Rocking the Culture

“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.” – Jacob Bronowski in Science and Human Values

I offer the following with apologies for anything in it that might offend some music lovers.

In 1955, when I returned from service in Korea and was reconnecting with family and friends, I was led down cellar steps by an adolescent nephew of mine to see his prize possession: a set of drums. After he took his position among the percussive hardware around him, my nephew’s hands and feet fell into a well-oiled routine as he hammered a salvo of Rock-and-Roll beats that hit me like the blast of a grenade. A devilish fire blazed in his face as he thundered away at his drums. Suddenly wishing I were somewhere else, I took my nephew’s pounding clatter with stoic endurance. I’d be polite – but I wanted to say: What’s gotten into you?

I had heard such music in the movie “Blackboard Jungle.” It was sickening to watch slumming teens on the street unexpectedly burst into “Rock Around the Clock,” as though sacked and possessed by demons. It was a scene that belonged in Dante’s Inferno. If it was presented as an antidote for juvenile delinquency (presumably a moral of the story), then I’d rather take a trip Through the Looking Glass, where, like Alice, I’d have a chance to fight the absurd.

I enjoy popular music, depending on its musicality, a criterion used by many a music lover, musician, and composer. It is noteworthy that jazz (for instance) was used by composers like Gershwin, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and others in their work. But what detour from the progress of pop music was the raucous assault of early Rock-and-Roll, which assailed not just the ears but the stomach and the heart? Real noise calls for a quick exit or the wearing ear-plugs. But this aural attack on us was something you were supposed to enjoy.

I am far from implying that “Rock” could not be more musical, evidence of which appeared in some church music after 1970. Love it or leave it, “Rock” could morph to higher levels of quality when composers set their minds (and souls) to the task.

Beneath my forced smile, at my nephew’s drumming session, I cringed at the easy victory of junk over quality, foreshadowed in the arts by the Dada movement in the early part of the century. At that earlier time, assaults on musical integrity were promptly denounced by music critics. Were the tongues of mid-century critics paralyzed?

I took the thumping, deadening “Rock” as an audible symptom of the decay infecting the culture of America after mid-century. I was saddened, not only for my bright young nephew but for a generation wasting themselves on the likes of rubber-mouth, gyro-hips Elvis Presley instead of nourishing their minds and souls with singers and musicians that easily outperformed the “King.”

Leonard Bernstein’s televised children’s concerts of the late 1950s brought music to kids that was fading from the consciousness of mainstream America. I had personally witnessed the effect of good music on young ears when I played double bass in the Brooklyn Community Symphony Orchestra at concerts we gave for children. What excuse was there, I’d ask then and now, for depriving children of excellent music during their age of quickening mental development and discovery?

My negatives regarding early “Rock” was centered on its stultifying monotony, caused by its lack of melodic and rhythmic adventure. That words and beat are all that matter in the music of a song is a very poor assessment of what a song is about. If that were so, then music need be nothing more than a tonal backdrop to the “message” – as, for example, in the pointless and distracting background “music” infesting most T.V. commercials and stories (and deadening their impact).

So I ask, have the new songs of the pop culture in recent years become more musical or less musical than the songs before them? It seems to me that the seismic rocking of song composition after the 1950s has gradually put the new songs into a straitjacket. What I mean can be illustrated with a simple aspect of composition. With twelve different tones to choose from between a given note and the octave above it (picture the pattern of 7 white and 5 black keys on a keyboard), why are only a few notes (rarely more than three or four) chosen for the words, arranged in a fixed sequence that repeats itself monotonously? You need not have studied music to notice the rut of tones that song words are in today.

The infinity of melodic as well as rhythmic potential in music, along with the enhancing dimension of harmony, has challenged composers in all ages to be creative. One would think that such great musical potential would inspire every young composer to “carry the torch” of musical expression forward, not settle for the ongoing musical routines and fads.

Yet, judging from the pervasiveness of musically impoverished songs – in stores, in waiting rooms, wherever the public is “treated” to music – we are all supposed to act as though such musically strapped songs are “cool.”  

I am not trying to promote one or another type of music – each has its audience – but why must we all be constantly bombarded in public venues with music that is stuck in a rut, from which it can’t seem to break out and fly?

The apparent reason is, I hope, not the true one. My allusion is to the reality that people in America have become so dumbed down, and their country so warped by cultural barbarians, that few notice the deficit in the quality of their lives.

Anthony J. DeBlasi studied music under Robert L. Sanders and Maurice Lieberman at Brooklyn College.

Image: Anthony J. De Blasi

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