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Old 04-08-2002, 11:13 PM   #1
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RocknRoll Propaganda: Is It "Only Rock 'n' Roll"?

Is it only 'Rock 'n' Roll'? by Steve Bonta, The New American, Vol. 18, No. 7, April 8, 2002

Far from being just a youthful fad, rock and roll music is a powerful force for subversive cultural, social, and political change.

Johann Sebastian Bach, arguably the greatest composer who ever lived, once said that "the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging." It might be a stretch to insist that all music measure up to the lofty standards of the man whose timeless musical creations include the "Mass in B minor," the "St. Matthew Passion," "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring," the "Brandenburg Concerti," and thousands of cantatas, fugues, and other compositions dedicated entirely to glorifying God. But certainly Bach's second criterion, that music should, at some level, refresh the soul, is a universal requirement. Music is unparalleled among the arts in its power to refine, uplift, and concentrate the senses. At the same time, the "diabolical bawling and twanging" so often passed off as music in our day has an equal power to degrade, eroticize, and desensitize.

The music now known as rock 'n' roll has been with us for 50 years. Since Bill Haley and His Comets first introduced America to the driving, sensual rhythms and coy double-entendre lyrics that have become popular music's stock in trade, rock 'n' roll has evolved into a number of distinct styles, including the "acid" rock of the drug-soaked sixties, the nihilistic mayhem of punk and heavy metal, the brazen misogyny of rap, and the hypnotic repetitiveness of techno. Rock music as a cultural and social phenomenon has been nothing short of revolutionary. In less than a decade, it surged from the cultural underground of juke joints and blues musicians into the American mainstream, entrancing an entire generation whose parents had listened to music of an altogether different nature. Since emerging in the fifties, rock music has dominated American culture, and while the styles have changed, the basic tropes have not: Illicit sex, drugs, and rebellion are as distinctively a part of rock music culture today as they were when the likes of Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles first appeared on the scene decades ago.

But is rock music just sound and fury signifying nothing, a youthful fad that most of us grow out of, and of little relevance to the great political and social issues of our era? Is it, as the Rolling Stones famously proclaimed, "only rock 'n' roll"?

The Power of Music

No one can reasonably deny music's power. For reasons not entirely understood, music affects the mind, emotions, and even the physical body as no other art form can. Its capacity to elicit powerful, even unforgettable emotional and physical responses makes music an indispensable accessory to most forms of religious worship, from the trance dancing of shamans to the singing of Christian hymns. Music is also the handmaiden of the State, with its anthems and military marches and their power to stir patriotic emotions. Music soundtracks figure indispensably in the movie industry, because movie producers understand the pivotal role of music in encouraging and modulating how the audience responds emotionally. Modern medicine uses music for therapeutic purposes, while advertisers have learned to use music to enhance the persuasive power of their messages. Overall, music saturates our culture as no other art form can. It accompanies us everywhere we go: as we ride public and private transportation; shop; use the internet; work in our offices; enjoy recreation at restaurants, movie theaters, health clubs, and the like; in church; and at school. Where music is absent we often bring it along, courtesy of our radios, TVs, walkmans, and musical instruments. Even in the unadulterated great outdoors, it is natural music -- bird songs, waterfalls, and the rustling of grass in the wind -- that affects our senses most keenly.

Because of its intoxicating, even addictive properties, music has always been recognized as a powerful vehicle for change. Wrote Plato: "When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake." The late Frank Zappa once observed that "the ways in which sound affects the human organism are myriad and subtle. The loud sounds and bright lights of [today's music] are tremendous indoctrination tools."

Rock music began life as a medium of rebellion. Rock is far more than mere dissent; from its corrosive beginnings -- Elvis Presley's defiant sexuality and the subtly leering lyrics of Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley -- much of rock and roll has always been about subversion, overthrow, and revolutionary change rather than polite civil disagreement. Rock 'n' roll has been in our collective face from the get-go, always questioning and even assaulting authority and tradition. Sixties counterculture leader Jerry Rubin admitted in his garbled manifesto Do It! that "the New Left [of the sixties counterculture] sprang ... from Elvis' gyrating pelvis.... Elvis Presley ripped off Ike Eisenhower by turning our uptight young awakening bodies around. Hard animal rock energy beat/surged hot through us, the driving rhythm arousing repressed passions. Music to free the spirit.... Elvis told us to let go!"

The first theme of the rock and roll counterculture, as everyone knows, was sex. Not, of course, the old-fashioned kind that cemented marriages and begat children, but the modern, recreational kind, the kind that has produced a pandemic of venereal diseases, abortions, unwed mothers, and broken homes. Rock and roll's love affair with sex began with coy word plays and subculture terminology -- the term "rock 'n' roll" itself, like "jazz" before it, is in fact slang for sexual intercourse -- but has now become open, unabashed, and undisguised. From Elvis' gyrating hips and the phallic symbolism in rock stars' stage gestures and props, we've regressed to popular bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jesus Lizard, who sometimes play in the nude and perform unmentionable bodily functions onstage. Other groups, including megastars like Madonna and Marilyn Manson as well as lesser-known bands representing the new "porn rock" subculture, feature strippers and act out sexual perversions for their feverish audiences. And rock's lewdness isn't confined to the performers. From the mere suggestiveness of early rock 'n' roll dancing styles, popular tastes have moved to the Dionysian chaos of "rave" parties, where participants sometimes disrobe and perform sexual acts on the dance floor.

MTV, or Music Television, prominently purveys rock 'n' roll sleaze. From the smutty dialogues of the enormously popular animated series Beavis and Butthead, to the annual coverage of Spring Break bacchanalia on the beaches of the Caribbean, to the endless stream of pornographic rock videos, MTV uses the power of visual images catering to man's baser instincts in order to strengthen rock music's appeal.

Drugs, Occultism, and Politics

From sexual license, rock music moved on to drugs. Nowadays, the drug songs of the sixties, like the Beatles' seemingly innocuous "Hey, Jude" (about heroin use) and Simon and Garfunkel's "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine" (marijuana) seem almost droll beside modern rap music's litany of crack-inspired horrors and the mass consumption of psychedelic drugs like Ecstasy and LSD at teenage rave parties. Too often, the protests of parents and politicians against the burgeoning drug culture sound on deaf ears, for the music our children listen to, unfortunately, speaks more loudly and authoritatively.

Much of rock 'n' roll pays homage to violence. Much-maligned rappers have drawn most of the fire lately, but the punk rockers and Medusa-haired heavy metal groups of the seventies and eighties had turned musical mayhem into an art form long before Snoop Doggy Dog and Ice-T appeared on the scene. In our time, violent songs by the likes of Silverchair (read the lyrics to "Massacre" and "Suicidal Dream" to get the picture) have been cited as contributors to the horrid wave of school shootings and the murder of parents by teenagers. And groups like Slipknot -- a hugely popular freak show from Des Moines that draws crowds with its horrifying masks, snarling vocals, and a show that includes band members assaulting one another -- continue to push the envelope at rock concerts.

Then there's the occultic backdrop so common these days in rock music, and not just among notorious heavy-metal poseurs like Marilyn Manson and Ozzie Osbourne. What are we to make of an artist like Tori Amos, a sweet-voiced, low-key performer whose songs (such as "Father Lucifer") and stage performances are laced with blasphemous imagery and convey a ferocious hatred of Christianity? Or of techno band Aphex Twin's nightmarish "Come to Daddy," a song/rock video featuring the lines "I want your soul / I'm gonna eat your soul" repeated over and over against images of a fanged demon preparing to bite off a woman's head? Or, reaching further back into rock music's heritage, of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, whose cover displays, among many other faces, a picture of notorious and influential occultist Aleister Crowley? (See sidebar.)

Music has often been used to promote political ideologies, from Wagner's Teutonic nationalism to the pro-union ditties of Pete Seeger. Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich believed:

[/i]There can be no music without ideology.... We, as revolutionaries, have a different conception of music. Lenin himself said that "music is a means of unifying broad masses of people." It is not a leader of masses, perhaps, but certainly an organizing force!... Even the symphonic form ... can be said to have a bearing on politics.... Music is no longer an end in itself, but a vital weapon in the struggle.][/i]
Rock music and revolutionary left-wing politics have always been closely intertwined, from the anti-Vietnam war protest era to the sundry conceits and causes popular with the present-day Left. Journalist Christopher John Farley, writing in a special Fall 2001 issue of Time magazine dedicated to music, observed that "music can be a tool: for relaxation, for stimulation, for communication -- and for revolution. In fact, it is often a rhythm of resistance: against parents, against police, against power." No song more epitomizes the evangelical zeal with which rock musicians promote subversive political causes than John Lennon's famous hymn to global Utopia, "Imagine." With its soft piano accompaniment and accessible melody, it's pleasant to listen to -- if one ignores the lyrics:

Imagine there's no heaven / It's easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people / Living for today / Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / No religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace / Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world / You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope someday you'll join us / And the world will live as one.
Regarding "Imagine," John Lennon once admitted, "the song ... is virtually a communist manifesto, even though I am not particularly a communist and I do not belong to any movement. You see, ‘Imagine' was exactly the same message, but sugar-coated. Now, ‘Imagine' is a big hit almost everywhere -- anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic song, but because it is sugar-coated it is accepted. Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey."

Even now, in the supposed age of political apathy, a strong component of the rock culture is overtly political. Many heavy metal bands, when not extolling Satanism and the drug culture, traffic heavily in themes of anarchy, modern warfare, and political nihilism. More mainstream bands like the Irish group U2 have built their reputation around political songs dealing with issues ranging from environmentalism to Martin Luther King to the Vietnam War to the conflict in Ireland.

Rock music's political clout is significant; consider the impact of such events as the Live Aid extravanganza of the mid-eighties, and the dramatic effect of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," the theme song played at the conclusion of the 1992 Democratic national convention, on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. During his campaign, Clinton also appeared on MTV, an event which, in conjunction with MTV's "Rock the Vote" campaign, galvanized legions of youthful Clinton supporters. Earlier this year, Colin Powell made a plug for condom use on MTV, and U2's Bono is planning a fact-finding trip to Africa this spring with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

Anyone doubting the political influence of rock stars like Bono need look no further than the March 2, 2002 issue of Time. The cover sports a picture of Bono wearing a jacket with an American flag sewn into the lining, beside the headline "Can Bono Save the World? Don't laugh -- the globe's biggest rock star is on a mission to make a difference." The difference Bono is trying to make, according to Time's Michael Elliott, is to convince the developed nations to save Africa via a massive, taxpayer-funded bailout. A photo spread offers images of Bono rubbing shoulders with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Kofi Annan, Pope John Paul II, Jesse Helms, Bill Gates, and others.

Bono is having an effect. According to Elliott, "Sept. 11th changed the way Americans think about international affairs. Far from Washington, issues of global health care, education and poverty are being discussed ... with a new urgency.... And Bono's advocacy is an important part of that change. ‘He understands,' says Trevor Neilson of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, ‘that the battle for development is going to be won at the backyard barbecue, not at the Council on Foreign Relations.'"

But Bono was not at a backyard barbecue when George W. Bush called for "a new compact for global development" at the Inter-American Development Bank on March 14th. In fact, he was sitting behind Mr. Bush, who oozed, "As you can see, I'm traveling in some pretty good company today: Bono. We just had a great visit in the Oval Office. Here's what I know abut him: first, he's a good musician; secondly, he is willing to use his position in a responsible way. He is willing to lead to achieve what his heart tells him, and that is nobody -- nobody -- should be living in poverty and hopelessness in the world."

Bush continued: "Bono, I appreciate your heart and to tell you what an influence you've had, Dick Cheney walked in the Oval Office, he said, ‘Jesse Helms wants us to listen to Bono's ideas.'"

Mass Indoctrination

Bono, along with many other influential rock stars, is a shrewd propagandist for the cause he advocates. Not all propaganda, after all, emanates from Goebbels-style ministries. French scholar Jacques Ellul might have been thinking of rock 'n' roll, with its blend of radical individualism and conformity, when he wrote his penetrating study of the phenomenon of modern propaganda. Propaganda, Ellul found, is most typical of democratic, not totalitarian, regimes, because it depends crucially on two seemingly contradictory conditions, both of which democracy encourages: extreme individualism and membership in what Ellul termed "mass society." Modern individualism, according to Ellul, "came about through the disintegration of such small groups as the family or the church. Once these groups lost their importance, the individual was left substantially isolated.... Thus, [the individual] begins to judge everything for himself.... His own life becomes the only criterion of justice and injustice, of Good and Evil." In practice, Ellul explained, such absolute individuals, unprotected by insulating ties of family and community, become part of an undifferentiated, collective whole, and can only find direction by propagandistic appeals to the herd mentality of the mass. Therefore, the defining condition of mass society and culture is the absolute individual, stripped of all personal associations with family, community, and religion, and linked directly to a central authority shepherding and manipulating the mass with a never-ending onslaught of propaganda.

Rock and roll is a potent form of Ellulian mass manipulation. Many bands and their respective cult followings vie with each other to produce the raunchiest lyrics, the most outrageous costumes, and the basest manners and language. Yet they do it en masse, putting the lie to the rock culture's credo, "do your own thing." In reality, the motto of rock and roll is "be outrageous and question all legitimate authority -- in unison with millions of other brainwashed fans." In the pandemonium of a "mosh pit"* or a rave party, Ellul's mass culture at its basest is on display: Hundreds or thousands of participants reduced to puny, isolated individuals, tethered only to the authority of the rock band or the DJ, and subject to a relentless barrage of soul-numbing propaganda.

In keeping with the requirements of mass culture, much of rock music encourages severing personal ties: to family, to church, to tradition. Children are incited to rebel against their parents, marriage and sexual purity are sneered at, and traditional modes of dress and conduct are deliberately contravened.

Rock musicians themselves are very aware of the power they exert. Jimi Hendrix, for example, saw rock as a way to "hypnotize people to where they go right back to their natural state. And when you get people at their weakest point, you can preach into the subconscious what we want to say."

Some of the more severe styles of rock music, such as the darkest and most nihilistic forms of heavy metal (so-called "black metal" and "death metal"), are sometimes referred to in countercultural circles as "aesthetic" or "poetic terrorism," artistic styles designed to achieve through appeals to artistic taste what conventional terrorism hopes to achieve through political violence. Simply put, aesthetic terrorism seeks revolutionary change by shocking and benumbing the senses. Hakim Bey, an intellectual leader of the countercultural underground, explained that "the audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by PT [poetic terrorism] ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror -- powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe ... no matter whether the PT is aimed at one person or many ... if it does not change someone's life (aside from the artist) it fails."

The overarching agenda of much of rock music and its associated subculture is to dissolve or radically remake cultural and social institutions. As such, it's an indispensable part of the radical Left's goal of "capturing the culture" via the "long march through the institutions" that Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci advocated. Gramsci and his ideological fellow-travelers understood that the inertia of tradition, customs, and the accumulated wisdom of the ages provides one of the strongest checks against the perils of "blind and furious innovation," in British statesman Edmund Burke's memorable phrase. Cultural and political revolution always go hand in hand, because revolutionaries understand that if a people can be persuaded to abandon their traditions, their mores, and their cultural and religious norms, they can easily be led to accept radical political changes. On the other hand, if the people cling resolutely to tradition, they will view with suspicion any proposal to revolutionize their politics.

Culture is thus not only a powerful check against totalitarianism, but is also one that exists outside the system of government. Legal, parliamentary or constitutional sabotage cannot negate culture. It must be attacked on its own ground, by revolutionary artists, religionists, academics, and other agitators who subvert using non-governmental means.

Freedom Requires Morality

There is another reason that cultural and moral decay pose a direct threat to political liberty: Free republican government depends foremost upon the ability of citizens to govern themselves, by controlling their individual passions. As Burke observed:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.... Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Rock and roll has spawned a vast subculture in which moral restraints are absent and the cadences of constant revolutionary change are relentlessly hammered home with all of the power of amplified sound, light shows, and deliberately shocking modes of dress and conduct. And rock and roll has been devastatingly successful in stripping away many layers of cultural resilience. While each generation at some point "grows up," opting to settle down to family life and to forsake the mindless excesses of youth, our culture has nonetheless coarsened perceptibly as the once-unacceptable has become mainstream. Since the upheavals of the sixties, casual sex and recreational drug use have become widely accepted. More recently, taboos like homosexuality have also come out of the closet, thanks in no small measure to homosexual rock groups like Queen and the Village People, whose 70's-era anthems to deviant behavior helped set a precedent for frank and open treatment of the subject in the media and in other venues of mass entertainment. Even Satanism and the occult, while still mostly on the fringes, have enjoyed a dizzying rise in popularity thanks to the dark glamour of hard rock and heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne -- and, more recently, shock rockers like the notorious Marilyn Manson.

Fortunately, a wide variety of genuinely uplifting, edifying music is still available, from the timeless works of the classical masters to the refined rhythms of the Big Band era, the soulful romance of Hit Parade favorites, and many other wholesome genres. Winning the culture war requires us not only to understand the baneful effects of the "diabolical bawling and twanging" of today's popular music but also to seek out the refining and even ennobling influence of music at its best.

* Mosh pits are areas of spontaneous, violent dancing that fans often create at concerts involving heavy metal or other extreme styles of rock music.


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Old 04-09-2002, 08:55 AM   #2
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"Hey Jude" was not about heroin use. It was written for Julian Lennon around the time when John and Cynthia Lennon were divorcing.

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Old 04-09-2002, 10:47 AM   #3
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Fortunately, a wide variety of genuinely uplifting, edifying music is still available, from the timeless works of the classical masters to the refined rhythms of the Big Band era, the soulful romance of Hit Parade favorites, and many other wholesome genres. Winning the culture war requires us not only to understand the baneful effects of the "diabolical bawling and twanging" of today's popular music but also to seek out the refining and even ennobling influence of music at its best.
I found that bit particularly amusing.

All in all? This is the sort of tripe I was fed all through grade school and high school. There are many within conservative circles that would like to characterize our society as experiencing a "culture war", and it is by using that pharse that they allow themselves to villify those with differing viewpoints. But I don't buy it.

Sad. Very sad. Hey, I'll bet ya money that this guy's never been to a U2 show.
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Old 04-09-2002, 12:16 PM   #4
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I must admit.. I do find the Jacques Ellul part a bit interesting...

Seems like a key to why there such crappy bands out there...
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Old 04-09-2002, 12:40 PM   #5
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Did you know Rock was the tool of the be used to create rebellion and subversion in our youth and thus lead to the fall of the west...

This is what I was told as a kid...but someone forgot to tell them that the music industry was one of the most capitalistic things going...

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