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With my Rock Songbook about to get underway again, I’d like to make a few observations about how I see it fitting, and not fitting in, into the recent uptick of interest in pop culture studies.  And that means some observations about such studies in general.

There’s been lots of conservative talk of late about the need to engage the culture, to transform it and understand it, beginning with pop culture. The idea seems to be that conservatives are too out of touch with the other half of America, much of it younger, less religious, less white, and generally not exposed to any conservative media. Our Pete Spiliakos gives you a policy-talk version of the same basic idea, where it makes more obvious sense to me than it does with pop culture.

This sort of talk has drawn some attention our way, particularly to our Peter Lawler’s essays. He says “watch more TV,” as a way to highlight his case that the long-form series, such as with GIRLS, MAD MEN, BIG LOVE, and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, has risen to level where its quality and contemporary cultural importance has eclipsed that of cinema.

But this is the same guy who advised young people to take up smoking(and have lots of babies), to highlight his case about the insustainability of key social-welfare programs in light of our ever-greater longevity and creeping birth dearth. And a few of us remember from the No Left Turns days that, while ultimately not agreeing, he admitted the power of a Christian and virtue-ethics “media-fasting” case made against all TV by the commenter “wm.” “Wm” is a very erudite and Catholic (and yet also rock-attuned) professor whose identity I’ll reveal if I get permission, and here’s a taste of what he said in that thread :

. . . I am mortified by every minute of television I have watched, and it would be healthy for students to know that there are people out there who are not being beaten into a listless stupor by the worst invention ever to beguile mankind. . . . Marshall McLuhan was right - the medium IS the message, and no matter what TV is telling you, you have already agreed to the Babylon Box’s terms: total passivity in the face of a manipulative bombardment of visuals and sound. Implicit idolatry.

After I had pushed back some, in part by noting wm’s love of some rock music, in part by pointing to the old Puritan case against Shakespearean drama, he replied:

. . . I would never object to Shakespeare . . . I must insist that the core of my argument is the special insidious character of television. It sits right in the living room, it is so absorbing that hours and hours drop away before we notice, and it robs our family and our community. We get almost nothing of value in return for all the time it devours. Take PBS -the classic shield of TV’s defenders- as an example. Is it better to watch a PBS documentary on Shakespeare, or re-read Hamlet? We all know the answer to that.

I believe television is uniquely stultifying and uniquely anti-social. Lots of people have social gatherings with music on in the background. Want to kill conversation at a social gathering? Turn on TV. That is a pretty good indication of their relative power and impact.

Very interesting. What I’d like us all to take from “wm” is a conviction that conservative pop culture studies have to attend to the impact of the medium as well as of the message, or better said, since McLuhan can’t be fully right, that we must grapple with the popularity as well as the culture of pop culture. We have to do the sociological work about how a medium or genre’s overall popularity might be changing the mores and character of the entire society, or even of modern humanity simply.

That is, pop culture studies cannot simply be about conservatives (or Christians, or Great Books educators) dwelling upon the best moments of such culture, or otherwise using it to prove the relevance of the traditions they want to convey.

My Songbook, for example, is about to grapple with what the ubiquity of love song in pop music, going back many many decades, has gradually done to us. That is, overall, while it certainly does hold it worthwhile to analyze the best songs, it refuses to confine itself to that pleasant task.

And more to the point for thinking about our own lives, how we could live them better, more virtuously, etc., I must stress that my Rock Songbook does not say “listen to more Rock.” Not even cheekily.

Yes, I know that the Songbook cannot but generate more interest in Rock, both on my part and that of the reader, and I know that most persons, hearing that I write about rock, that from time to time I am “hip” about it, that I recommend certain bands and listen to them myself, will assume I am a big fan, but in truth, those who really read the Songbook know that one of its main messages is that rock is musically inferior to both fine-arts music and classic good-time dance music, and there is even a more fundamental caveat: even towards my beloved rock n’ roll, or my broader family of Afro-American good-time music, which I recommend much more heartily , I remain open to the sort of case someone like “wm” could make against it, and say we have to remain open to such.

I do agree with “wm” that such a case seems more damning for typical TV (and I would add internet) use, than it would for typical pop music use. And how is that wm and I know that, however bad pop music might be for you and our society, it isn’t as bad as TV? Well, Black Flag told us so.

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