Music is probably the most powerful art form known to man—and in this century, the most present. While people sometimes read their favorite book a number of times, people often listen to their favorite songs hundreds of times. Music has seeped into every waking moment of the 21stcentury life—it’s “background noise” from the commute to the workplace to the mall to relaxing at home. It’s everywhere—even if you don’t make a conscious decision to listen to it, it’s leaking out of restaurants, stores, and vehicles like second hand smoke.
The decline of music as an art form in general has been much commented on (and that conclusion debated) by cultural commentators and philosophers alike. Pop music seems to involve being a trollop with volume (extra points if you can synchronize the wagging of various body parts with the beat). Rap music consistently gets a cultural pass while engaging in the crudest forms of misogyny in the name of art (as if profane ghetto slang was “art”—being that the official definition of music demands that it produce harmony, I think even “music” is arguable.) Much of this music is very catchy, even addictive—as is, I can’t help pointing out—drugs, cigarettes, and other recurring stars of the aforementioned genres. Just because something is addictive doesn’t mean it’s worthy of your time, nor that it is not conveying destructive messages.
Recently I was reading through Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind, and stumbled across a jarring description of the modern teenager:
Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
A jarring analysis of modern music and its impact on modern youth, but an accurate one. The following are five observations (or opinions, if you prefer) I have made about modern music—in no way a complete list, but a collection of thoughts.
- It’s not about content—it’s all about noise.
Most people will protest this point—of course it’s about the lyrics, and the deep philosophical differences between One Direction and the Jonas Brothers, or the profound worldview differences between Nickelback and [insert popular rock band here]. But modern popular music—much of which now sounds completely indistinguishable from genre to genre—is not about “art,” but rather the noise—and the feelings that the pulsing rhythm consequently bring about (there’s a reason there is a genre called “Trance”). I’ll provide one microcosmic example: The runaway mega-hit “Gangnam Style,” the Korean-language hip-hop song produced by “Psy,” an anti-American Korean pop star. This song recorded 1.734 billion hits on YouTube—making it the most popular song of all time. Think about it—it’s the most popular song in recorded history—and almost no one has any idea what it means. This is why revelations that Psy had released a previous ditty about killing and torturing Americans had almost no impact on his popularity or that of his music—because no one cares about what he has to say, anyway. They only care what he sounds like—and what his stupid, goofy dance moves look like.
- Country music has declined drastically.
Country music originated in the rural areas of the United States, and was traditionally considered to be a type of folk music—campfire and cowboy songs combined with blues and what was referred to as “hillbilly” music to create a genre that was often reflective of rural culture and rural values. Even the more edgy songs written by Johnny Cash were considered to be of the “blues” genre—and showed the tragic fallout of substance abuse, rather than the glorification of adolescent stupidity. The country music lighting up the airwaves today is often only distinguishable from rock music in that it involves getting drunk outdoors rather than indoors, the girls are wearing jeans rather than nothing, and pickup trucks often make an appearance. Even the fans are changing—as one chief of police noted after a brawl broke out at a recent country concert, “Country used to be an easy night for us. Now it’s anything but. Country’s just changed. I’m a country fan, but the music and the singers have a party motif about them now. It’s all about drinking.”
Even more traditional country artists like Alan Jackson are fed up with country music’s decline into nondescript pop music—in protest, he released a song titled “Murder on Music Row” with George Strait, which reads in part:
The almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame,
Slowly killed tradition and for that someone should hang,
They all say not guilty but the evidence will show,
That murder was committed down on music row.
For the steel guitars no longer cry and fiddles barely play,
But drums and rock ‘n roll guitars are mixed up in your face.
Old Hank wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio,
Since they committed murder down on music row.
Most “country music” is now no different in values or message than any of the other commercialized tripe being pumped out. As Alan Jackson said, “Someone killed country music—cut out its heart and soul.”
- The morals of modern music are just plain awful.
You knew this one was coming. No art form exists in a vacuum, and every art form is selling something—much of modern music is selling sex and drugs. The “squares” of the ‘60’s who worried that the rock stars shooting like meteors across the cultural landscape were all on drugs were proven emphatically correct—from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, they were all higher than kites. As Allan Bloom wrote of rock music:
I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. Modern-day rationalists, such as economists, are indifferent to it and what it represents. The irrationalists are all for it. There is no need to fear that “the blond beasts” are going to come forth from the bland souls of our adolescents. But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.
Those in favor of so-called “sexual liberation” will, of course, argue that this is a good thing, or at least morally neutral. However, anyone who believes that sex and sexuality is an extremely powerful force that can have an extraordinary impact on society when extricated from its traditional boundaries has to admit that packaging this power and marketing these passions for uninhibited release to the wider population will have consequences, especially for younger people. The youth are now raised on sex—even so-called “family-friendly” singers, created for public consumption by Disney, provide adolescent girls (and boys) with provocatively dressed, sexually-charged performances, sometimes replete with stripper poles. And parents, unquestioningly accepting this new cultural norm, dutifully drive their children to concerts to be mugged of their innocence and escape their reason in the deafening and all-encompassing roar of 15,000 watt speakers. Also, two words: Miley Cyrus.
- There’s nothing uplifting—it’s all wallowing.
Art, in its best and purest form, beckons mankind to lift his gaze from the drudgery of every-day life and reflect on something higher, something more transcendental, something bigger than ourselves. It beckons us to consider things of the divine, and the essence and meaning of beauty. Much of modern music, however, has abandoned any belief in anything higher than man and his pitiful experiences—and thus has rendered itself incapable of beckoning man’s gaze upwards, and has resigned itself to wallowing in meaningless sex, chronic overindulgence, and the inevitable heartbreak and nihilism that follows. (Consider for a moment how many gods of the Rock and Roll Pantheon have fallen to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. As the Rolling Stones shrieked out on behalf of their fellow wretches: “I can’t get no satisfaction.”)
This is why I believe that what rock music has always been good at conveying is despair and pain, conveyed in the other-worldly and visceral howls that characterize much of what is known as “classic” rock. It is best at conveying despair and pain because at the end of the day, that is all they have to offer—there is no real meaning to life, and nothing at the end of the road. As Beatle John Lennon put it, “Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky.” A generation responded by taking up his challenge—and are still, slowly but surely, realizing that they can make Lennon a god, but he can never satisfy them. The harbingers of the Sexual Revolution had their Triumph, but forgot what every Roman emperor knew—in moments of Triumph, it is essential to have someone whispering that inescapable fact in your ear: “You are mortal.”
- Real religious music has been replaced by “praise” music.
Religious music has a beautiful and grand tradition going back thousands of years, from the musicians appointed by the Hebrews to praise God with instruments and song in Solomon’s Temple, to beautiful psalms written by medieval men of God, to hymns written by humble preachers saved by grace. Fast-forward into the 21st century, and we have what is known colloquially as “praise” or “worship” music. This music has none of the spiritual depth of the religious music of days gone by, but rather sounds like an adolescent pop song–declaring love for God in much the same way that one fourteen-year old would for another. It also seems to be shot through with a remarkable dose of narcissism—listen to a few of these songs, and note how often the first person “I” is used. Beyond that, because it has more of a “sound” calculated to stir emotion rather than an actual “tune,” it is very difficult to sing to—I’ve witnessed a group of pro-lifers stumble their way awkwardly through a “praise” song, and then bellow out “Amazing Grace” with vocal vigor.
“Praise” music (which has largely replaced “Christian rock” when it became apparent that a genre based on rebellion didn’t suit a message based on submission) fulfills in many modern churches a simple need: Young people like pop music. So, make religious music indistinguishable from pop music, and they will come. I believe “praise” music is not catered towards actually praising God, but rather towards coaxing people into praising God. When you can switch between a pop station on the radio and a “worship station” without being able to tell the difference unless you listen intently to the lyrics, it is clear that the music really isn’t about the lyrics—just like the rest of pop music. It may be catchy, but it does nothing to beckon one’s attention above, towards the Divine, or turn one’s thoughts toward things not temporal but eternal. Much of “praise” music fails to do precisely what it claims to. One does not catch a glimpse of the eternal when “praise” music is being played—but rather, a snapshot of what 21st century culture looks like.
I realize that these five points each deserve an (much more comprehensively argued) essay, and that I can justifiably be accused of many generalizations and of ignoring many genres, sub-genres, indie music, and on and on. (I would argue, however, that these defy the cultural trend rather than define it.) I offer a few thoughts on modern music only because as famed Victorian art critic John Ruskin pointed out, “Music when healthy is the teacher of perfect order, and when depraved, the teacher of perfect disorder.” Much of today’s music seems to aimlessly revel in disorder while being accepted as apparently inconsequential by most people. Music is now everywhere, pulsing into our consciousnesses from every venue–and we should at least pause now and again to analyze what impact that might be having.