Carriers of the Torch

When pondering the question of rock and roll and its influence as an instrument of moral decay, cold-hearted commerce, and positive insurrection, a question worth taking up is: "Why bother analyzing it?"

To some, the music is rude, low-class, and blatantly sexual and so could not possibly play any part in improving anyone’s life. This is the old elitist or puritanical school of thought. It is, at this point, held only by an irrelevant minority, and it is mostly kept alive to give corporate rock something to rebel against, and thus maintain an aura of authenticity. The threat to the music today comes not from those who would condemn it, but from those who have trivialized it.

The other way of objecting to serious moral and intellectual scrutiny of rock culture is to say: "Why bother thinking about it?" This camp gathers under Sir Mick Jagger’s old slogan: "It’s only rock and roll but I like it...." This is the MTV, VH1, E! channel orthodoxy of the day: "It’s all entertainment. It’s just a giggle. Lighten up, man," all intoned with the old Beavis and Butthead snigger. You could make a good case that this light-hearted avoidance of thought and substance is one of the core evils in American culture today.

It’s no accident that this attitude swept rock and roll in the 1980s, after the arrival of MTV, because it is almost entirely television-induced. When rock was locked out of mainstream TV, it saw itself as an oppositional force, at war with the "entertainment" culture. Back in the early ’70s, Elvis allegedly shot his television because Robert Goulet was on the screen. At the time, probably every rocker understood the essential rightness of that gesture. Elvis came among us to, among other things, drive the Robert Goulets out of our culture. Within the first decade of the MTV age, we had neo-lounge acts that were little more than Robert Goulet without vocal range. And it was supposed to be okay because it’s all "just entertainment."

We’re not picking on rock and rollers here, either. This beer-commercial sensibility of deliberate, cultivated empty-headedness is pervasive. It’s how people make foreign policy in the postmodern age. You don’t need to understand history, and your "facts" don’t even have to be true. You just need to push the right buttons and strike the right pose. Rock and roll may not have created this culture of the superficial, but it has been captured by it.

I SUPPOSE the real surprise is that there are still some rockers and rappers who do not consider themselves mere entertainers. They are ones who carry the true torch that came from Jimmy Rodgers and Robert Johnson to Hank Williams and Muddy Waters and was passed on to Elvis and Bo Diddley.

This music did not begin as entertainment. It began as a way of life lived by people (Southern blacks and poor whites) who were forcibly barred from the mainstream of American society. Johnny Cash was, of course, living proof that rock and roll—simple guitars and drums—could signify in a big way about the big questions of life (and death) and remain vital over the course of a biblical threescore and 10.

We’ve come to think of music as a commodified form of entertainment. It’s the soundtrack to a video, a movie, a picnic, or a hot date. But to traditional people around the world, music is not background accompaniment to life—it is essential to life itself. It is the meaning-making, transcendence-seeking part of life. It is the mystery—the "Out There"—embedded in the routines of everyday, like Spirit embedded in flesh. That’s how my rural Southern forebears (and Cash’s) experienced country and gospel music, and the bits of the blues that drifted across the fence. That’s how tribal people experience music.

That’s how teenagers experience it, too, until they—much too soon—become obsessed with trivialities such as status and money. But even for modern, high-tech adults, music is a necessary resource for life—for making meaning and seeking that higher ground. That’s why it’s too important to be left to the music industry.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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