Monday, August 29, 2011

Allan Bloom and the Critique of Pop Music

Allan Bloom's remarkable book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, was greeted with great acclaim and great hostility. Unique among current critiques of society was the lengthy chapter on music which, as some pointed out, owed something to the left-wing Frankfurt School critique of Theodor Adorno. This is odd, because hostile reviews attacked Bloom's book as being reactionary. To manage to offend people on both sides in the culture wars is a rare achievement!

Bloom says "This is the age of music and the states of soul that accompany it." Perhaps it is better to say that this is the age of the consumption of mass market industrial music product, enabled by the proliferation of electronic music reproduction devices. The days when most middle class homes had a piano and someone who could play it, the days, that is, before the electronic reproduction of music, are long gone. Now we are overwhelmingly mere consumers, passive imbibers, of music. I need to be careful here not to end up re-writing Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"! Benjamin talks about the 'aura' of an original, as opposed to reproduced, object. I'm not sure I entirely understand everything he means by that, but I do place in quite a different category live as opposed to recorded music. When you go to a concert and see a musician perform it is quite a different thing than hearing a recording. Pop performances have become more like recordings than live performances because of the use of electronic amplification, lip-synching, pre-sequenced tracks, video backgrounds and so on. The 'live' component of a live performance grows less and less.

But back to Bloom. He also says that "Classical music is dead among the young" and "Classical music is a special taste like Greek language or pre-Columbian archeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand." I wonder about both of these. Is classical music dead among the young or is it that only a small percentage are attracted to it? And wasn't classical music always a special taste, like Greek language? Were those who really loved and appreciated classical music ever more than three percent of the population? He also says,
Civilization or, to say the same thing, education is the taming or domestication of the soul's raw passions--not suppressing or excising them, which would deprive the soul of its energy--but forming and informing them as art. The goal of harmonizing the enthusiastic part of the soul with what develops later, the rational part, is perhaps impossible to attain. But without it, man can never be whole.
This is pure Plato and fascinating because it is so different from the way we usually look at things. Following along with this view, popular or rock music has the deficiency of being fundamentally barbaric in Bloom's view, because, while it arouses the passions, it does not tame them or harmonize them. Screaming guitars and thunderous backbeats do tend to shut down the reasoning mind! Classical music, on the other hand, while possessing the sensual beauty of music, also has the structure, the organization, to appeal to the mind as well.

I think that popular music has changed since Bloom was writing. He refers to the sensual appeal of Mick Jagger, but those days are gone. Now we have a host of sexy divas shaking booty but the music itself is not nearly as Dionysian as it was. Now it is like a synthesized industrial product designed to accompany visuals of beautiful women who lip-synch and model clothing and jewelry while dancing. The range of moods that rock music was capable of a few decades ago, from the moody depression of "The End" by The Doors:
To the sardonic incisiveness of George Harrison's critique of tax policy:
...are long gone. Pop music used to span quite a lot, but that seems to have diminished. Coldplay sounds a lot like Radiohead and they both sound rather impoverished. Real complexity and richness is restricted to the videos only--we don't hear it in the music any more.

I think it is really about choice. I was raised in a house where my mother was a traditional musician. At some point, I became captivated by music. Not the kind my mother played, but the music on the radio: pop music. It was the mid-60s so some of it was pretty interesting (and most of it quite bad!). But when I heard classical music for the first time, I made a choice to explore it. I have been doing so ever since. To sit your entire life passively letting pop music--any music--just wash over you, is to be worse than a musical barbarian. It is to be numb.

Everything I do in this blog is with the end of furthering the act of listening. Making it active, not passive. Making it critical and aware. If we listen better and demand more, we will get more. Music has great powers of transcendence and ecstasy and healing. I think we need them more than ever!


Minicapt said...

Prof Bloom is a listener; the attraction of proper music is the opportunity to sing it. "Eleanor Rigby" was one of the markers by the Beatles indicating that their music was to be listened to, and not sung.


Bryan Townsend said...

Now that's an interesting thought...

I've been playing music so long that sometimes I can't quite put myself in the place of someone who basically doesn't make music, but would welcome the opportunity. You did mean to post a clip of the Emerald Coast Chorale?

As for the Beatles, as one who played in a band that struggled to play anything by the Beatles (except "Birthday", that was easy) I can attest that their music was pretty much to be listened to right from the beginning!

Hucbald said...

"The goal of harmonizing the enthusiastic part of the soul with what develops later, the rational part, is perhaps impossible to attain. But without it, man can never be whole."

This is nonsensical hogwash. OF COURSE harmonizing the enthusiastic part of the soul with the rational part is possible. Artists have been doing it through apprenticeship programs since the dawn of western civilization: Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Rembrandt all went through apprenticeships to develop the technical aspects of their art before they set out on their own, as did Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in music.

Name a great artist who didn't. I call it, "informing one's intuition" because that's what you are doing: internalizing the principles of art so that they become second nature, the goal being to arrive back where you started - pure intuition - but with that intuition informed by the rational techniques that underlie art.

The problem is that NOBODY DOES THIS ANYMORE (Well, almost; there are a couple of us), and so the sad state of neglect that all of the arts suffer from today: Artists are now know-nothings who have utterly undisciplined intuitions.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Hucbald for a very trenchant observation! Yes, "informing the intuition" is exactly what artists do to become artists. Bloom may have been talking here more about the work of the educator with the student. Bloom seems to imply that there are two parts to the soul. In the early dialogues of Plato the soul is a unity, but by the Republic and Phaedrus, Plato sees it as having three parts: reason, the 'spirited' part and the passionate part. There is always the possibility of conflict between these.