Jonah Goldberg’s new book, “Suicide of the West,” is a work whose many layers and arguments take time and care to examine fully. His general thesis, that liberal capitalism has produced a “miracle” that is unappreciated by modernist who don’t remember how rough life was even one hundred years ago, is explored with riffs on history, psychology and pop culture.
However, there’s one thing Goldberg gets wrong: rock and roll.
Like Ben Shapiro, Goldberg argues that part of the trouble with modern life is the elevation of feelings over facts. This is tied to Romanticism, which Goldberg describes as an “emphasis on emotion and the irrational, the significance of that which cannot be seen or explained through science but can be felt intuitively, is the tribal mind’s way of fighting its way back into the centrality of our lives.” Goldberg adds that “popular culture gives us the clearest window into the romantic dimension that we all live in.” The most powerful expression of this is rock and roll. “Rock and roll is romanticism,” Goldberg writes, with emphasis in the original.
“What are the key themes of rock and roll and these other genres?” Goldberg continues. “Any list would include: defy authority and throw off the chains of ‘the Man,’ true love, damn the consequences, nostalgia for an imagined better past, the superiority of youth, contempt for selling out, alienation, the superiority of authenticity, paganism and pantheism, and, like an umbrella over it all: the supremacy of personal feelings above all else.”
Sounding like a 1950s preacher, he goes on: “Rock and roll is the primitive’s drumbeat hooked up to killer amps. It ties together meanings we are taught to keep separate; it ratifies the instincts we are instructed to keep at bay. It tells us, in the words of Jethro Tull, ‘Let’s bungle in the jungle,’ because ‘that’s alright with me.’”
A reference to Jethro Tull in a rock and roll world that includes Coldplay, Pulitzer-prize winner Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift and Beyonce is a bit dated, the kind of thing one can imagine Jerry Falwell saying in 1976.
Goldberg concludes that “rock and roll, from its most commercial forms to its most authentic, fancies itself as outside ‘the system.’ It claims a higher or truer authority based in feelings that, like the poets of earlier generations, defy the tyranny of the slide rule and the calculator. Its more grandiose champions put rock on a par with all of the higher forces, like a titan or god in eternal battle with the tyrannical deities of the system.”
Goldberg makes several mistakes that are common to conservatives of rock and roll going back to Allan Bloom. The most basic is thinking that rock and roll is simply primitive. At its best rock is both primal and aims for transcendence, which is what makes it so powerful. Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Motown, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Father John Misty and U2 aren’t solely primitive, but also questing, celestial and poetic. Also: It’s also hard to know what Goldberg means by rock and roll, as the only example he gives is from Jethro Tull. From punk to hip-hop to indie bands, noise, metal, electronic and folk, there’s just too much diversity in music today to say all of it is one simple thing.
Goldberg argues that rock and roll does not have order, rejecting “the slide rule and the calculator.” In fact, a lot of rock and roll – especially as it sounded at its origins – is tightly based on a kind of mathematical order, with the music having a simple structure of verse, verse, chorus, or some variation thereof. The pattern can be found from Chuck Berry to Taylor Swift, both of whose music is much more mathematically simple than the more ambitious flights of jazz, which allows for improvisation every time it’s played.
Furthermore, rock and roll lyrics don’t as much celebrate the self as love of the other, a love that can be carnal and self-centered, but in most pop music is directed outward and also often has religious imagery. In this sense rock and roll might even be called a response the natural law, the law of common sense and things-as-they are that conservatives champion. You see a beautiful girl walking down the street and the instinct is to react. Rock and roll puts this reaction in terms that reflects the different levels of the dynamism of the experience. Again, the chords themselves, the sound of the music, speak of order, not antinomianism. While the beats may seem primitive the harmonies and melodies often aim for the transcendent. Listening to the Beach Boys doesn’t inspire a lot of rioting. It’s less about “emotion and the irrational” as being lifted to a place of supreme rationality, where feelings and destiny and the rightness of self-abandoning love collide.
“Nowhere is the romantic mixture of pantheism, primitivism, and the primacy of feelings more evident than in rock’s appeal to inner authority and authenticity,” Goldberg writes. But from Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” to the Beatles’ “If I Fell,” from the Rolling Stones “Miss You,” through Peter Frampton, Jimi Hendrix, the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson, pop music is about abandoning the self in pursuit of the desired other, about revealing that your claims of inner authenticity mean nothing without the person you love. The best rock and roll is about losing yourself for the love of another.
A recent example comes from Taylor Swift. Her song “Don’t Blame Me” would seem to fit Goldberg’s formula. It’s got a simple, repetitive beat, and is about love and feelings. The opening lyrics:
Don’t blame me, love made me crazy
If it doesn’t, you ain’t doin’ it right
Lord, save me, my drug is my baby
I’d be usin’ for the rest of my life
I’ve been breakin’ hearts a long time, and
Toyin’ with them older guys
Just play things for me to use
Something happened for the first time, in
The darkest little paradise
Shakin, pacin’, I just need you
For you, I would cross the line
I would waste my time
I would lose my mind
They say she’s gone too far this time
Lyrically this has a lot of classic rock and roll tropes – the reference to drugs, craziness brought on by desire, the boasting of sexual conquest. Yet the music, a combination of 80s synthesizer and towering riff borrowed from gospel music, also puts the listener in the realm of the mystical and holy. Ultimately “Don’t Blame Me” is less about the authenticity of self as it is the crumbling of personal authority and authenticity in the presence of an enchanting other. “Don’t Blame Me” is about gaining entry into the world of love, a soulful place not of insanity but ultra-realism — the place of soul.
It’s interesting that Swift speaks of “that darkest little paradise,” a nice juxtaposition of darkness and light. While rock and roll music has often been rebellious, the rebellion it expresses is often based on integrating the shadow, that dark subconscious part of ourselves that requires acceptance and recognition for there to be psychic health. While bands from the Rolling Stones to the Replacements seemingly celebrate sex, drugs and rock and roll, expressed in that imagery has always been the desire to belong, to heal, to find love and become complete. That’s no bungle in the jungle.
Mark Judge is a journalist and filmmaker living in Washington, D.C.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.