Why Today's Pop Music is
Such an Evil Influence
Britain's Leading Philosopher Looks at the Pop Scene
by Roger Scruton
An interview published in this week’s New Musical Express lists Tony Blair’s** top ten choices of pop music, implying not merely that he is a follower of pop stars but that pop stars tend to be followers of New Labour.
I will not comment on whether attempting to court the votes of the young by identifying with these dubious idols is only to be expected of a party whose policies are based on attitudes rather than serious thinking.
No, what is significant about this list is the fact that the pop scene has so penetrated the national culture that a leading politician should feel called upon to posture as part of it.
And this at a time when pop music, judged by an real scale of values, whether aesthetic or moral, has reached the lowest ebb in living memory.
There was a time when pop idols had to woo their following by appearing to be good, or at any rate nice. Like Cliff Richard or Buddy Holly, they would mix their rhythmic cult music with lyrical asides which Mum could enjoy, often adding a religious flavour to the lyrics.
The Beatles were effective social critics, but their criticism stemmed from good homour and was presented with real musical flair.
All that has changed. The typical pop star of today is no longer a musician admired for his talent but a hooligan exalted for the lack of it. He represents the anger and the ignorance of his fans and so must be as angry as they are.
The rock band most appreciated by the young people (and number three on Tony Blair’s list, the group having been “very vocal in support” of Labour) is Oasis. True, they have produced some remarkable music but their 24-year-old leader Liam Gallagher is famous for nothing so much as smashing things.
Groups such as Oasis, Nirvana and Guns N’Roses make themselves deliberately loathsome so that young people identifying with their idols lose all shame at being loathsome themselves. But then, the pop star is in the business of making idleness, violence, licentiousness, intoxication and self-centredness appear legitimate.
And the music is devoted to the same end: much of its is tunelessness, amounting to the rejection of every possible discipline, even the discipline contained in music.
The Greek philosopher Plato wished to ban certain kinds of music from his republic. In listening and dancing, he argued, we imitate the sounds we hear. Licentious music therefore produces licentious people. To create a virtuous society we must permit only orderly and virtuous music.
Plato’s views would no doubt be dismissed by Tony Blair as the cantankerous jottings of an old fogey. He should take a trip to the London nightclub Ministry of Sound (run by James Palumbo, another of Blair’s supporters) and watch the seething mass of teenagers.
He should listen to the beat that directs their movements, a beat that has neither melody nor order nor subtlety, but which simply repeats itself like the pulse of some vast machine. Study the faces of the fans as they give way to a trance-like abandon and all human expression is erased from their features -- and you will begin to see Plato’s point.
Something has gone very wrong with much of modern popular music and with the souls of many of those who listen to it. Except that ‘listen’ is the wrong word. Modern pop is designed to act in another way, without regard to the ear or the mind.
It bypasses the traditional arts of melody and harmony and speaks dirtectly to the body, through an electronic pulse which galvanises the limbs like a current applied to the leg of a frog.
Of course, not all pop music is like that. Cheerful and melodic song-writing still wins a place in the hearts of young, and suburban whimsicality of much Britpop causes no offence to Mum (suposing she is still around).
Nevertheless, it is not this music that the young dance to: it is synthesised electronic sound-effects which fill the dance-floors of the clubs, and the bodies and souls of those who vibrate there. To understand the insidious, amoral influence of much of this modern music, tune into MTV, the satelite channel through which American popular culture spreads unstoppably across the globe.
Gangster rap -- in which young blacks incite their fellows to crime -- is only the extreme case of MTV’s “culture of transgression”, as the American critic Martha Bayles has described it.
Turn on MTV anywhere in the world and you are likely to come face to face with hate-filled rap artists, forcing words into your ear with such rapidity that they appear before your consciousness like your own thoughts -- unbidden and inescapable.
Images cross the screen: fast cars, parties, sex with strangers on a dirty seashore -- images of flight. But the words themselves are full of anger, a litany of accusations against society and pathetic justifications for crime.
It is not just the rappers and new groups on MTV. Judas Priest sung Breaking the Law in sadistic tones of people in the habit of doing just that, while King Missile accompanies his paean to violence with admiring images of gangsterland.
Lowest of all is Grace Jones, who sings words of hatred, while cars, ambulances, buildings and people are blown to pieces all around her, to be obliterated at last by a phalanx of uniformed blacks with Nazi goosestep across the screen.
Such images -- and they are by no means untypical of the “under-class” culture of urban America -- are reminiscent of subliminal incitement perfected by Dr.Goebbels.
They are there because there is a demand for them. MTV is nothing if not democratic. No matter how low the taste of its viewers, it will meet their taste with something lower.
The hatred contained in much modern pop is real, as is the violence. But love, the traditional theme of popular song, is all too often a caricature.
Few images on MTV are as grotesque as that of Madonna as she smooches her way through one of her songs, Secret, while stroking her body, pouting expert kisses and watching self-induced ecstasies through half-closed eyes.
This narcissistic display is only slightly less embarassing than Baby I Love You, a stunning exercise in child pornography from the aptly names Immature. A black child, barely a teenager, croons out her sentimental words into the camera with looks of aching desire. All around her other children are exploring each other’s bodies in a comfortable apartment from which the parents have clearly been locked out.
Pop music has not always been like that. It began life, as we know, as a form of dancing. By speeding up the 12-bar blues and flattening the melodic line, musicians such as Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley created new dance rhythms which compelled couples to manoeuvre rapidly in the tight circle of a jive. The result was undeniably erotic but it required concentration and self control.
Rock ‘n’ roll gave way to other, less disciplined forms of jiving to end at last in the formless shudder of the body, requiring neither steps, formations, gestures, nor even a partner, with the result that young people have been relieved of one more burden of social knowledge.
Whenever the MTV camera swings from the figures on the stage to the people below, throwing their bodies from side to side in this dance which is not dance, their faces raised with a look of blank stupefaction, you are inevitably reminded of a drug-induced state of mind.
But we should remember that the viewer of MTV is not actually on the dance-floor. He is, however, conscious of the remoteness of the world before him on television, the emptiness of its promises and the ineffectual nature of its phoney rage.
The pop world, as seen on these programmes, is a world of fantasy which is at war with real life, and with the customs, laws and decencies which make real life feasible.
Its brief pictures of love are stages in never-never land, where inaccessible stars exchange dream-like kisses before drifting away into the clouds. As guns blaze, the real world’s moral order is dissolved in violence, and love is confiscated and given to the idol.
This perhaps explains the popularity of MTV’s cartoon characters of Beavis and Butthead, two delinquents who destroy with their rasping laughter every illusion that is briefly put on show. The viewers of MTV know that much of what they hear and see is musically empty and morally dubious. Beavis and Butthead whisper their mirthless chuckles into the very heart of the viewer, offering him a distorted picture of rational judgment.
In MTV, therefore, much modern pop is an utterly negative force. The screen shows a world in tatters. The music has finally emancipated itself from dancing, from love and courtship, even from reality itself, and become the voice of the devil, whispering temptations into the souls of couch potatoes who have nothing on which to wreck their destructive urges apart from their own souls.
And when its addicts go out into the world, it is only to find some other escape from moral reality. That is what you see on the dance-floor of all too many clubs; young people who have lost all ability to relate to one another as moral beings, from whom love and courtship have been confiscated, and who are often led to sway in a drug-induced illusion, dancing in a group, but without a partner: utterly and irremediably alone.
Tony Blair may be right in thinking that he can woo the votes of those lost souls by endorsing their tastes. But I wonder whether he will be thanked for it by future generations.
Reprinted from the Daily Mail, Saturday, December 21, 1996
*Roger Scruton is 52 and one of Britain’s leading philosophers.
**Tony Blair was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Labour Party until 2007
This page was created on 6 October 1997
Last updated on 15 February 1998
Copyright © 1996 Daily Mail - Reproduced with Thanks