When are conservatives going to stop making fools of themselves when it comes to rock and roll?
That’s the question I will address on September 24th, at a book signing at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. It’s a promotion for my new book “A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In the book I argue that rock and roll is an art form that should be embraced by the right.
A good initial step towards acceptance would be a healthy sense of shame at the ignorance some conservatives have towards rock and roll. In the September 20 issue of the Weekly Standard, there is an item about Paul McCartney becoming one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. McCartney, a political cretin, insulted President George W. Bush at another awards ceremony this past July. This should be enough for conservatives to dismiss the political philosophy of the onetime Beatle. But this isn’t enough for the Standard, which sniffs: “So we are now faced with the prospect of American taxpayers financing a night of civic worship for an over-the-hill British rock ‘n’ roller who comes to these shores to accept gratuitous praise and insult the twice-elected president of the United States.” By giving McCartney an honor, we are “making a big deal out of a musical mediocrity who hasn’t written a memorable tune in 40 years.”
Paul McCartney. A musical mediocrity.
Conservatives hear this kind of talk all the time — but it’s usually about politics, and it usually comes from people like Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. It has all the ingredients of the aggrieved, know-nothing left: a poor grasp of the facts, emotion over intellect, rage. It’s one thing to use hyperbole to reduce an intellectual enemy, but in order to work, that hyperbole needs to reflect reality. When Ronald Reagan called hippies Tarzan and Jane it was funny because a lot of hippies did have an unfamiliar relationship with soap. Tiny Fey’s Sarah Palin impression scores because Palin does, in fact, talk like that. To call Paul McCartney a musical mediocrity who hasn’t written a decent song in 40 years just makes the accuser look silly.
And it’s a shame. Rock and roll has all the characteristics of a great conservative art form. It comes from the people. It is both democratic and meritocratic; anyone can form a band in their garage and sing about anything they want, but — at least in most if not all cases — the talented are rewarded with success. Although its artists have total freedom to sing about whatever they want, its main theme is love, the kind of metaphysical, spiritual love that can give people supernatural strength and give direction and purpose to lives. Rock and roll is also fun, something that more and more liberals seem against.
“Jet.” “My Love.” “Band on the Run.” “Live and Let Die.” “Maybe I’m Amazed.” “Venus and Mars.” These are a few of the songs McCartney has written in the last 40 years. I’m leaving out songs from Sir Paul’s two last acclaimed records, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” and “Memory Almost Full.” But there’s really no need to point this out; you can only argue with someone who has the same information that you do. The writer of the (unsigned) item in the Weekly Standard has probably not bought a McCartney album, or any rock album for that matter, in 40 years. And why should he? It’s all crap, after all.
Yes, by all means, let’s leave the popular culture to the left. That way we don’t have to think about it — we can just keep cranking out books about the bad old 1960s and the socialism of President Obama.
A few days before reading the Weekly Standard item, I came across a book about rock and roll that is equally as fatuous. Greil Marcus has been a professional rock critic for more than four decades, but in many ways he is just as ignorant as the Standard when it comes to popular music. In his new book “When that Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison,” Marcus spends almost 200 pages talking about Van Morrison and never gets into the question of God. Morrison grew up in Belfast listening to American gospel, blues, and jazz records. He experienced a “state of rapture” as a child when he heard Mahalia Jackson’s voice over the phonograph. For almost half a century his music has been a stirring quest for the places that God is found in the world. But Marcus, a modern secularist, just can’t bring himself to see this. He examines the doors of the car, kicks the tires, checks the upholstery, but doesn’t bother with the engine. At the end of the book Marcus makes his conclusion: “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any record I own; I wouldn’t tell you why even if I knew. In the face of work that became part of my life a long time ago and remains inseparable from it, whether it’s The Great Gatsby or Astral Weeks, what I value most is how inexplicable any great work really is.” So Greil Marcus, elitist, university professor, cultural observer, and writer with some 50 years experience simply can’t explain the subject of the book he has decided to write.
The left’s loss of God has left the entire area of popular culture, but more importantly popular music, open to intelligent conservative analysis. The fact that — with the exception of the usual and occasional snark — we continue to ban coverage of such art forms from our magazines, think tanks and conferences is a pity.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.