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The Crux Project Archives: Music

The Art (If Any) of Rock Music

by S. T. Karnick

Rock critic Greil Marcus has written another book about Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, and it looks to be about as silly as his previous writings, which would make it very risible indeed. The book consists largely of overblown, meaningless statements such as the following: "As a sound the record is like a cave. You enter it in the dark; what light there is flickers off the walls in patterns that, as you watch, seem almost in rhythm. You begin to feel that you can tell just what flash will follow from the one before it. But the longer you look, the more you see, and the less fixed anything is."

The reason for the absurdity of Marcus's writings is its relentless fulfillment of a classic characteristic of comedy: exaggeration. In Marcus's case, he exaggerates the literary importance of the works he considers (while usually showing little real knowledge of music). This is true of all too many rock critics, especially those associated with Rolling Stone magazine over the years.

I see two reasons for this great distance between reach and grasp. One is the fact that rock critics are so intent on creating intellectual respectability for this popular art form that they love (and they see intellectual respectability as residing largely in the words of the songs). They love Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, Elvis Costello, U2, Public Enemy, Nirvana, Alicia Keys, and whatever, and they want people to understand that this is not mind-rotting, time-wasting nonsense but is in fact really good stuff—art even. This desire is nothing of which to be ashamed: critics throughout the ages have done exactly that, from Aristotle's attempt to show the value of stage tragedies, in the Poetics, to the efforts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English novelists and critics to afford some respectability to that brash, popular, low-class substitute for poetry and stage drama, the novel.

Rock music critics, however, are hampered by an additional problem: a lack of a real definition for the art form they are writing about. Rock music is an olio, an amalgam of several different forms of music, and popular music has never really been defined as an art form and analyzed as something discrete from other music. It has never had its Poetics or The Art of Fiction.

Hence, critics tend to praise in their favorite music the things that they like the most in life itself and that they think will bring the most respectability among the music's audience. For most rock critics this involves notions such as passion, authenticity, intensity, surface originality (but absolute, fundamental orthodoxy to a particular mindset perhaps best described as hedonistic materialism), occasional surprises (but not much musical complexity), personal drama, contemporary relevance, emotional expressiveness, and the like. (Yes, these critics are products of the last half of the twentieth century and hence a bit kooky and unmoored.) Musical works that express these characteristics are seen as good, and those that do not do so sufficiently are seen as bad.

You see the problem, of course. Passion, authenticity, intensity, surface originality, contemporary relevance, emotional expressiveness, and the like are very good things in their place, but they do not compose a coherent structure or model by which things may be tested and compared to one another. They are all too easily turned into subjective matters with no real standards of achievement that can apply to the entire body of works to be considered. In addition, they entirely lack intellectual content and hence cannot convey respectability in that realm.

To get the ball rolling, I will hazard a definition of popular music, one that includes all that is pop music and excludes what is not it. Here it is:

Pop music takes the form of dramatic poetry set to music.

A few notes:

One, I do not intend this definition to suggest that pop music lyrics are poetry. They take the form of dramatic poetry, which is something a bit different from actually being dramatic poetry. Let's be realistic: pop music lyrics simply are not poetry. Some song lyrics can be quite poetic, but they are almost never true poetry, by any classically defensible definition. Read the song lyrics of the greatest lyricists, whomever you would choose, and then compare them to even middle-level poetry, and you will see this truth starkly revealed. (Note that this definition does not apply to opera librettos. The latter are poetic dramas, as opposed to dramatic poetry, and can be classified as either drama or poetry or both. Operas are basically narrative in form, whereas pop music concentrates on presentation of character, particularly in moments of crisis.)

Two, pop music lyrics are dramatic, in that they typically present the thoughts and feelings of a character playing out over the course of the song. That is, they are strongly allied to performance. Even those songs that seem to take the form of a personal essay, like so many of Bob Dylan's songs, are actually brief dramas.

Third, pop music is usually much briefer than poetic drama, in deference to the form's emphasis on moments of crisis.

Fourth, the music in pop music likewise tends to serve the creation of drama.

Fifth, pop music can convey thoughts, but that is not what it does best. It is most effective at conveying motives and drama—the manifestations of human character.

Sixth, the creation of drama and expression of human character in both lyrics and music has a logic to it that can be identified and codified into principles that allow comparison and reasonably objective analysis of pop music to the extent that such things are possible with any art form.

I'll write more about this in future, but I offer this definition as a way to begin the process of establishing some standards by which to analyze and judge popular music in a rather more objective way. •

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