Friday, June 20, 2008
Music and Morals, Part 4
I just got back from a mini-road trip to another city where my husband had a job interview. On the way back, the muffler fell off our car -- luckily, near an exit on the interstate -- and we found a muffler shop where the kind young auto-body fellow fixed it free of charge. My son and I waited in the front of the shop, where the radio, predictably, was tuned to a classic rock station. The Who's 1975 song "Squeeze Box," which I hadn't heard in years, came on, and I found myself listening carefully and liking it in spite of myself. It's a well-crafted and well-played song, with some nice touches, like the entrance of the banjo in the third chorus, and Roger Daltrey's funny and skillful imitation of a woman's voice in a verse repetition, while all but the rhythm instruments drop out. I almost sang along, and then I felt abashed, because I really shouldn't like this song; it is, after all, completely and pointlessly obscene.
This got me thinking about rock music in general. It's not exactly news that both the music and the lyrics of a great deal of rock exploit human longing, especially sexual longing. Does this mean that someone who is trying to carry out the injunction to chastity according to one's state in life is bound to abjure rock? Does rock provide an open door to sexual temptation? This raises further questions: does rock lend itself particularly well to other kinds of exploitation, for instance, the manipulation of human loneliness and vulnerability by the advertising industry to sell products? Is there a rock-industrial complex?
One of my favorite albums of all time is Liz Phair's 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, which Phair claimed was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones's Exile on Main Street. The album is raw and brilliant, and I don't think anything she's done since comes close to it in quality. But I gave my copy away, along with a lot of other things, when I got married; I don't think I would listen to it now.
I remember having a discussion once with my late friend and mentor John Allitt about the Beatles. I was chagrined to hear him place much of the responsibility for the disintegration of British society in the 1960s at their feet. John had seen many of his students at the Central College of Art in London go over the edge on drugs, and he believed that the Beatles's music and espoused philosophies had spurred these students onward to destruction. Could he really mean it? The Beatles, arguably as important to Western music as Brahms, and as well-loved by me? Could he possibly be right? Then again, how is a Beatles-loving Christian supposed to take John Lennon's utopian, anti-Christian sentiments in "Imagine"? If you love this music, are you supposed to view it through a lens of ironic distance or cultural superiority?
St. Augustine of Hippo, who had loved music prior to his conversion, struggled mightily afterward with what might constitute a Christian response to the sensual pleasre that music evokes. He went so far as to describe in his Confessions his urge to have "the whole melody of sweet music which is used to David’s Psalter, banished from my ears, and the Church’s too." He was able to quell his conscience on this matter by focusing on the texts rather than the melodies.
Fellow interpreters on the blogosphere (to use Kyle Cupp's felicitous phrase), what do you think?