Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pop Music Fights Totalitarianism?

I just read a very troubling article by someone that I quite admire: Glenn Harlan Reynolds of Instapundit fame. Glenn doesn't publish his statistics, but based on past information he probably gets several hundred thousand visitors every day. He is the blogging equivalent of a regional newspaper. He is a libertarian at heart, a law professor who is a specialist in 2nd amendment law. He is also pro-choice and supports gay civil rights. He likes to say that in his perfect society every gay married couple would have an assault rifle in the closet. So, he doesn't fit into the usual political categories. As a libertarian, he has quoted the saying a few times that libertarians want to take over the government so they can leave you alone!

He just put up a link to an essay he wrote eleven years ago. Oh, one thing I forgot to mention, he used to be into music of the electronic dance music variety and his brother plays guitar in a band. So he has more knowledge of and exposure to music than most people. Ok, here is the article: "The King of Anti-Fascism". Here is the central claim:
Music took over the airwaves, and today in most of the world a crazed orator would have a hard time getting enough listeners to take over a country no matter how persuasive his spiel. After Elvis, the commercial culture of rock and roll simply occupied the mindspace that totalitarians need, and it out-competed them.
You should read the whole thing. He sets this up by noting that Hitler was able to sway the people of Germany through an emotional appeal that was especially powerful because it was made through the medium of radio:
Hitler was aided by a new technological innovation: the radio. Nazism's totalitarian sibling, communism, spread largely by print and took decades to gain a foothold. But radio allowed Hitler to manipulate emotions wholesale, in a way that had never been possible before. And the masses - starved for entertainment and desperate for catharsis, and a sense of purpose - ate it up.
He contrasts this with the way that Elvis Presley took over all the new media:
Hitler used the tools provided by new technology. But Elvis owned them: radio, television, movies, it didn't matter: he conquered them all. And the changes that he brought about helped to topple totalitarian regimes, and make new ones less likely, for he left behind a changed culture that short-circuited the mechanisms that Hitler had used to secure power - and the mechanisms that other regimes used to maintain it.
Since Elvis, the bonding-and-catharsis element of mass media has expanded to outdo anything that any politician can deliver. We describe an especially popular politician today as looking "like a rock star," rather than the other way around, after all.
Let's look at that central claim again:
Music took over the airwaves, and today in most of the world a crazed orator would have a hard time getting enough listeners to take over a country no matter how persuasive his spiel. After Elvis, the commercial culture of rock and roll simply occupied the mindspace that totalitarians need, and it out-competed them.
What is it that troubles me about all this? Actually this is a fascinating essay because of the things it implies as much as what it states in so many words. For example, there is the widespread, vaguely 60s idea, that rock music is the great liberator. I have run across this in a lot of different places. Alas, the corollary to that is that classical music is the great oppressor! Alex Ross, even though he writes on classical music, seems to share that view in his book The Rest is Noise. I engaged with some of this in this post. I dealt with the problem more directly in this post.

The first problem that occurs to me with Glenn Reynold's theory is that we have a very powerful counter-example right before us today. All over the Middle East the religious leaders use radio and television and the internet to spread exactly the kind of totalitarian message that Glenn says was "short-circuited" by rock and roll. The problem is that "hot" media like radio and television can easily be controlled and put to use for any purpose good or bad. You can listen to Elvis singing "Don't Be Cruel" or some member of the Muslim Brotherhood inciting people to burn down Christian churches in Egypt.

Glenn ends with these paragraphs:
When the Berlin Wall fell, Elvis and the musicians who came afterward deserved as much credit as General Dynamics or the Strategic Air Command.

The same holds wherever people try to tyrannize the minds of men and women. It's no wonder that the Taliban opposed dancing and Western music, and no wonder that the increasingly desperate mullahs of Iran are flogging people for dancing at birthday parties. They can't compete with the King and his descendants. And they know it.
It would be nice if this were so, but it's not. Elvis and the Beatles, who were the other great masters of rock and roll and the new media, had a huge cultural influence on Western society, but only on Western society. The mullahs hate Western music of all kinds. They probably hate Mozart as much as they hate Elvis. And they can keep Elvis and Mozart out of their societies because they can use the radio to spread their message just as Elvis did. And they do it with more focus and clearer intention: they are not there to entertain, but to indoctrinate.

I remember a quote from Joseph Stalin who asked, when warned about the influence of the Pope, "yeah, how many divisions does he have?" In Egypt right now there are 8 million Christians being terrorized by the Muslim Brotherhood. No cultural force, not even Elvis, has the ability to lend them any help whatsoever. But if they had an assault rifle in every closet that might be a different story.

UPDATE: I think I have few rosy illusions about the power and influence of rock music because I am one of the few people who discusses this issue who actually played in a (not-very-good) rock band in the late 1960s. Believe me, our music didn't liberate anyone! But we did have a good time.


Rickard Dahl said...

This reminds me of (Elaine Fine quotes an essay by Taruskin (without commenting on it)).

Anyways, in the essay, Taruskin claims that playing Beethoven's 9th to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall was wrong because it (classical music) was earlier exploited by dictatorships. It's most likely the most ridiculous things I've seen Taruskin write. As one commentator properly noted in the context Beethoven even removed his dedication to a dictator (Napoleon). And even if originally written for a king or queen (like much of Handel's music) why would it be wrong to listen to it today? Beethoven's 9th (one of the greatest achivements in music) is more than proper to celebrate important human achivements (especially the fall of dictatorships).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for that link, Rickard. I have been contemplating ordering that book of essays by Taruskin. He is nearly always worth reading, even if he goes off the rails sometimes. Yes, the idea that classical music is morally questionable simply because the Nazis used to listen to it is both often claimed and ludicrous! You make more sense than both Taruskin and Alex Ross on this question.