I’d like Ed Gillespie, the Republican strategist, to give me some money. Actually, Bill Kristol, Roger Kimball and the Heritage Foundation can chip in as well.
With few exceptions, conservatives do not know, understand, or care about popular culture. They sit in their offices in New York and Washington and publish magazines and journals, largely oblivious to the worlds of Hollywood, pop music and television. Conservatives write, talk and blog about: 1) the insane socialist policies of Barack Obama; 2) iniquitous political correctness; 3) a variation on 1 and 2. When they do have anything to say about popular culture, it’s treated as if the pope was caught playing beer pong. Hey, Jonah Goldberg is talking about Star Trek! Fine, fine—can we get back to the Tea Parties now?
A couple years ago, I tried to change this. Along with my friend Stephen Catanzarite, orthodox Catholic and the author of the slim yet profound volume U2 Achtung Baby: Love in the Shadow of the Fall, I formed a non-profit for conservatives interested in popular culture. Stephen and I called it the Cavern Institute. I came up with the name thanks to two of the great influences of my life: G.K. Chesterton and the Beatles. Chesterton, the great Catholic apologist, notes in his book “The Everlasting Man,” that Christ came into the world in one of the caverns that dot fields in Bethlehem. And the Beatles exploded to fame playing the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
Stephen and I always considered this a little inside joke by God. For both he and I believe that rock and roll is both a religious expression and a powerful expression of modernist art. I have explained as much in a piece, “Johnny Rotten, Traditionalist Modern,” from The Daily Caller.
In his book, Stephen explores the deeply Christian and Catholic themes found in the music of U2; he puts Chesterton and Fulton Sheen next to Bono and the Edge, and the fit doesn’t seem odd, but natural. For the truth is that rock ‘n’ roll is both a deeply religious expression of what it means to be a human being. It is also a part of the literature of people who grew up during and after the 1960s. Radiohead is our Joyce, Pete Townshend our T.S. Eliot, Jay-Z our Ralph Ellison. (I’ll wait while you pry Roger Kimball off the ceiling.)
When Stephen and I formed the Cavern Institute as a 501(c)3, we were hopeful yet realistic. We wanted to launch a website and publish a small quarterly journal (imagine Tom Wolfe editing Rolling Stone.) Both things would be critical of movies, books and music, but also—and this is key—celebratory of the best of those things. Indeed, we wanted the emphasis to be on the pure joy that comes with a brilliant pop song, or a great movie. We wanted to be free to call Eminem a genius and Sarah Palin a dingbat. We were tired of having to go to Rolling Stone, or the Style section, or the New Yorker—which just ran a wonderful piece on the singer Sade that should have run in National Review—to get great, serious writing about popular culture. With respect, John Podhoretz on movies in the Weekly Standard just wasn’t enough. And frankly, we were getting tired of reading about the bad old 1960s. Yes, this is the decade that produced the Weathermen. It also gave us Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Hunter Thompson.
After a few months, Stephen and I realized that the right had no interest in popular culture—or if they did, they were all talk, and worthless about actually doing something to bring conservatives into the conversation. They would pop up on TV to tsk-tsk when Britney Spears sang about passing out, or when Eminem flipped somebody off; they just couldn’t be bothered to unpack the conservative values found in the Eminem biopic “8 Mile,” or the undercurrent of holy sorrow found in Spears’ loss of control—or the smart, self-aware humor in a lot of her songs. They leave the rich Catholicism of Bruce Springsteen to liberals like Jim Wallis and Andrew Greeley. It’s much easier, after all, to sit back and shake your head rather than do any work or research.
Last winter, Stephen Catanzarite attended a U2 conference in New York, where he presented a paper comparing the Irish band with Edmund Burke. Where was First Things?
And here’s the most annoying thing. A few times every year, a conservative steps forth and announces that it’s time for us Righties to get involved in popular culture. The most recent is Ed Gillespie, whom I mentioned at the start of this essay and who worked for the George Bush White House. Gillespie recently published a piece in the Weekly Standard about, yes, conservatives getting involved in popular culture. “Conservatives can curse the darkness or light cultural candles,” Gillespie wrote.
Um, Ed? These things take resources. The Heritage Foundation, Family Research Council, and the American Enterprise Institute have plush offices in Washington, D.C., and employ (and at good salaries for not doing much if David Frum was any example) enough scholars to fill a cruise ship. They write papers, give lectures, blog, and appear on television and radio. This is how they affect the culture. But when it comes to popular culture, conservatives without any tangible support need to resort to the occasional guerilla attack. National Review publishes a list of the top 100 conservative rock ‘n’ roll songs. The mainstream liberal culture mocks the conservatives and dismisses their claims. The article is forgotten, and conservatives go back to talking about deficits, corrupt college professors, and bias in the media. Mel Gibson makes a movie, the left goes into the outer stratosphere, and a few months later the entire thing is forgotten. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Well, if you wanna dance you gotta pay the band. The Cavern Institute is still (I think) viable. There are two committed people who want to bring it to life. It could be tucked into a larger think tank, or we could run it out of a basement. In any case, by now everyone, including the editors of the New Criterion and the Weekly Standard, accepts the wisdom first expressed by Ozzy Osborne: You can’t kill rock ‘n’ roll. And who would want to?
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism and Rock and Roll, forthcoming from Doubleday. His YouTube page can be found here –http://www.youtube.com/user/MarkGauvreau.