All That Jazz
Hole in Our Soul: The Loss or Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music.
by Martha Bayles.
Free Press. 453 pp. $24.95.
Martha Bayles, a former television and arts critic for the Wall Street Journal, here tells the troubled story of American popular music. Her title comes from a blues lyric which warns that those who do not have a feeling for this art form must have “a hole in the soul.” Awkward as a title, the phrase captures neatly this book’s essential thesis, which is that the farther American popular music has traveled from the “Afro-American idiom,” the more alienated it has become from the celebration of life and of our common humanity which was once at its core. And indeed, that is the dismal fate Bayles sees: the devolution of a once-vibrant tradition into an atomized, decadent expression of nihilism, narcissism, and violence.
In the realm of (mainly white) rock music, the deplorable trend Bayles explores is seen in the dominance of “heavy metal” and the rise of “grunge”—the noise-laden style of groups like Nirvana (whose lead singer, Kurt Cobain, recently committed suicide) and Pearl Jam, whose lyrics express the empty despair and anomie of “rebels without a clue.” Within the (mainly black) genre of “rap” music—fast, stylized talking over a heavy beat—the leading style has become “gangsta” rap, which celebrates misogyny, the drug trade, gang violence, black-racist separatism, and hatred of traditional society.
How did we come to this pass? Bayles tells her story in different stages. In one of them, she sketches the familiar history of how the Afro-American idiom evolved, and how it came to interact with music derived from Europe. This cross-fertilization of African and European musical traditions led to the golden age of American song—the creative mix that launched, to name just a few great figures, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern. The white song-smiths of “Tin Pan Alley” found fresh inspiration in Afro-American forms like ragtime, boogie-woogie, and early swing jazz; in turn, black jazz soloists picked up from these wonderful songs new harmonic resources for improvisational playing.
This sort of mutual inspiration has gone on throughout the century—at least until recently. But before dealing with the forces that now threaten to cut contemporary popular music off from its humanizing roots, Bayles interjects a vigorous argument on behalf of the black tradition in particular. By doing so, she hopes to rescue the American black idiom from the condescension of both its enemies and its would-be friends.
Thus, Bayles heaps scorn on the dismissal of jazz by some European lovers of classical music, citing fictional portraits of crazed jazz musicians in Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, and the excoriations of the social theorist Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School. She chalks up much of this disdain to simple racism or, among the more well-meaning, a misunderstanding of jazz artistry.
With greater originality, she also exposes and mocks the appropriation of black music by a cult of “primitivism” on the cultural Left, exemplified by the rock critic Greil Marcus and the Rolling Stones’ lead singer Mick Jagger, who in their different ways reduce the black idiom to a collection of sexual tics. The mirror image of racist contempt, primitivism celebrates the primal “energy” and “rawness” of jazz and the blues, thereby robbing them of their nuance, wit, and intelligence in order to make them symbolic of a (spurious) radical break with Western culture. These, Bayles writes, are among the ugliest of stereotypes, because their true patronizing nature is hidden by a false face of sympathetic understanding.
In turning to the real enemies of “beauty and meaning” in popular music, Bayles, surprisingly, finds the prime culprits in highbrow intellectual movements whose pernicious effects have trickled down through journalism and the universities. In her view, it is various forms of high musical modernism that have drained the life out of contemporary popular music, replacing it with desiccated self-indulgence or, worse, mean-spirited ugliness and perversity for its own sake.
Bayles divides modernism into three categories: “introverted,” “perverse,” and “extroverted.” By introverted modernism, she means the tradition of self-consciously pure intellectualism she associates with early-20th-century composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and their twelve-tone followers. The involuted rigor of their music was intended as an earnest of an almost religious devotion to the purity of music; but for Bayles, it is death when music is severed from communal participation and a common language of expressiveness.
Though the influence of this brand of modernism on popular music is tenuous, it can be seen on the periphery of the rock avant-garde in figures like the late Frank Zappa, John Cale and the Velvet Underground, and “industrial-music” groups like Throbbing Gristle. Some of these, in turn, influenced certain “punk” and “new-wave” groups of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Morally more decadent, and also more pervasive in its influence, is Bayles’s second category, perverse modernism. This draws on the long aesthetic counter-tradition of shocking the bourgeoisie, and links up with political radicalism in attempting to shake the foundations of cultural expression in order to promote anarchy. Bayles draws a more or less straight line from today’s “punk” and “grunge” rock back to such shock artists of the 1920’s and 30’s as the Italian Futurists and various Dadaist promoters of “happenings.”
Finally, there is extroverted modernism, the only kind with any saving graces, because it aims to include a broad variety of listeners in a community of appreciation. In popular music, the quintessential medium of extroverted modernism, according to Bayles, is jazz—a richly layered expressive form that incorporates and pays tribute to the whole gamut of Afro-American genres while being open to new influences.
Bayles concedes that jazz is not for everyone, that it only becomes readily accessible after one has learned its “language.” But from the giants of swing like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, to the jaggedly experimental “beboppers” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and on to avant-gardists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the defining element of jazz is that it does not disdain popularity.
The tradition of jazz has had a salutary impact on such latter-day phenomena as rhythm-and-blues and soul music, and can be heard in the Motown sound and the Philly sound (Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, et al.). But these are also the forms of popular music most grievously under assault by the uglier, soul-killing sounds that dominate the airwaves today. In the battle of modernisms, the bad has won out over the good.
There is, certainly, something compelling about Bayles’s taxonomy of contemporary popular music, but it is hardly without problems. For one thing, she suffers from a malady, common among many culture critics, of tending to view cultural influence from a top-down perspective. For all her emphasis on the popularity of popular music as a form of communal bonding, Bayles pays far too much attention to intellectuals.
Interpreting all of jazz, for instance, as a type of modernism—a movement often associated with difficulty and hermeticism in the arts—exposes the strain in her effort to win a kind of intellectual respectability for aspects of the black idiom. And this suggests that she is not quite comfortable with the other, main part of her thesis: that good popular music deserves respect because it is popular.
Another major problem with Bayles’s conception of the Afro-American idiom is that she cannot decide whether it is to be appreciated primarily for its aesthetic virtues or for certain sociological and moral values related to the history of black oppression out of which it developed.
This music—nurtured first in slavery, growing to maturity within a still very segregated America—has a compelling humanity that cannot be denied. Yet to make it bear the weight of social and historical meaning wherever it goes and however it changes is to confuse historical with artistic significance. Bayles’s reading is less debasing, to be sure, than the primitivist reading of black music she properly criticizes. But her views are more akin to such sociopolitical gestures than she may recognize.
So, too, there is something troubling in the way Bayles insistently checks the traditionalist bona fides of latter-day popular music, as if any merit it may possess depends on its having an assured pedigree, on its descent from a “genuine” black idiom.
One problem with this is that, as Bayles herself acknowledges, the Afro-American tradition is notable not for its purity but rather for its creative absorption of anything new it encounters. But even more disturbing is that Bayles comes perilously close here to a politics of cultural and racial “identity” of the kind that elsewhere she explicitly repudiates. To say it again, black music is worth preserving not just for its heritage but because it is good music—giving pleasure through its artistry—and because it speaks to a common sensibility that cuts across national, cultural, religious, and racial lines.
Still, despite some theoretical shakiness, this is a spirited and enlightening book. Writing in a crisp journalistic style, Bayles advances her sometimes subtle arguments in a highly readable and generally unpretentious manner—despite occasional traces of vulgarity or tendentiousness. Along the way she provides an entertaining cultural history, full of many flashes of offbeat insight.
Anyone with a taste for the lively, heart-warming, and at times heart-rending music she values will be especially responsive to Bayles’s cri de coeur about the devastated landscape of today. If her intellectual claims are too large or too fuzzy, the issues she raises are well worth considering—and she articulates them in a sane, brave, and humane voice.