Blasting post-'60s pop

May 22, 1994|By Michael Anft

As pop music critics go, Martha Bayles is a rigorous chauvinist.

A former art and television writer for the Wall Street Journal, she isn't likely to deconstruct "gangsta" rap for once-trendy papers like the Village Voice, or to write a passionate elegy to Kurt Cobain for Spin. That Ms. Bayles makes a living outside of popular music criticism (as a media producer) is hardly surprising. She hates pop music.

For Ms. Bayles, the pop turntable started spinning out of control just a few years ago. In 1966. In 391 well-reasoned if narrow-minded pages, she tells us why.

Her book's subtitle ("The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music") suggests this is yet another nostalgic whine from yet another aesthetic and cultural conservative.

Like Allan Bloom, whom the author claims as an influence, Ms. Bayles' line, roughly, goes like this: "Things used to be great in music. Now, they stink. Therefore, we should go back to the way things were before they began to reek to high heaven."

In this case, the "thing" in question is a tricky proposition called the "Afro-American idiom." It is the source, the author argues, of all beauty/truth/meaning/passion in American pop. It includes Billie Holiday, but not Salt-n-Pepa. James Brown, yes; George Clinton, no. Chuck Berry, of course; Living Colour, nuh-uh.

Since all these black artists have corraled similarly large audiences and kick-started entire genres, why the good/bad distinction? What separates them one from another?

According to Ms. Bayles, it is "perverse modernism," which she defines as "the antisocial, antiart impulses of the European avant-garde." Such contrarian movements as decadence, futurism, dadaism, performance art and postmodernism, not to mention punk and rap, are part of the perverse modernist anti-tradition.

What could such an intellectualized concept have to do with something as market-driven -- as often lowbrow -- as the charts? Plenty, the author argues. The perverse have overrun the hit parade, pushing violent rap, noise-school punk and bland, technology-based pop to the forefront.

All of this has come at the expense of "extroverted" modernists who melded their own emotions and skills with the vaunted canon and tradition of Afro-American music. It's a neat little argument, one that reframes the spirit of the music in terms of types of modernism, then holds its tenets together with an admirable storehouse of knowledge and rigor.

But what Ms. Bayles does, when she's held to the standards of judging almost any art (including knowledge from the heart as well as the mind), is diss music made after the mid-'60s. One wonders if the advent of irony, disillusionment with the 1960s counterculture and sheer boredom with old pop forms ever made any sense to her.

She attacks funkmeister George Clinton because he eschewed the gospel and soul roots of fun, as practiced by that good extroverted modernist, James Brown.

Never mind that Mr. Brown was becoming redundant right around the time that Mr. Clinton's band redefined funk in a dynamic new way, or that Mr. Clinton's "ability to turn everything into a joke" was an honest reaction to the '60s' spiritual charlatanism and the overexalted status of the pop star.

Ms. Bayles spews most of her venom at her Three Dark Gods of the 20th century: Zappa, Reed and Ono. Yoko Ono's inclusion is inarguable (although her defenders would point to her high ironic value -- and Ms. Bayles is having none of that), but Frank Zappa and Lou Reed are trailblazers who have inspired countless others to make good music.

What are their crimes? Ms. Bayles hates satire, the form Zappa mastered. Mr. Reed "represents the complete abandonment of the spiritual high ground staked out . . . by the 1960s counterculture."

Of course, Ms. Bayles' argument comes up short, as any seriously labored attempt to find The Answer in the grooves of a record, no matter how well-conceived, must. One can appreciate the restraint in her remedy, a kind of consumeristic censure of the perverse (but not censorship).

But she's still a chauvinist. Pop music, after all, is mass-marketed industry -- the province of the enviably young who buy it. It is temporal, even evanescent. Lasting meaning gives way to immediate relevance.

Beneath all the platitudes lies the true pop philosophy: If the music is a suitable backdrop to the unique times of the young, if it can lend them fun or understanding or a thrill, and can bother their parents and aging boomers such as Ms. Bayles, then it must have redeemming value.

D8 Mr. Anft is a writer and critic living in Baltimore.

Title: "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music"

Author: Martha Bayles

Publisher: Free Press

Length, price: 391 pages, $24.95

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