Friday, October 14, 2005

Rock and a hard place

Theodore Dalrymple (wonderful nom de plume for Dr. Anthony Daniels) had a shocking experience recently: he dropped into a pub that had no music erupting from speakers, and customers were talking in an ordinary conversational tone.

Dalrymple, essayist and diagnostician of social dysfunction, particularly in his native England, suggests that the dosage of music we are all forced to swim through daily, willing or not, is messing with our heads.
It is like a poisonous gas that a malign authority pumps into our atmosphere, whose doleful effect, and probably purpose, is to destroy our capacity to converse, to concentrate, to reflect. It agitates us, keeps us constantly on the move, makes us impulsive and lacking in judgement.
Rock music is especially unkind to the nerves and rousing to aggressive impulses, he says. It is making the modern world a harder place than it should be.
There is good reason to believe that rock music exerts a brutalising effect, and if it is not the sole cause of many of the unpleasantness of modern life, it aggravates them.

In the days when, as part of my medical duties, I had to visit police cells to examine the recently arrested, I went to a police station in which the custody sergeant used to play chamber works by Brahms (not always the most serene of composers, perhaps) to those whom I suppose in these consumerist days I must call his customers. He had found by trial and error, he said, that Brahms calmed criminals down while rock music made them more agitated and aggressive than they were already inclined to be.
It isn't just in bars or places of entertainment that we are force-fed rock music. A grocery store that I shop at plays it — not at its most abrasive and at reasonably low volume, but still — there it is. In southern California I encountered a gasoline pump/jukebox that unloaded pop music in my ears while I was filling the tank. And in restaurants … don't get me started.

Like Dalrymple, I have a feeling that the ubiquity of rock music is making the contemporary world a little meaner, people a little less connected. There's a notion about, mostly unconscious but still influential, that you can't have a good time unless there's lots of noise.

But … I often enjoy rock music. I don't listen to it as often as I used to, and not as often as classical, jazz, world, electronica and whatnot, but there are times when it hits the spot. And not just polite, warm, folkish rock either. Loud rock with screaming guitars. Even punk, circa 1979.

Kind of contradictory, what? Maybe even hypocritical? Here I am bashing rock as low-grade brain poisoning, yet I'm wont to revel in it when the mood is upon me. Maybe there's even a touch of elitist condescension? Yes, I can handle it because I'm emotionally mature and keep it in perspective, but bruising music needs to be stored inside a lock-lid container out of reach of children and potential yobs.

This paradox — that I'm capable of being thrilled to bits by a form of stimulation I think is contributing to anti-social behavior — has bothered me a long time. If there's any way of reconciling my appetite with my belief, it probably has to do with making some distinctions that Dalrymple omits.

First, although it's hard for those of us who came of age in the '60s to understand, most of today's popular music isn't rock. It's hip-hop and variants, all of which are dance music for clubs. For my taste — and that's all I'm saying — hip-hop, house, contemporary disco, and all that are numbingly repetitious, unmelodious and inhuman.

I realize that there are some, even older and more conservative than I, who think those terms apply to all rock, but I feel differently. Rock from the '60s and early '70s — and of course there was a lot of garbage back then, too — was created at a time when the songs of earlier eras were still in the cultural bloodstream. Rockers may have rejected the previous styles, but they still thought in terms of songs, not (as now) just extended rhythm tracks with slightly varying textures.

A good song is a good song, whether written by Gershwin, Dylan, or anybody. Which is a way of saying, I guess, something rather banal: that there's good and bad in any kind of music, including rock. As for punk, it is impossible to justify, a lot of it is unlistenable, but, but … okay, I'm twisted.

Second, there's the basic issue of context. I can dig on loud rock in a concert setting or a club, or coming out of my car's speakers during the commute, but usually detest it in restaurants, from neighbors' houses or backyards, or practically anywhere that it's forced on me. We need to acknowledge that amplification gives rock music an intensity that makes it suitable only for specific situations. It's not a stimulus that can be ignored.

One of the qualities that defines civilization is a recognition that many things that are good in their proper time and place have to be used with self-restraint. I have a right to indulge my own pleasures, even if someone else disapproves of them, but I don't have a right to inflict them on captives. As the booze ads say, "Enjoy our product responsibly." Every CD and sound system should carry the same message.

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