One recent Saturday morning, National Public Radio's Scott Simon was interviewing a documentary filmmaker who'd just finished a film on Muslim fundamentalism. The filmmaker was talking about the views Muslims have toward the influence of U.S. popular culture in their societies—the unbridled sexuality, the materialism, etc. Simon interrupted and said, "You know, there are Christians in America who have some of the same complaints. They're concerned that popular culture pulls children away from the influences of family and church."
The filmmaker responded, "Yeah, but Scott, they said that about rock and roll when we were kids. And we turned out okay."
That rejoinder ended the broadcast discussion. And there was a time when it would have settled the question for me, too. I am, after all, a lifelong and unrepentant rock and roller, and I turned out okay. But I am also the father of three young children who looks around and sees the music that has provided me with solace and inspiration for four decades thoroughly embedded in a pop culture marketplace that is in fact hostile to every human value except consumption. And that leaves me genuinely vexed about the role of 21st-century popular culture in our lives.
Yes, rock and roll did pull me away from many of the traditional values of my time and place. And, at the time, that was a good thing. Does that mean that it's always good—in every time and place—to disrupt all traditional values and mores? I'm not so sure. And I'm not sure that the analogy between the influence of 1950s and '60s rock and that of MTV holds up to much historical scrutiny. In its founding generation, rock and roll was a genuine shock to the corporate system. But while rock can still cause the occasional grumble or hiccup, it is now thoroughly digested by corporate America.