I just attended a wedding for a friend of mine who will turn 40 next year. We had gone to an all-boys high school together, and although most of our crew is now bogged down with kids and careers, one thing was clear from the nuptials: we still love rock and roll. This was evident from both the conversations, which often focused on how our favorite bands from the ’80s — Van Halen, Soft Cell, the English Beat, the Replacements — still sound great, and to the way we all stormed the dance floor at the end of the night when the band played the Rolling Stones.
What might seem odd — at least to the rock elite and intelligentsia — is that this was a group of conservative Catholics. The guy getting married worked for Judge Starr (whom I had the honor of meeting) and is currently being filibustered by liberals as a potential judge. As I was driving home and listening to a tape that contained both Beethoven’s Ninth, John Coltrane and AC/DC’s song “Back in Black,” I once again thought of a modern paradox: rock and roll, America’s “rebel music,” is in fact a conservative art form.
Music is about sound, and rock and roll is a conservative sound. It is often a simple and primitive sound. What rock fans — and conservatives — often miss about pop music is that a song’s primitivism or simplicity does not make it heathen. Indeed, in the very simplicity of the music of much rock music there is order as tight as the divine love that, as Dante wrote, puts the stars in circular motion. The rhythm of a river rolling over stones is a large part of what makes it beautiful, as is the repetition of the waves rising and dropping on a beach. A pop song has an order — verse, verse, chorus, verse, break, or some variation thereof — and juxtaposes this order with lyrics that either bolster its order with declarations of love or provide tension by expressing sorrow and loss. In the best examples of this — The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving,” The Beatles “I Need You,” Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” melody and sound reach into the heart of beauty, which brings it in proximity with the divine. The rock and roll art form is a thrilling representation of the Christian paradox of human failing and original sin in the midst of God’s perfect creation and love. The beat, the chord changes, the guitars all declare order, beauty and perfection, while the lyrics and the singer lament that perfection, due to the human condition — original sin — which can never truly be perfect.
A defense of this kind of primitivism in art can be found in an essay written by Etienne Gilson, a great Catholic theologian of the early 20th century. In his 1955 book Painting and Reality, Gilson defends modern art, which many critics were dismissing as primitive. “Reduced to its simplest expression,” he wrote, “the function of modern art has been to restore painting to its primitive and true function, which is to continue through man the great creative activity of nature. In so doing, modern painting has destroyed nothing and condemned nothing that belongs in any one of the legitimate activity of man; it has simply regained the clear awareness of its own nature and recovered its own place among the creative activities of man.”
This is essentially what rock and roll did in the 1950s, and at its best does today. Despite all this, rock and roll still enjoys the reputation as rebel music — a reputation earned five decades ago. For rock historian James Miller, the outlawing of rock began on March 25, 1955, when the film Blackboard Jungle was released. The opening song of the film was “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by the 34-year-old Texan Bill Haley and his band, The Comets. Director Richard Brooks had meant for Blackboard Jungle to be a warning film about teen delinquency and cultural decline, and in order to press the point he cranked up “Rock Around the Clock” loud on the theater PA system. Teens committed acts of vandalism in theaters in Minneapolis and Hartford, Connecticut, leading one psychiatrist to claim rock and roll violence was a “communicable disease” spread by a “cannibalistic and tribalistic sort of music.”
As Miller points our, Blackboard Jungle was one of the first and most powerful works in the popular culture to wed the music to violence. The film depicts teenagers as vulgar, sexually aggressive and explosive, and wed these images to a rock and roll beat; together the two “defined the cultural essence of the music” — it would be all about disorder, aggression, and sex: a “fantasy of human nature, running wild to a savage beat.”
The fantasy, in fact, was something quite different from the music. “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” was nothing but a souped-up swing tune. As Miller points out, singer Bill Haley was a veteran of country radio with thinning hair, a heavyset body and a dead eye that made him self-conscious. When Blackboard Jungle caused youth riots in Dublin and London, Haley defended himself, telling London’s Daily Mirror, “We don’t make boys bad!” As Miller notes, “It was too late. Nihilism had become a pop fad — a lot of Haley’s new fans took pride in being bad: that, to them, was what the new music was all about. Affecting an air of foppish brutality, they made rock and roll their own.” At the time, a 15-year-old named John Lennon saw Blackboard Jungle in Liverpool and was disappointed when there was not a riot.
For the past 50 years, this view of rock as social rebellion has been unshakable. No one seems to see the irony that the music that is supposed to break down social barriers, liberate us sexually and usher in peace on earth is based on musical idioms that are more rigid than even the safest classical music. “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” is about as simple and predictable as a song can be, from its straightforward lyrics to its 4/4 beat.
Driving home from the wedding, AC/DC was followed by Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” one of my favorite songs of all time. I’ve always found it interesting that the love song, by far the most popular subject in popular music, is both the most reviled by rock’s intelligentsia and yet the most enduring and powerful genre of popular song — who listens to protest songs from the 1960s, or even 1980s, anymore? It is so, I believe, because it is often this type of song that most capture the essence of Christian love. The popular love song is most often about a love so powerful it can conquer time, distance, and death — a love, like the love of Christ, that has dominion over the natural world. That’s why we were dancing so feverishly at the wedding.