Is Highbrow Rock an Oxymoron? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Is Highbrow Rock an Oxymoron?

Radiohead, repeatedly dubbed “best act in the world today” by Q magazine, are touring the United States. The quintet played the Verizon Center in the nation’s capital last week, leaving Washington Post critic Chris Richards to observe, “No other rock band in history has asked us to shush and pay attention quite like Radiohead.”

Does he write this as though that were a good thing? 

“Fans kept their eyes locked on [singer Thom] Yorke’s every shimmy,” he explains. “But they did so very quietly, maintaining a reverent hush that felt alien at a rock concert of this size. When one fan let a whoop of admiration escape from his lungs during the piano ballad ‘Codex,’ you could hear it across the stadium. It was immediately followed by another dude yelling, ‘Shut up!'”

When Little Richard announced rock ‘n’ roll’s arrival by shouting “awopbabaloobopbalopbamboom,” he didn’t expect the audience to sit quietly. Early rock ‘n’ roll attracted a crowd because it invited mass participation. It provoked helpless teenagers to leave their seats, sing, dance, scream, and do everything else forbidden in schools. Quiet contemplation is for museums.

Perversely, that’s where Little Richard’s music can be found today, in a gallery in Cleveland called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like a Radiohead concert, museums demand quiet, respect, attention. There’s a clear line between art and audience. Herky-jerky movements or sudden screaming can get you removed. It’s all very fascist.

Rock music becoming more like that bad idea in Cleveland is a reason why rock music isn’t very rocking anymore. MTV does reality television. Rolling Stone is a celebrity magazine. Your local rock radio station has switched formats.

There is precedent for an audience exodus once mass art reimagines itself as high art. In Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence Levine documents the transformation of Shakespearean theatre, among other phenomena, from mass entertainment to high culture. It turns out 19th century Americans preferred “Richard III” to pretty much everything else.

The theater balcony, like the grandstand at a sporting event or the floor of a non-Radiohead rock concert, witnessed raucous behavior. “Ticket holders, a New Orleans judge ruled in 1853, had the legal right to hiss and stamp in the theater,” Levine informs. “Audiences of the period seemed fully prepared to heed this advice and exercise their rights.” They cheered favorite actors and booed their rivals. Riots sometimes put the exclamation point on bad performances. At a staging of Othello in Albany, a boatsman confronted the actor portraying Iago: “You damned-lying scoundrel, I would like to get hold of you after the show and wring your infernal neck.”

Highbrow/Lowbrow theorizes that an art form’s status has more to do with the conduct in the seats than the product on the stage. “With important exceptions — particularly in the areas of sports and religion — audiences in America had become less interactive, less of a public and more of a group of mute receptors. Art was becoming a one-way process: the artist communicating and the audience receiving.” What an artist did to gain respectability came at the price of popularity.

Certainly pretension predates Radiohead. One can go back to 1971’s benefit concerts for Bangladesh for an early hint of this. The artists gathered to save the refugees. The fans came to hear Bob Dylan, two Beatles, and Eric Clapton play live.

Rather than get that, the rowdies in row fifteen got, at least initially, a lecture. George Harrison, introducing his friend Ravi Shankar, explained that Indi music was “a little bit more serious than our music,” so concert-goers must “settle down” to get into it.

“This is a type of music which needs a little concentrated listening,” Shankar reiterated. “And I would request you to have a little patience.” The fiftysomething sitar player explained, “Through our music we would like you to feel the agony and also the pain and a lot of sad happenings in Bangladesh and also the refugees who have come to India.” He then, in proto-Michael Bloomberg fashion, implored Madison Square Garden’s hordes of seventies teenagers — who certainly didn’t buy tickets to experience agony, pain, and sadness — “to refrain or stop from smoking as the program is on.”

Wasn’t sitar music an invitation to start smoking something?

One senses an audible relief once George Harrison kicks into “Wah Wah.” Perhaps the Hindu religious music was an English showman’s trick to further frustrate the energy he wished to unleash with his electric guitar.  

Radiohead, as anyone familiar with “Creep,” “Let Down,” or “Fake Plastic Trees” can attest, unleashes pent up energy, too. But the group’s descent into robot music of blips and bleeps practically insists upon an audience of robots, i.e., slaves. That’s not the Little Richard liberation that initially made rock ‘n’ roll so popular.

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