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What kind of virtue is there in our society when so many are so willing to survive off of so much treasure that is plundered (stolen) from their fellow citizens? Well not a very virtuous one and that is the root cause of our infection which I call “Leviathanitis™.” I recalled on today’s show how the brilliant writer Mark Steyn had written about this subjectciting the work of Professor Alan Bloom’s The Closing of The American Minda few years back in the New Criterion and I promised to link to the essay, well here’s a sample.

“We are all rockers now. National Review publishes its own chart of the Fifty Greatest Conservative Rock Songs, notwithstanding that most of the honorees are horrified to find themselves on such a hit parade. The National Review countdown of the All-Time Hot 100 Conservative Gangsta Rap Tracks can’t be far away. Even right-wingers want to get with the beat and no-one wants to look like the wallflower who can’t get a chick to dance with him. To argue against rock and roll is now as quaintly irrelevant as arguing for the divine right of kings. It was twenty years ago today, sang the Beatles forty years ago today, that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. Well, it was twenty years ago today—1987—that Professor Bloom taught us the band had nothing to say.

I don’t really like the expression “popular culture.” It’s just “culture” now: there is no other. “High culture” is high mainly in the sense we keep it in the attic and dust it off and bring it downstairs every now and then. But don’t worry, not too often. “Classical music,” wrote Bloom, “is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archaeology. Thirty years ago [i.e., now fifty years ago], most middle-class families made some of the old European music a part of the home, partly because they liked it, partly because they thought it was good for the kids.” Not anymore. If you’d switched on TV at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 you’d have seen President and Mrs. Clinton and the massed ranks of American dignitaries ushering in the so-called new millennium to the strains of Tom Jones singing “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour/ That’s when my love comes tumblin’ down.” Say what you like about JFK, but at least Mrs. Kennedy would have booked a cellist.

“Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.

So the “Music” chapter is the most difficult one for young fans of The Closing Of The American Mind—because it’s the point at which you realize just how much Allan Bloom means it. And by “young fans,” I mean anyone under the age of Mick Jagger, who features heavily in that section. A couple of years ago, Sir Mick—as he now is—spent an agreeable hour being interviewed by a pleasant lady he’d carelessly assumed had been dispatched by one of the hip young magazines surfing the cutting edge of the zeitgeist. He was furious to discover subsequently that she was an emissary from Saga, the magazine for British seniors. They put him on the cover as the Pensioner of the Month, and he wasn’t happy about it, although one could see their point: When you think about it, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” makes a much better anthem for seniors than it ever did for rebellious youth. He should be grateful they didn’t send their medical correspondent: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” “Well, it’s a common problem at your age. But the good news is that often it’s just psychological.” Twenty years on from Allan Bloom, this is the triumph of rock’s pseudo-revolution: elderly “street-fighting men” with knighthoods—Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Bob Geldof, Sir Bono.

For Bloom to write his chapter on “Music” seems to many of us braver than attacking the 1960s or the race hucksters or his various other targets. No-one wants to be Mister Squaresville. And it’s interesting to see the reaction it gets from readers. Told by Bloom that they know nothing about Brahms or Mozart, they respond that he knows nothing about … well, whomsoever they happen to dig. They point out that his chapter is full of generalities: “Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame.” Etc. Turning teacher on the professor, they demand that the assertions be bolstered by examples, by specifics, by an understanding of the difference between the lyrics of, say, Bob Dylan and Britney Spears.”

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5 replies to this post
  1. Oh dear, Steyn again. I suppose that even the ghastly Neo-Cons are entitled to a traditional grump-session, although after my post here on music for real conservatives I am chastened to learn that the same was attempted earlier by National Socialist Review.

    From a Jesuit school for poor Sherpa children in Kalimpong (India) to the whole of the Far East, Western classical music thrives (Yo Yo Ma, anyone?). And in the West, Dr. Condoleeza Rice plays it pretty well and she was not born a silver-spoon-job, and when Estonian Naemi Jaarvi conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra he introduced inner-city youth to classical music that was utterly foreign to their families, and now many of them are principal musicians in the DSO. Two blocks from my London club, Wigmore Hall sells out on most nights.

    In his spoken preface to 'Folk Song Army,' Tom Leher wisely explains that much folk music is horrid because it was written by (sneer) "the people." Go back to your Alan Lomax and you will find that much of it was sheer piffle. I once thought I was onto a good thing when an ancient British trooper kindly wrote down the rankers' mess songs from the (formerly Indian) North West Frontier, and it all imagined getting snockered followed by intimate relations with the colonel's daughter! So it must have been in Kipling's day. Hoi Polloi have never drunk deeply at the well of High Culture, which still thrives, but the problem is chiefly a lack of exposure to it caused in part by half-wit public school teachers. Meanwhile, I'll get back to Monteverdi later today: at Barbara Elliott's inspiration, I need a little Huey Lewis playing "It's Hip to be Square."

    • Stephen,
      Is that THE Tom Leher as in “Poisoning Pigeons in The Park” Tom Leher (Dr. Dimento liked classical parody-is satire not part of the Western Canon)?. As far as Steyn’s piece goes, I have referred to it so many times on air because it is that rara avis of revolt against the numbing roar of “low culture” and the “soundtrack of our lives” which I believe Mr. Lewis and his News are a part of because “The Heart of Rock-n-Roll Is Still Beatin’ “. I still grove on today’s classical by popping on some John Williams leitmotifs viz “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Superman”.

  2. Oh Steve, I am still chuckling at your well-polished witticisms. I looked around at the classical concert Winston and I attended last weekend as guests of our friend, a cellist in the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and we brought down the average age. A daunting thought.

    I have the exquisite pleasure of teaching an Honors College course this coming Fall on Western Civilization in all its glory, including music, art, and their relation to the history, philosophy and literature of each major era.
    When I met the current students not long ago as a guest lecturer, I asked how many of them had been to a classical concert. I was stunned to learn that not ONE had ever been. And these are the good kids!
    It makes me realize what a truly bizarre figure I cut, tooling around Houston with the top down on my VW bug, blasting Bach, Brahms or Rachmaninoff with my hair tousled in the wind and fashionista sunglasses. It's my way of showing it's hip to be square.

  3. Thank you, Barbara! The thought of you so motoring about is a transport of delight. Just in case it proves useful in the musical section of your civilisation course, I met an American somewhere who had a most peculiar music teacher in high school. He played the same piece (Pachelbel's Canon? I forget) at every weekly class all semester long, but by different conductors of course. At the second class, the kids assumed he was Alzheimered. By the fourth class they were into it. By the end of the semester they all bought their favourite recordings of the piece and understood much more of the creativity required in playing classical music than had they been dragged through the usual galimaufry of pieces. I tried this on myself recently, when the Kabul bandwidth was cooperating enough to use YouTube. I played the Meistersinger Overture conducted by Furtwangler, then by his arch-rival Toscanini, then I played each again. What a difference (and I agree with Furtwangler that Toscanini was 'just a time-beater'). Same effect but it didn't take a whole semester.

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