Allan Bloom on the Corrosive Effects of Pop Culture

Over at The Weekly Standard, the brilliant Andrew Ferguson assesses the legacy of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind now that it’s a quarter century old.

Ferguson writes:

As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism–of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone–had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.

He adds:

The crisis was—is—a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America—even Jerry Springer—had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.

“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”

He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

I’ve been reading the book, and while there are many points that leap off the page and demand attention, the ones that particularly resonated with me were his insights about popular culture. Whereas once, reason led students to the discovery of truth, now, the popular culture imposes its truths on its young and impressionable consumers.

Here is Bloom on the pervasiveness of pop culture’s most prominent medium, rock music:

Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music . . .  It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alien to music. When they are in school and with their families, they are longing to plug themselves back into their music.

(That point is particularly prescient as Bloom was writing before iPods, smart phones, and other portable electronic devices became such powerful parts of the identity and image of young and old alike.)

There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels exclusively devoted to them, on the air nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place–not public transportation, not the library–prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying.

And here, on the content of rock:

Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not to love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.

To Bloom, “Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror.” The point of education is “the taming of domestication of the soul’s raw passion–not suppressing or exciting them, which would deprive the soul of its energy–but forming and informing them as art.” Pop culture, to Bloom, works against education’s goal of taming the soul, giving students a cheap shot of bliss at the expense of longer, lasting happiness:

Rock provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors–victory in just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religion devotion and discovery of truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits. In my experience, students who have had a serious fling with drugs–and gotten over it–find it difficult to have enthusiasms of great expectations. It is as though the color has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end, or as the end. They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living, whereas liberal education is supposed to encourage the belief that the good life is the pleasant life and that the best life is the most pleasant life. I suspect that the rock addiction, particularly in the absence of strong counterattractions, has an effect similar to that of drugs. The student will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it. But they will do so in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle–as something harsh, grim and essentially unattractive, a mere necessity. . . As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.

As a young person who loves rock/pop music–i.e., the kind of person Bloom is talking about–I agree that the affect rock music has on the young, emotionally, is generally speaking as he describes it. Rock music appeals to our rawest passions and emotions and creates a world for us that indulges those passions and emotions–like love, sex, heartbreak, anguish, angst, anger, anxiety, loss–often before we have even experienced them first hand. Not only does this create warped expectations for us when we finally do have those experiences, but it makes those experiences seem duller to us when they happen. In a way, rock music demands so much of our emotions and psychological wherewithal that it can bankrupt us of them, so that we don’t have them when we actually need them. It takes the living out of life.

That said, I do think there are certain exceptions, like this song that I highlighted yesterday or these ones I wrote about in February, which harness our emotions in a more sophisticated and meaningful way than, say, the pop-rock stars that Bloom took aim at in his book, like Mick Jagger, Boy George, and Michael Jackson (today’s equivalents being Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Kanye).

Along those lines, while Bloom praises classical music for appealing to the “refinements” and “spiritual satisfaction” of its listeners–he delights in introducing his students to Mozart–I wonder what his assessment of lyric-less jazz music would have been, like Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches, which (to me) is closer in line to classical music than to rock.

  1. Mel Foil

    I think veteran rock musicians, as a group, are proof enough that long exposure to rock music makes you stupid. Many of them are rich too (if they had good business managers,) but it’s a bad trade off if you ask me.

  2. Valiuth

    I think rock is actually very great, and no worse than any other music thought more refined. I mean many of our famous rock musicians wrote their songs about the things they were interested in and had experienced. I can’t really speak for modern Pop/hip hop/ whatever the kids are listening to today. But, classic rock is filled with songs about what these artists experienced or observed, which is exactly what musicians of the past did. 

    I don’t trust any old man who tells me how much better his music is than mine, because they have been saying this for all existence. I listen to classical music and rock and I like them both. 

  3. thelonious
    etoiledunord: I think veteran rock musicians, as a group, are proof enough that long exposure to rock music makes you stupid. Many of them are rich too (if they had good business managers,) but it’s a bad trade off if you ask me. · 48 minutes ago

    I’d say it’s the perks of being a rock musicians that made them stupid.  Mainly too much exposure to drugs.

  4. raycon and lindacon

    It might sound as though Alan Bloom was merely an old guy defining music as what his tastes prefer, but you need to look deeper into what he is talking about.

    There is a truth that much popular music, even that of the very far in the past, and present day, represents a coarsening of the culture.  Bloom is discussing the goal of education as a refining of the human soul as God presented it to us, towards civilized accomplishment.

    Popular culture generally seeks commonality, that is, prefers it’s own insular existence against the life and experience of all mankind.  The purposes of formal higher education, even if I myself did not participate, bring the experiences of man to my life.

    Popular music, particular heavy immersion types of music like much popular rock insulates us from it.

    My own children disconnected from life with their music, and in reconnecting, they have lost something they can only get back by reconnecting to God.

    “… In quietness and trust is my strength, and you would have none of it” Isaiah 30:15

  5. thelonious

    The wonderful aspect of music (and all art for that matter) is there is a visceral joy one can experience from it.  Beethovens 9th is technically a brilliant masterpiece with harmony and orchestration ahead of its’ time. But what makes it great is the raw emotion it brings out.  To put it simply “It Rocks”.  It’s the same primal emotion I feel when listening to the Who, Iron Maiden or John Coltrane. When I’m enjoying music my mind is clear and I let the music wash over me.  Understanding the technical aspects can enhance that joy but in the end I listen to music to feel emotion. We should keep our minds open to all music.  I feel sorry for people who think nothing worth listening to was written after 1900.

  6. Sandy
    Valiuth: 

    I don’t trust any old man who tells me how much better his music is than mine, because they have been saying this for all existence. I listen to classical music and rock and I like them both.  · 46 minutes ago

    You don’t need to trust him, anymore than an old man needs to trust your younger-person’s judgment, which is also not superior simply because it is based on your experience.  All that is asked is that you think about his reasoning and make your judgment.   

  7. Aaron Miller

    Bloom paints with too broad a brush. Rock music isn’t inherently inferior, though the dominant culture which has grown around it is certainly corrupt. Rock has become emblematic of teenage rebellion and libertine lifestyles, but that is a coincidental relationship.

    Thelonius is right that composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky focused on emotions. They are popular mostly because of the intense drama of their music. Many country and jazz artists likewise focus on emotional appeals.

    But not all music is passionate. Some is more intellectual (Mozart, prog rock). Some songs even emphasize lyrics over the actual music (Bob Dylan).

    There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels exclusively devoted to them, on the air nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place–not public transportation, not the library–prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying.

    raycon:

    “… In quietness and trust is my strength, and you would have none of it” Isaiah 30:15

    That’s the part that struck me. Many people have lost an appreciation for silence.

  8. KC Mulville

    The pleasure of music is relatively simple – it’s the pleasure associated with a confirmed expectation. Music establishes a pattern, and the brain comes to expect that pattern. Studies show that the brain releases dopamine at the confirmation of a musical sequence (the same dopamine that associated with pleasurable food or drugs). When the music builds a pattern, and then confirms it, that’s a pleasure that the brain rewards.

    Is there any difference between classical music and rock? I’m not sure the difference applies in every case, but it’s clear that a Beethoven or Mozart symphony presents the listener to a richer array of sounds … and therefore patterns to confirm … than most ordinary rock anthems. The sheer complexity, and therefore the intricacy required to harmonize and resolve the patterns, are usually much greater in classical music than in rock, simply because you have more instruments available.

    Most people who write rock music rely on their neighborhood guitarists and drummers. They can only write songs as complex as the neighborhood kids can play – which isn’t much. So they rely on volume instead of complexity. Classical music has much more range, simply because of the players’ skills.

  9. John Murdoch

    Some of what is thought of as “emotion” really comes down to tonal range. There’s a huge difference between listening to music on the radio, and listening to it performed live. The tonal range is compressed in a recording–it is compressed even further for radio broadcast. A similar kind of compression happens when a digital file is compressed with the MP3 algorithm. 

    It’s not rock, or classical–it’s sound. I can “move” my congregation when playing the offertory, if I’m playing (for example) Peter Hurford’s Verse No. 1 (from Five Verses on a Melody from the Paderborn Gesangbuch). It’s slow, and stately–and I typically play it with a six-octave tonal range, including a half-octave below 20 hz, the low end of human hearing. You feel “moved” because you are literally moved–tones that low literally make the building, and your skeleton, vibrate. 

    Rock bassists typically play in similar ranges–the most dramatic and moving orchestral composers use the double bass (and, to an extent, horns) to achieve the same effect.

  10. KC Mulville

    May I also add that the fact that the book is a quarter-century old … well, jeez, my joints are starting to creak.

  11. Eric Rasmusen

      Question: What percentage of songs in different genres are about lust and love?

          I wonder what Bloom thought about Beethoven.

  12. Southern Pessimist

    The most transformative moment in my life occured in the third grade when I read my first real book. The second most transformative moment was late one Saturday night in 1965, when I heard on WLAC out of Nashville, Desolation Row by Bob Dylan. Every aspect of my life was changed in ways that have been mostly good.

  13. Joseph Stanko
    Emily Esfahani Smith: 

    And here, on the content of rock:

    Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not to love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. 

    This strikes me as patently false.  Has Bloom ever actually listened to any rock music?

    I suppose it depends how narrowly you define the genre, but take for instance the most successful and influential rock band of all time: the Beatles.  Now take the song Eleanor Rigby (“all the lonely people, where do they all come from?”).  You could I suppose make the case that this isn’t actually a rock song, despite the fact that the Beatles wrote and recorded it and it is regularly played on classic rock stations.  But surely no one can argue this song appeals to “sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.”

  14. Joseph Stanko

    I thought of a better example: Let It Be.  Hard to argue that’s not a rock song, by any measure.

    When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.  And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

    If this is a song about sexual desire, it has some awfully disturbing Freudian implications…

  15. Crow

    In a world of mass culture, it is sometimes necessary to make an argument bestride the world first as a monster in order for it to be noticed–whereas in other ages a more refined form of the argument may have been suitable.

    We might keep that in mind when reading Bloom’s indictment of rock music. We might also remember that the man was anything but a conventional fuddy-duddy in his personal habits, and therefore we should probably assume he presents his arguments in the garb he does not out of blind adherence to some outworn convention, but, just possibly, in order to arrest our attention.

  16. Paul DeRocco
    Rock provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors–victory in just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religion devotion and discovery of truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits.

    It makes no sense to say that one shouldn’t feel from listening to music the sort of exaltation one gets from having completed an endeavor such as creating art. The only people who would be entitled to such a feeling, then, are the artists themselves.

    The difference between the enraptured fans of the Rolling Sones at Madison  Square Garden and the enraptured fans of Verdi at La Scala is the depth of the music. With some music, learning its aesthetic meaning is an endeavor only one step below its creation. I know that what moves me deeply about some music is rooted in decades of listening, and of tiring of lesser music. I couldn’t begin to share what I get from great music with an inexperienced listener.

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