A couple of years ago, Mark Steyn wrote an article for The New Criterion to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of The Closing Of The American Mind—“Twenty years ago today.” Steyn focuses on Allan Bloom’s treatment of music in the book and notes how wide is the aesthetic gulf that separates the generations who grew up with rock and roll from their elders.
But Bloom is writing about rock music the way someone from the pre-rock generation experiences it. You’ve no interest in the stuff, you don’t buy the albums, you don’t tune to the radio stations, you would never knowingly seek out a rock and roll experience—and yet it’s all around you. You go to buy some socks, and it’s playing in the store. You get on the red eye to Heathrow, and they pump it into the cabin before you take off. I was filling up at a gas station the other day and I noticed that outside, at the pump, they now pipe pop music at you. This is one of the most constant forms of cultural dislocation anybody of the pre-Bloom generation faces: Most of us have prejudices: we may not like ballet or golf, but we don’t have to worry about going to the deli and ordering a ham on rye while some ninny in tights prances around us or a fellow in plus-fours tries to chip it out of the rough behind the salad bar. Yet, in the course of a day, any number of non-rock-related transactions are accompanied by rock music. I was at the airport last week, sitting at the gate, and over the transom some woman was singing about having two lovers and being very happy about it. And we all sat there as if it’s perfectly routine. To the pre-Bloom generation, it’s very weird—though, as he notes, “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.” Whether or not rock music is the soundtrack for the age that its more ambitious proponents tout it as, it’s a literal soundtrack: it’s like being in a movie with a really bad score. So Bloom’s not here to weigh the merit of the Beatles vs. Pink Floyd vs. Madonna vs. Niggaz with Attitude vs. Eminem vs. Green Day. They come and go, and there is no more dated sentence in Bloom’s book than the one where he gets specific and wonders whether Michael Jackson, Prince, or Boy George will take the place of Mick Jagger. But he’s not doing album reviews, he’s pondering the state of an entire society with a rock aesthetic.
Bloom was a Straussian sort of Platonist, and he thought that Plato’s discussions about the power of music in the Republic and in the Laws were central to his understanding of a healthy political order—and correct. I agree, and I often think about the power of music to ennoble or to debase. I frequently note to myself in religious services how the (Orthodox) Church’s liturgical tradition is a historical expression of the Athenian Stranger’s musical program in the Laws. For therein people constantly sing measured music in praise of good men and of God. They continually reaffirm and remind themselves of the tradition’s doctrines and values. They incorporate into the Church through song, becoming one with it—the musical equivalent of communion. One sees in the Church the old proverb further developed: lex orandi, lex cantandi, lex credendi, lex agendi.
Yet, I did grow up on rock and roll, and though I love older forms of music, too, I still appreciate rock. I wonder, at times, if rock music is as destructive, nihilistic, and animalistic as its critics claim, and I worry that it might be so. I like it anyway; my soul has been permanently tainted as it has developed in the aesthetic environment of contemporary popular music.
However, I believe that something else must be at work besides familiarity. I also grew up surrounded by hideous international style architecture, but I have never liked it. I have always found it inhuman and ugly. If I can resist the nihilistic allure of modern architecture, why can’t I resist that of music? Is it possible that rock and roll is more redeeming than Bloom thinks? For rock derives much of its character from older popular music, and I doubt that Bloom would have found old peasant music a harbinger for civilizational ruin. Nonetheless, when I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland last summer with my sister and nephew, I thought a lot of Bloom and of Plato. Our health depends on our nutrition, and we consume a lot of poison.