians, or even their slicked-up rock and roll progeny. However, it eventually felt too forced, especially musically, to try to be like them. They were in the middle, more Beatnik or Mod than they could hope to be Okie or Hep-Cat, but on the other hand having no invitations to and little desire to attend the Society ball. (Something called Society, whose death twitches may be observed in the Whit Stillman films, still existed as a key social fact.)
Tocqueville had said in the 1830s that the tone of democratic times is dominated by the middle-class. He had also said, contrary to all the hot-headed Marxisant thought which eclipsed his reputation for a century, that such times are characterized by a relative equality of opportunity and education that is ultimately far more socially significant than any dynamic caused by capitalist production. By the 1960s, facts on the ground were more clearly vindicating these claims than ever before. In Britain, the Mod was somehow both gritty working class and fashion-savvy white-collar. In America, the universities, strongholds of Society, threw open their gates to the middle-classes and non-WASPs as never before, and their students thus became (officially) both intellectual elite and democratic mass. It is not surprising that such persons would seek to find a middling aesthetic ground between, say, Elvis Presley and Dylan Thomas. They wanted to sink roots into the down-home while stretching upwards into poetry.
Thus, the creation of the rock sound and identity was partly a response to a new social situation. The fact that this situation holds today helps explain the ongoing popularity and recycling of the various rock forms, even though they have long since lost all plausible claim to freshness–by about 1982, or stretching it, by the early 90s, all the basic mixes had been tried. Since then, the best rock has involved making various refinements or slight alterations of these mixes. Although oddly enough, rock’s timeliness, particularly in terms of its lyrics, seems to remain a strong suit. Again, I say this without exactly being a fan. Considered en masse, there is no question that rock has given us a fairly weak musical middle in exchange for a neglect of fine-arts music (even by intellectuals), and a neglect of our once widely-practiced traditions of Afro-American music. Rock’s best moments cannot make up for this, but they do remain genuine achievements which stand as the poetic sign-posts of our era. As such they are worthy of the sort of philosophical-cultural consideration the Songbook seeks to provoke.