AST WEEK in my blog (here), I argued that rock music is tainted because of its unnatural rhythm, which is a musical representation of sexual concupiscence, an invitation to irrational excess, and a major contributing factor in the hypersexualization of today’s popular culture. Now it is time to offer some nuances and respond to objections.
First, a condemnation of unnatural rhythm does not equate to a condemnation of all popular music and its performers, because not every piece of popular music follows this kind of syncopated off-rhythm. Sometimes a particular band has deep enough roots in the folk or classical tradition to produce a song that follows a traditional rhythm. So-called folk singers often do just this: think of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Scarborough Fair.” (I cannot here go into the profound difference between real folk music and commercialized folk music; Thomas Storck treats the matter superbly here.) When a band performs a more traditional song, one may not be able to criticize it from this point of view, even if there are other respects in which it is likely to be wanting, such as the crude vocal technique, far from the perfection of the trained human voice.
There are, moreover, other kinds of rhythm that are similarly disordered in their appeal to raw concupiscence. One need only think of the tango rhythm and the dance it serves. The tango originated in the bordellos of South America, and again, the connection is not hard to see: its rhythm is an unremitting assault on the senses so as to bring about a state of hyperactive concupiscible excitement. The sensuality of the dance, in which the partners are together as closely as a man and a woman can be while still having clothes on, is well served by the insistent beat which makes it easier to lose control and forget oneself, plunging into the realm of the flesh.
NOW, SOMEONE OUT THERE might object: “Wait a minute—according to John Paul II’s theology of the body, sexual intercourse is a good and natural thing and it can be supernaturally good, too. It sounds like you’re just condemning sexuality.” My response is that, of course, sexuality is part of the good human nature that God created and redeemed and sanctifies through the sacraments. But sexuality, like everything else, is good precisely when it is in accord with right reason, divine faith, and personal dignity, not to mention the requirements of intimacy and modesty. Excessive kindling of concupiscence and going public with the pubic, as it were, is the very problem of our post-1960s society and its popular art forms (think of television and movies). Music, for its part, should purify and sublimate lust or anger, not celebrate them or urge them on. Our fallen nature needs restraint and elevation, not rowdy encouragement or self-indulgence.
Someone else might object: “Even classical music nowadays is sold by displaying on the CD booklet cover a sexy violin player or an operatic heroine dressed in seductive garb. Sex is just a tool used by marketers and performers, not something intrinsic to any style of music.” It’s true that the capitalists have known for decades that “sex sells,” and so, this combination of avarice and lust has pervaded every aspect of our consumer culture. But if the appeal to sexual concupiscence is wholly extrinsic to the music, there is no reason in principle why it should be associated more with rock than with classical. Yet this is manifestly false in practice: classical music has nothing like the hyper-sexualized culture that enmeshes rock. To take a more concrete example, Peter Mirus claims that Elvis “hyped [his] own music and image by marketing and glorifying sexuality.” Well, then, why doesn’t the concert violinist or the lyric soprano try to hype classical music by similar behavior during a performance? Everyone would find this laughable precisely because of the manifest incongruity between the behavior and the music. In other words, an argument like Mirus’s hinges on the claim that musical-cultural associations that happen always or for the most part are essentially by chance. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, however, that which happens always or for the most part cannot be by chance.
A last objector might try this more sophisticated line: “In the Romantic period, one can find a few great composers, such as Beethoven, Sibelius, Smetana, or Brahms, using repeated syncopation in certain works—for instance, Beethoven in the third movement of his String Quartet No. 12. The unnatural rhythm you’re criticizing, then, is already found in great ‘classical’ composers.” My response: these composers use syncopation like an exotic spice, not even for an entire movement but only for a few measures at a time. Within that context, the effect, while strange and interesting, carries none of the social and psychological message of rock and roll, where syncopation takes over as the baseline. One feels that the Romantic composers are looking to startle jaded listeners with a brief clever move; one fears that they are straining for a novel effect, which is part of the eventual downfall of romanticism—its dissipation into cheap novelty, dazzling but depthless effects.
WE’VE COME A LONG WAY since Elvis and the Beatles. Popular music has gone in various directions, including some that are worse than the first generation of rock music. Rap, hip-hop, and techno strains are even more narrowly focused on the insistent, inescapable, infernal beat, abandoning melody and nuanced harmony as if to reduce sound to rhythmic machinery, an inhuman trance of sensual repetition, reducing man to a level lower than that of the beasts. About heavy metal we should say nothing: Saint Paul says there are certain things that should hardly even be mentioned (cf. Eph 5:3-4). Then there is a genre loosely called “post-rock,” whose practitioners, as if responding to a call to transcendence, have moved away from the hegemony of the beat into a more complex world of sound, veined with existential angst and questionings.
Fortunately, although often unrecognized and unrewarded, there has always been, right through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, a “classical” tradition of composers who recognize the artistic primacy of melody and harmony and who seek an incarnation of spirit in the flesh and bones of their music—such composers as Henryk Górecki, John Tavener, and Arvo Pärt. May their music guide us into a future that is dominated not by grating noise but by the lyricism of Divine Reason.
This article is part of a series: