Friday, March 22, 2013

"Hole In Our Soul" (Martha Bayles): Roll over, Stockhausen

Martha Bayles doesn't care much for the twelve-tone scale or 20th-century European composers (and she's not very fond of amplification either -- watch out, Leo Fender, you're next!). In the best tradition of American Bandstand, music's gotta have a beat or Martha's not dancin' to it.

While most readers of Hole In Our Soul (University of Chicago Press) would probably agree with Martha's basic premise that genuine art trumps artifice for authenticity, her argument that popular culture has been ruined by the artist's need to shock us is less secure. (Artists have been trying to surprise people since -- well, Martha herself traces it back to ancient Greece: cultured, classic-rocker Apollo and unruly, shock-rocker Dionysus).

Once her subjective, conservative-values discussion is opened, Bayles's book becomes a game of line-in the sand: what is genuine music, as opposed to the merely popular? Some artists neatly sidestep this issue by being simply great: Scott Joplin's syncopated rags were outrageous to some, and also became extremely popular. Still, great music (and art, too) finds an audience, regardless of how many people hooted during Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in 1914.

Bayles continues to make her cultural point about the decline of American culture in forums from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, as well as her own online site Serious Popcorn. Over the years, though, her favorite targets have not changed, and her writing often takes on a reasoning all its own. In 2006, in reviewing the career of Miles Davis, she couldn't resist the following observations (in an article originally published in the Times) about the developments of music in the 1970s:

... inspired by Indian raga and other Eastern sources, composers like Philip Glass, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Mike Oldfield began in the 1960s to fashion a sound, all too familiar nowadays, in which a clear steady pulse is blended with repetitive, often tape-looped melodic-harmonic fragments. The aim, in Reich’s words, was to “facilitate closely detailed listening." But the result was nearly the opposite. Beginning with the use of Oldfield's Tubular Bells (1973) on the soundtrack of The Exorcist, minimalist-derived music became “aural wallpaper” for an increasingly image-driven culture.

In her books and articles Bayles's continuing dismissal of European culture and its effects on popular music reads like a misguided attack on dead white rock singers. Some of her conclusions about the influences of art, drugs, and music are an embarrassing stretch: say hello to Kurt Cobain, that Stockhausen-loving, European-influenced art-rocker who was bound to die by drug overdose because of his fixation with the poetry of French romantic Arthur Rimbaud.

A great deal of Martha's argument in Hole in Our Soul goes on like this, and a lot of conservative tsk-tsk comes through most of her connect-the-dots theorizing: once the Beatles ruin rock'n'roll with Sgt. Pepper in 1967they open the gates for the misshapen, ugly form of "rock" music that followed, etc. etc. Really, her writing is pretty exhausting after a few pages, once the reader gets the drift of Bayles's augument. (Springsteen?He's outta here ... well, almost.) The Bayles beat goes on, for more than 300 pages.

Martha has her champions, mostly in conservative circles that see cultural disintegration in every new day and popular music as its herald. Sure enough, in online interviews, Bayles continues to bash at the deplorable state of pop, because new technology is making music ... well, too available:

... high tech is bringing all kinds of music to all kinds of people. This last situation, having everything at our fingertips, is part of what is meant by postmodernism. According to the academic experts, postmodernism puts everything on the same level - Monk, Mozart, the Monkees, the chanting monks. If this is true, then all music has lost its beauty and meaning. But it isn't true. Human nature is not mutating into some new, anti-musical form. Even in 2001, most people still seek in music the same things that human beings have always sought there: Not the formal complexity of high art, necessarily, but not ugly noise, either. Instead, people seek the elemental, the primal things: the motive power of dance, and the emotional power of song.

She's right about one thing: new technology makes everything available. But does that make everything equal? Nah. Postmodern forms -- one of Bayles's bogeymen -- may borrow from all sources, but it doesn't follow that music and art lose all their value. That's why most of us can say "I know what I like": the artist proposes, but the viewer, and the listener, disposes. The fault is not in the twelve-tone scale but in ourselves, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that original postmodernist who seems to have borrowed everything from plot to language on his way to originality.

Conservative theories like Bayles's always presume some golden era when things were more balanced, more "correct," but this balance never really existed. Popular culture is always a jumble of influences. (It does seem miraculous, though, when you hear a great song on the radio; no matter what your "pop" standard, from Gershwin to the Beatles to Beyonce, it makes every song around it sound like junk.) In the best oral tradition you can hope that Bob Dylan -- or in Martha's case, Robert Johnson -- is your next door neighbor and can pop in to sing you a song.

Most of us aren't that lucky to live on Mount Olympus. Agreed that some popular music can be art, and much music less so, but the business of popular music is sales. That makes everything beyond the song itself -- the recording of it, the marketing, the weekly sales chart -- the artificial, "popular" part. 

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