HE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM with rock music, many of its antecedents, and nearly all of its offshoots, can be summed up quite simply: its rhythm is unnatural and morally tainted. There are other intellectual and moral problems with it, such as dumb or lurid or violent lyrics, insipid and monotonous melodies, sloppy singing, the lack of a well-structured progress from beginning to middle to end, and more, but it has always seemed to me that the rhythm is the essence of the music—and the pith of the problem.
The normal pattern for almost all music in the world, from all periods of history, whether genuine folk music or the art music of high cultures, accentuates the odd beats, that is, the downbeat (the first) and, to a lesser extent, the third (if one is speaking of a four-beat rhythm), like this:
ONE-two, ONE-two (as in a march);
ONE-two-THREE-four, ONE-two-THREE-four (as in music in common time);
ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three (as in a waltz).
Rock music, on the other hand, generally uses a constantly syncopated or off-rhythm, accentuating the even beats instead of the odd:
One can hear this off-rhythm particularly clearly when drum sets are employed: the bass drum followed by the snare.
It is hardly surprising that “rock n’ roll” and “jazz” were both euphemisms for sexual intercourse, or, more accurately in their historical context, fornication: the rhythm is suggestive of the pelvic thrust. People who dance (if it can be called that) to rock music often perform this kind of motion instinctively — think of Elvis Presley, one of the first to gyrate his hips in an explicitly sexual way, in accord with the rhythm of his music. Indeed, as I first learned from Michael Platt, the Ed Sullivan Show televised Elvis performing, but would not televise his hip motions due to their obvious implications.
It is not as if Catholic authors have failed to come to the defense of rock music, as witness Peter Mirus (here) and Jeff Mirus (here). But I do believe their defenses are weak. There is just no escaping from the sensuality and sexual innuendos intended by the pioneers and protagonists of rock music. I don’t mean merely that they themselves led lives plagued by promiscuity, alcoholism, drug use, and even violent crime, but rather, and more importantly, that their music is intentionally and recognizably an expression of and an appeal to the same Dionysian behavior, as Joseph Ratzinger noted more than once. The only reason we ourselves may no longer feel the connection is that our entire society has broadly accepted the sexual revolution along with the rock music that heralded it, and therefore both the permissiveness and its music are in the very air we breathe: we have no other cultural consciousness against which to compare the music or the morality. Back when Elvis and the Beatles first came around, there were plenty of people familiar with the older styles of music (classical and popular) that preceded such performers, as well as plenty of people formed by Christian notions of modesty and chastity. To such people, the aesthetic and moral contrasts were obvious and shocking, even while other people celebrated the overthrow of “bourgeois” styles of music and the undermining of “conventional” morals.
ROCK MUSIC WAS THE MUSIC of youthful rebellion in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s: it gave expression to the desire for erotic liberation, which more often than not took the form of “rocking and rolling” in the backseat of the Chevy. The bourgeois conservative social restraints, themselves already unhealthy because no longer psychologically and religiously integrated, were thrown off in the euphoria of fornication, or at least the sensuality and stimulation that lead up to it. Rock represents, at any rate, the total dissociation of the concupiscible appetite from the rule of reason, the subordination of reason and will to concupiscence or the desire for sense-pleasure. A later phase of rock music performed the same disservice to human nature by indulging wantonly in the irascible passions of anger and despair.
Students of theology can recognize in these facts a reproduction of the anthropological result of the Fall: the insubordination of the powers of the human soul as a punishment for the insubordination of man to God. God is Divine Reason, so to speak, and just as human reason is meant to be submitted to Divine Reason, so human appetites are meant to be submitted to and elevated by human reason, and the body, as such, to the soul. Rock music encourages and glorifies the revolt of the appetites against the order of reason, and by undermining the grounds of thinking and willing in accord with natural law or Divine Reason, it actually embodies, even as it renews and deepens, the rebellion of Adam against God.
It also takes little familiarity with the biographies and lyrics of early rock musicians to know that the constantly syncopated sensual rhythm and the other features of the style heralded a rejection of the Western musical tradition that preceded it. Notice, quite apart from the sexual innuendo, how unnatural it is to start a measure (the unit one, the beginning) not as a dominant but as a weak beat: instead of “down up up up,” you have “up down up down.” The rhythm does violence to the natural prominence of the beginning of the measure. It is like gently lifting up a baby rabbit by the ears and then smashing it down, lifting it up, smashing it down. The traditional rhythm has a certain lightness to it, there is a buoyancy to the weaker beats which leads elegantly back to the dominant beat, like a dancer taking a decisive step and then two or three short graceful steps, before the next decisive step. One really has to see the dancing to see the difference. It is impossible to dance gracefully to the impulsive and violent “x X x X” beat.
WHEN ROCK AND ROLL STARTED, the youths swaying and gyrating to its strains knew very well what it signified, or if they did not know intellectually, still they felt the meaning in their blood: the unshackling of the libido, “letting go,” letting passion be stirred up to the maximum. If additional proof is needed, one can look at the lyrics and the behavior of those who perform it and those who listen to it. A disproportionate number of songs are about (sooner or later) getting into bed, quite without the humor, cleverness, ardor, or refinement of traditional erotic poetry, such as that of the ancient Greek poets or the medieval troubadours and trouveres. As for the moral behavior of rock stars and their groupies, this is a subject that speaks for itself.
Rock music and pop styles in general are therefore a definite statement, an open manifesto against chastity and purity and self-control, against marriage and the reasonable use of the generative faculties, and, more broadly, against the hierarchical order of the cosmos represented by the natural rhythm. Pop music is defiantly carnal. This is what its exponents and first practitioners really did with their lives and really meant by their music; this is exactly what the first opponents of rock music immediately picked up on and protested against; decades later, this is now the assumed and “institutionalized” way of living for modern youths. Although it is a connection nearly always overlooked nowadays, there is a real connection between the music young people listen to and the way of life they lead, as well as the worldview that sustains and justifies it.
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