Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I’ll take Simon’s challenge:

“it's hard to think of any rock writers who've . . . come up . . . with a convincing theory of how rock works and why it matters that meshes with a conservative worldview.”

It seems obvious to me -- of course rock ideology fits with the conservative to reactionary worldview: celebrating domination and machismo and violence and conformism and hyper-capitalism, the machismo carrying a hefty load of Puritanism. Or, to look at it from a possible conservative viewpoint, rock is about the freedom of the individual.

Domination and violence: metal and rap are the musics of choice for American soldiers psyching up for combat. Taking the place of the brass bands of 100 + years ago -- and with the same hard beats, loud dynamics, and brash timbres -- or, if not exactly the same, then from the same family, and working the same way.

Hard rock guitars make the sound of Republicanism. Lee Atwater wailing blues leads at Bush the First’s inaugural. FOX news being the first (and only?) network to trade in the traditional militaristic brass & drums for the modern militaristic electric guitars and drums for its fanfares.

Hard rock guitars make the soundtrack of violence: Football movies and TV sports highlight clips are routinely set to fast drumbeats with electric guitars.

The rock ideology of guilty pleasurism is a puritanical macho explosion, and EMP is devoting a whole conference to the topic. And what pleasures are to be deemed guilty? Why, the pleasures of soothing timbres, of course: the Fifth Dimension and Barry Manilow, to name 2 faves of mine. Do I feel guilty? I did when I was a teenager; I bought into the macho reactionary ideology, and now I hate it. (There’s a ton of nuance in the ideological-genre boundaries of timbre: “Soothing” can be fine, but not when it’s combined with the self-confident image/persona projection of pre-rock showbiz.)

Barry Manilow’s reputation is “wimpy.” Wimpy, meaning: not masculine enough, effeminate, possibly gay. I like a lot of his music; he has a great pop mastery of dynamics and the musical-timbral signifiers for passion. I thought rock and roll was supposed to be about passion? Didn’t somebody say that?

The “anti-wimp” rhetoric of guilty-pleasurist ideology is misogynist and homophobic. I won’t give you quotations unless you’re honestly surprised and curious.

The freedom of the individual is the mantra of conservatism, and from Elvis’s hips to Eddie Van Halen’s hot guitar to Eminem’s misogynist fantasies, it’s all about the freedom baby, the freedom and the passion.

The radio format on which one is least likely to hear a woman’s voice? Why, classic rock, of course.

The bad-boy-ism of rock -- conservatives love a bad boy. Look at Bush. His drunken jerk partyboy past is one of his few political assets that he cultivated on his own. (Not that all drunken partyboys are jerks, but he appears to have been one.)

The indy-alt-art-school-college rock reaction to all this machismo has been: Let’s non-conform together. Go to the club, don’t dance, don’t tuck your shirt in, only certain shoes approved of, black clothes or plaid flannel only, and so on. And: let’s be defeatist about everything. Simon captures it really well in this later post: “deficiency is part of the music’s point and appeal, its rhetoric of sound.” As the indy-alt-college wing is typically socially and politically more progressive than the football-military-hard wing, college rock’s defeatist/deficient persona/philosophy/outlook/face has got to be something that the conservative movement loves.

By contrast, the Nashville persona is, stereotypically, confident, radiant, full of life, full of beans, raring to take what it wants and go for it. The persona of entitlement that asks, And why shouldn’t someone like me be entitled to the good things in life? It’s a powerful power seduction that conservatism has mastered, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Republicans appeal to Nashville stars far more intensely than to any other showbiz star cohort.
On the crit-discourse side of rock, the domination of the corporations over the discourse is close to total. The vast majority of inkspace goes to corporate product that the critics get for free. A band is generally presumed unworthy of attention unless it either has wide popularity or fits into a style that could win it wide popularity. How many Pazz & Jop finishers put out their own records?

Rock is conservative. That doesn’t make it bad. I even like some Rolling Stones songs, some of them a lot. (The Stones and Rush Limbaugh: rich white guys endlessly complaining about how badly they're treated.)

To sum:

Conservatism acknowledges freedom, passion, machismo, homophobia, and individualism as central to its creed; Nashville and hip hop more or less acknowledge all of these conservative values as their own; and while rock acknowledges all of them except homophobia, the homophobia is central to mainstream “anti-wimp” rock discourse.

Violence and domination are endemic to rock and hip hop; a sense of entitlement is central to Nashville; all 3 values are unacknowledged pillars of conservatism.

Rock’s acknowledged liberal/progressive wing is resigned and/or defeatist and/or deficient in outlook and thus plays into conservatism’s triumphalism. (U2 is an exception here.)

Profitability dominates rock-Nashville-hip hop discourse; Nashville and hip hop, again, are up front about this, while rock denies it but plays along almost totally.

Why shouldn’t the popular culture of the world’s most powerful empire reflect imperialist values? We want the world and we want it now.

(This all sounds so negative, which is too bad, because . . . I love rock and roll. And . . . I love the freedom of the individual, and passion. Not all conservative values are exclusively conservative.)

Added postscript: Don't mean to imply an equation of homosexuality and wimpiness in life; in mainstream American discourse, however, the equation is there, and that's what I'm commenting on.

so, what do you do with a band like Pearl Jam? Do you file them in with the defeatists? They seem to exhibit both tendencies of your machisimo/defeatist dichotomy, but are clearly leftist.
I must confess: I don't know PJ's stuff that well.

Based on scattered and random hearing, I like Eddie Vedder's singing a lot, but they sound like alienated/defeatist alt/indy to me.

Pearl Jam is a good emblem for some of alt/indy's particularities: a loud/powerful band sound with an inward-looking vocalist. The sonic relationship says to me, "I'm a small person contending with vast passions and forces out of my control."

The schema I'm proposing is very broad-brushed and no doubt does not account for many exceptions.

Also: no aesthetic judgments implied in any of this. I love good ol' domineering hard rock and hip hop too.
What about English bands like the Clash or even Chumbawamba (sp?) Definitely left, definitely brash, and in the case of the Clash, there's the macho stuff going on, but I wouldn't describe it as homophobic. Just a scattershot observation from one who doesn't follow music all that closely anymore


Exceptions rule!

Clash & Chumbawumba -- I want left/political music to enact its own joy & exuberance (or, alternatively, full-throated rage, which some of the hardcore bands get at); I loved Chumbawumba's big hit; Clash get some of that going on too.

I've been thinking about political music lately & will probably post something on it.
Interesting take, but I never got any of that out of my experience as a rock guitarist (I was even on MTV a few times back in the vinyl age). I mean, when I was a kid listening to Jimi Hendrix it wasn't about anything political or social, I just loved the place the music took me to (Spanish Castle Magic, Still Rainin', Still Dreaming, &c.). Sure, there was a sexual element to my guitar playing, because everybody knows chicks dig dudes who play the guitar. LOL! But to call rock homophobic is stretching it a tad. Heck, I even met several gay rockers along the line. No biggie at all. But then, I'm a libertarian and find I have nothing in common with lefties anymore, so who knows; perhaps you're right... er... left.

Thanks for your comment -- I probably overstate.

I'm not sure that the music itself has a politics, just that it can resonate with political positions; rock typically resonates lefty in the rockcrit discourse, but clearly lots of conservatives love rock; I'm just trying to get at how and/or why. I don't hear rock or any music as homophobic-in-itself, but rockcrit often has that tinge.

What band[s] were you in that went on MTV? Cool!
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