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Christianity has foundered in Europe, sunk by the baggage that European Christians carried from their pagan past, leaving the United States as the last Christian country in the industrial world. Idolatry in Europe lived in the folklore and ritual of the old pagan religions that Christianity never quite suppressed. Americans hear barely an echo of the ancient whisper of the European forest. Some readers have asked whether Americans are quite free from idolatry. The answer is: of course not. A good place to start is with American Idol, the televised contest that allows a complete non-entity to become a rock star for a day.
No other nation rejects the notion of a high culture with such vehemence, or celebrates the mediocre with such giddiness. Americans prefer to identify with what is like them, rather than emulate what is better than them. The epitome of its popular culture is a national contest to choose from among random entrants a new singing star, the “American Idol.”
Three or four generations ago, US popular culture shared a porous boundary with classical culture. The most successful musical comedy of the 1920s, Jerome Kern’s Showboat, contained classical elements requiring operatic voices. George Gershwin, the 1930s’ most popular tunesmith, prided himself on an opera, Porgy and Bess. Benny Goodman, the decade’s top jazz musician, recorded Mozart. The most successful singer of the 1930s, Bing Crosby, had a voice of classical quality. Never mind that what he sang was insipid; his listeners knew very well that they could not sing like Bing Crosby.
Americans of earlier generations, in short, listened to music that they admired but could not hope to imitate, because they looked up to a higher plane of culture and technique. Today Americans favor performers with whom they can identify precisely because they have no more technique or culture than the average drunk bellowing into a karaoke machine. Taste descended by degrees. Frank Sinatra sounded more average than Bing Crosby; Elvis Presley more average than Sinatra; The Beatles more average than Elvis; and Bruce Springsteen (or Madonna) about as average as one can get, until American Idol came along to elevate what was certified to average.
The dominant popular style of the 1930s, Swing, required in essence the same skills as did classical music. By the early 1950s, every adolescent with a newly acquired guitar could hope to follow in the acne-pitted footsteps of Bill Haley or Buddy Holly. This was “a voice that came from you and me,” as Don McLean intoned in his mawkish ode to Holly, America Pie (1972). That was just the problem.
Stylistically, rock ‘n’ roll offered little novelty. It drew upon the music of rural resentment, the country and hillbilly music that appealed to failing farmers at county fairs and honky-tonks. Rural America began its Depression a decade before the rest of the country, and country music developed as a parallel culture before Hollywood adopted singing cowboys such as Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers during the 1930s. Hard-time country audiences preferred the hard edge of a Hank Williams to the mellifluous crooners who charmed the urban audience.
What requires explanation is how the whining, nasal, querulous style of country music came to dominate national taste with the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s. The species leap from the county fair to The Ed Sullivan Show occurred because the United States, for the first time in its history, had spawned a distinctive youth culture. That is, the postwar generation of American adolescents was the first with sufficient spending power to afford its own culture. Before World War I, adolescents went to work. The years after World War II produced an unprecedented level of affluence, and teenagers for the first time had money to spend on records, instruments and cars. Young people are as resentful as they are narcissistic, and the easily reproduced, droning complaint of country music satisfied both criteria.
The resentful country folk who formed the first audience for the now-dominant style in American music turn up in literature as noble, suffering peasants fighting for a traditional way of life, as in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Nothing could be further from the truth. American farmers were migratory entrepreneurs who did well during World War I, when agricultural exports surged, and very badly during the 1920s, when exports fell, and even worse during the 1930s. Country people were resentful because they were becoming poorer. That was unfortunate, but feeling sorry for one’s self is no excuse to inflict the likes of Hank Williams on the world. The object of high art is to lift the listener out of the misery of his personal circumstance by showing him a better world in which his petty troubles are beside the point. What is the point of music that assists the listener in wallowing in his troubles? Some country-music fanciers no doubt will find this callous, and I want to disclose that I do not care one way or another whether their wife left them, their dog died, or their truck broke down.
Word-play aside, what does this have to do with idolatry? Resentment is simply an expression of envy, the first and deadliest of sins. Adam and Eve envied God’s knowledge of good and evil, Cain envied Abel, Ishmael envied Isaac, Esau envied Jacob, Joseph’s brothers envied the favorite son, and the Gentiles envied the nation of Israel. Why reject what comes from on high to worship one’s own image, unless you resent the higher authority?
The culture of resentment runs so deep in the American character that the self-pitying drone of immiserated farmers, amplified by the petulant adolescents of the 1950s as a remonstration against parental authority, now dominates the musical life of American Christians. Not only Christian country, but Christian rock and Christian heavy metal have become mainstream commercial genre. I agree with the minority of Christians who eschew Christian rock as “the music of the devil,” although not for the same reasons: it is immaterial whether Christian rock substitutes “Jesus Christ” for “Peggy Sue,” permitting its listeners to associate putatively Christian music with secular music with implied sexual content. It is diabolical because the style itself is born of resentment.
There are American Christians who had no choice but to invent their own music, namely the African-American Church, whose spirituals are gems of rough-hewn beauty. It is no coincidence that black church music maintains the closest ties to classical music, and that the pre-eminence of African-American singers on the operatic stage stems from the music training of church choirs.
By and large, though, the evangelicals ought to know better. Americans, like the English, have Georg Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” and other great classical works, and access to a musical tradition that is one of the supreme achievements of the human spirit. As I wrote in another context (Why the beautiful is not the good, May 17, 2005):
Pearls grow in oysters to soothe irritation; the high art of the West grew pearl-like in Christendom around an abrasion it could not heal: the refusal of mere humans to place all their hopes upon the promise of life after death. Christianity made Europe by offering the kingdom of heaven to barbarian invaders, while allowing them to keep their tribal culture. The high art of the West gave these rude men a presentiment of the kingdom of heaven and formed an authentic Christian culture opposed to pagan holdovers.
The Beautiful is not the Good. The Good is sui generis, independent of any beauty devised by human craft. But we willfully choose what is ugly over what is beautiful because we are ugly, and prefer to worship our own ugliness rather than the beauty created by an inspired few. That is not merely execrable bad taste. Ultimately it is a form of idolatry. The evangelicals’ inability to rise above the ambient culture is their great failing.
This helps explain why Americans are so stupid. Listening to the repetition of three chords does not exercise the mind after the fashion of Mozart, to be sure, but that is not the main reason that stupidity attends the culture of resentment. One learns only by accepting a suitable authority. If one rejects authority in favor of one’s own impulses, one cannot learn.
Most Americans do accept an authority, to one extent or another, namely the Bible. The Bible remains America’s national epic, and the Protestant precept Sola Scriptorum is alive and well in the United States. But the Bible is too difficult a text for the ordinary reader to absorb; it requires a level of culture inaccessible to all but a handful to read it properly. The culture of resentment tends to reduce Bible-reading to slogans and sound-bites, with the result that side-issues such as Creationism sap the emotional energy of American Christians. Quite a shock will be required before any of this changes.