The Common Good
September-October 1994

Lamenting the Loss

by Mark Gauvreau Judge | September-October 1994

The blues met modernism.

At first glance, Martha Bayles looks like the enemy. For six years a critic for The Wall Street Journal, Bayles has also written for conservative publications like the Brookings Review and the New Criterion. With those credentials you’d expect her book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, to be an austere right-wing polemic about how pop music is responsible for everything from crack babies to post-nasal drip.

But Bayles is on to something, and you don’t have to be Bill Bennett to appreciate her passion and the breadth of her scholarship. "The central argument of Hole in Our Soul is that the anarchistic, nihilistic impulses of perverse modernism have grafted onto popular music," she writes, "where they have not only undermined the Afro-American tradition, but also encouraged today’s cult of obscenity, brutality, and sonic abuse."

By "perverse modernism" Bayles refers to the strain of "anti-art" that has its origins in the poet Rimbaud—who rejected his own poetry as "absurd"—as well as futurism, Marxism, and the early 20th-century dadaist who held artistic standards in contempt. These groups viewed art itself—with the exception of their own negations, of course—as "bourgeois" exercise ripe for parody and deconstruction.

According to Bayles, in the 1960s such thinking was popular among the students in the British art schools. When the students discovered American blues—music whose mass appeal, structured format, and commercial viability were at odds with the anarchic indulgence of perverse modernism—they turned the soulful heritage of African-American music (a history Bayles expertly documents from the drum rhythms of Africa to rap) into a sneering cultural stance:

The harbingers of this break were the Rolling Stones, who relished the blues but did not hesitate to make it over in the image of the stale perverse modernism that some of their members had picked up in British colleges. Thus the Stones enhanced their musical reputation by shocking the public and being arrogantly rude to their audience—behaviors now accepted as part of rock, but thoroughly alien to the blues.

The Stones, of course, became hugely popular, and their success altered how pop music was played and consumed. Rock and roll soon became enmeshed in narcissism, politics, and drugs, with catastrophic results: hippies, Altamont (the Stones’ anti-establishment free concert that ended in chaos and death), and every Led Zeppelin album ever recorded. Perverse modernism reached its apex in the late 1970s with the creation of the Sex Pistols, the English punk band manufactured by fashion designer Malcom McLaren, and the stage was set for much of what was to come: music not as spiritual expression or entertainment or even art, but as a tool to tweak the audience’s moral sensibilities.

IF BAYLES missteps in Hole in Our Soul, it’s by casting her net too wide. One of the paradoxes of contemporary pop music is that great music is sometimes hidden beneath the layers of perverse modernism; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder may be a rude, naval-gazing twerp in person, but his band is responsible for several pieces of music that in structure tower as rock art. Ditto with AC/DC, Metallica, and other bands considered heavy metal, a genre Bayles hilariously lacerates.

Bayles is one of the few critics who understands that music ingeniously written and performed often renders irrelevant whatever lyrical message is being conveyed. Such insight makes her a fan of music from all eras, but also makes her disparage music she doesn’t consider legitimate, like rap:

Most obscene rap possesses neither wit nor musicianship—only obscenity. By the standards of the Afro-American past, that is not enough to qualify as art. But by the standards of perverse modernism, it is....The faces are black, but the strategy is European: Seek out a submerged, antisocial custom that is considered marginal even by its participants, drag it kicking and screaming to the surface, and celebrate it as "art."

While noting that "most"—not all—obscene rap is garbage, Bayles doesn’t acknowledge that, like heavy metal, there is much gangsta rap that is musically innovative, even ingenious, even as it paints gruesome pictures of women and society. When it’s convenient, Bayles makes the message the medium.

Still, when she’s on, Bayles is brilliant, and Hole in Our Soul a bracing polemic. It should be noted that there have been some negative reviews of Hole in Our Soul, from both the Left and the Right. The conservatives can’t seem to grasp the tender spirituality that has always run through rock and roll, and the liberals resent being called on their MTV narcissism.

For accomplishing dual dissings, I’d like to offer Bayles the heavy metal CD of her choice.

Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. By Martha Bayles. Free Press, 1994.

MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE is a free-lance writer living in Potomac, Maryland. His favorite album of all time is AC/DC’s Back in Black.

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