Speaking of Women and Music
Happy Thanksgiving

Mark Steyn (and Allan Bloom) on Pop Music & Culture

I thought this merited emphasis and a separate discussion. Francesca Murphy brought up this New Criterion article by Mark Steyn in which he describes the omnipresence of pop music in public places as turning our lives into "a movie with a bad sound track."

Steyn is writing in the context of a New Criterion retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. I subscribe to the NC but had not yet read any of the six or seven articles in the retrospective. Have been considering them uneasily, in fact, because I haven't read Closing, and frankly don't really want to, but also don't want to read the retrospectives without having read the book. Why don't I want to read the book? From what I know of it, it seems to be a sort of secular conservative attack on the decay of American (and European?) culture. And although I would no doubt agree with a lot of it, it seems to me that an appraisal of this sort is bound to miss much that's important if it isn't made from a Christian persepective, or at least with a deep understanding of that perspective, and of the place of Christianity in shaping our culture.

But anyway: I did read the Steyn piece last night, and am in substantial agreement with it. I take his main point to be the destructive effect of pop music being the only music most people know. This, I think, is an important point about what's gone wrong:

“Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.

And this is just hilarious:

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.... 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.

I consider myself very fortunate, by the way, that I'm not very often in places where music is forced on me in this way. If I worked in some sort of bullpen where it was impossible to escape the radio, I'd...well, I don't know what I'd do, but it wouldn't be pretty.

However: with all that said, I make no apologies for my own love of popular music. Obviously I believe there's a lot of really fine art being made in that area, and I agree with Francesca that life would be less rich without the best of it. And I don't suffer from the top-of-the-iceberg syndrome Steyn describes. I even think it's possible—possible, mind you; this is not something of which I feel certain—that some of it will outlast a lot of our serious fiction, poetry, and classical music (using "classical" in the sense of art-music made by composers who see themselves as part of the classical tradition). Our pop music is a sort of half-folk art, and it isn't at the level of, say, Four Quartets. But it's not absurd to compare it to folk ballads composed and modified anonymously hundreds of years ago and still sung today.

(By the way: I'm off work today, in case you're wondering why I have time to write at such length on a Wednesday.)



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