“Pop music. Never underestimate its power.” Those are the words of the music critic Andrew Mueller. They were written in the early-1990s, when Mueller penned his final column for Melody Maker. It was his final sentence for the publication.
It’s a beautiful, powerful line, one that more critics should heed. Pop music can convey everything from simple love songs to modernist poetry, and people on both the left and the right who try and tame it or set rules for it usually wind up looking stupid.
It was just reported that “Fat Bottomed Girls,” a staple of Queen’s Greatest Hits collection, was dropped from a new reissue. The record company was concerned about “younger listeners”—i.e. the woke.
Conservatives are screaming about this. The Right doesn’t have a great track record with rock either. There’s Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review, who recently wrote: “Some of us are old enough to remember former second lady Tipper Gore, a Democrat, and former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, a Republican, warning us about sex and violence in music and video games. They were right. And it’s only gotten worse since then. No small part of the reason that young people find themselves getting abortions is because the music they listen to insisted that aggressive sexuality is the only way to have a relationship with someone of the opposite sex.”
Still, the crown goes to Jonah Goldberg’s take on music in his book Suicide of the West. Like Ben Shapiro, Goldberg argues that part of the trouble with modern life is the elevation of feelings over facts. This is tied to romanticism, which Goldberg describes as an “emphasis on emotion and the irrational, the significance of that which cannot be seen or explained through science but can be felt intuitively, is the tribal mind’s way of fighting its way back into the centrality of our lives.”
Goldberg adds that “popular culture gives us the clearest window into the romantic dimension that we all live in.” The most powerful expression of this is rock ‘n’ roll. “Rock and roll is romanticism,” Goldberg writes, with emphasis in the original.
“What are the key themes of rock and roll and these other genres?” he continues. “Any list would include: defy authority and throw off the chains of ‘the Man,’ true love, damn the consequences, nostalgia for an imagined better past, the superiority of youth, contempt for selling out, alienation, the superiority of authenticity, paganism and pantheism, and, like an umbrella over it all: the supremacy of personal feelings above all else.”
It’s too late to stop now! “Rock and roll is the primitive’s drumbeat hooked up to killer amps” Goldberg rails. “It ties together meanings we are taught to keep separate; it ratifies the instincts we are instructed to keep at bay. It tells us, in the words of Jethro Tull, ‘Let’s bungle in the jungle,’ because ‘that’s all right with me.’”
Pop music has simply become what Pete Townshend described it as—the ability of anyone to get up and play any instrument and sing about whatever they want. Radiohead is influenced by Dante. There’s not only “Bungle in the Jungle,” but Bowie. Songs can range from the clunky “Try That In a Small Town,” the redneck hit by Jason Aldean that prompted Lopez to address the music issue, to the genius of Kendrick Lamar. Pop music stands defiantly free against those who would try and scold it or contain it. In 2008, when I was going through a frightening health scare, a friend emailed me and said, “The Twilight Sad is playing the 9:30 tonight. Go see them.” That night I was confronted with a glorious, poetic blast of noise, rhythm and “Scottish miserablism.” The power of their sound, the raw and bloody humanity on display and the poetry of the lyrics (they’re named for a Wilfred Owen line) were transcendent.
In an absurd and sad 2018 article, Washington Post pop critic Chris Richards argued that pop artists should self-censor themselves. Richards describes a band that so loved a record by a soul artist that they wanted to cover it. They finally decided not to: “A band of white indie rockers performing the songs of a black R & B singer? No way. It would be seen as cultural appropriation.” Richards wrote. “As badly as I wanted to hear their covers they were right.”
Richards argues that cultural appropriation is wrong and should be avoided when it feels like “taking” instead of “making.” “When Justin Timberlake beatboxes, or Taylor Swift raps, or Miley Cyrus twerks to a trap beat,” he writes, “it feels like taking. Nothing is being invented other than superficial juxtaposition. On the flip side, when the Talking Heads echo African pop rhythms, or the Wu-Tang Clan channels the spiritually of Kung-Fu cinema, or Beyonce writes a country song, it feels more like making. The borrowed elements become an essential, integrated part of a new, previously unheard thing.”
He concludes: “We think we know this difference when we hear it, but sometimes we don’t—so there are more questions to ask, and many of them point toward an imbalance of power.”
So pop music should only play the music that the is approved by the Stasi state.
I was a peripheral member of a band called the Jesuits in high school. One thing I remember is that the main concern was how well we could play a song, not if we should play it. We attempted “Under the Boardwalk,” “Squeeze Box” and even punk noise. We owned “She’s So Cold” by the Stones. There was never any question that something would be considered off limits. Had someone suggested that, we would’ve been determined to learn it—and played it at the prom.
This is why the new philistine attacks on rock ‘n’ roll are so depressing. Movies are corrupted by wokeness. Novels no longer have their social importance. It’s crucial that rock ‘n’ roll retain its freewheeling freedom which can launch an attack from any ideological direction. I’ll never forget the night in the 1980s when I went to see a punk band at the 9:30 Club in D.C. A guy I worked with at a record store was the guitarist, and before the show I hung out backstage. I went on a dissertation about what punk meant, how it was so vital for liberalism and sticking it to President Reagan. “That’s fascinating,” the singer said derisively, brushing past me on his way to the stage. “Now fuck off.” Exactly.
“Nowhere is the romantic mixture of pantheism, primitivism, and the primacy of feelings more evident than in rock’s appeal to inner authority and authenticity,” Jonah Goldberg writes in his misguided book. But from Buddy Holly to the Beatles, from the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson to the Twilight Sad and Taylor Swift, pop music is most often about abandoning the self in pursuit of the other—about revealing that your claims of “inner authenticity” mean nothing without the person you love and desire.