Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

Reprise: 'Headbanging Caterwaulers'
by Derek McGovern

It was one of Lindsayís editorials on the Politically Incorrect Show that set me off. The subject was quintessential Perigo: the mindlessness of contemporary popular music. Dismissing many of todayís musical fads as "unmitigated garbage," he went on to question how supposedly rational people could embrace such "caterwauling."

Reading this editorial on the Libertyloop - that e-mail forum for libertarian groupies - I couldnít resist chipping in on a subject equally close to my own heart.

"Well said, Lindsay!! As a general rule, I've observed that one's musical tastes reflect to a huge degree one's values. Encounter any of your everyday lowlife thugs, and it's a sure bet they're not going home to listen to Tschaikovsky. This doesn't mean, of course, that you ARE a lowlife if you get your musical rocks off from listening to the Sex Pistols, but it does raise an interesting question. What is it in Johnny Rotten's performance that you're responding to? Is it his strangulated vocal cords? Is it his anger & rage against humanity? Or is it simply that you enjoy the musical equivalent of smearing oneself in excrement? Of course, you're free to listen to whatever you choose. But why settle for the gutter when you could have the stars?...Come on, all you Sex Pistol caterwauler-lovers: define what it is that you love about their "music." What is it that makes your emotions soar when you listen to these creatures? Do you feel as I do when I hear a magnificent voice or orchestra: 'My God! This is the greatest than any human being could aspire to!'? Iíd be interested to know."

Well! What a flurry of indignant replies that set off. Heavy metal worshippers and grunge apologists came out of the closet in alarming numbers, expunging the myth that all NZ libertarians were obliged to share Lindsay Perigoís record collection. (If only they were! Perigo may have momentarily lamented.) Among the many attempted justifications was this:

"Those grundge [sic], hip-hop, heavy metal and punk bands donít get hand-outs from the State. They are the embodiment of capitalism. They rise from nothing to become enormous success stories. They are wonderful examples of private enterprise in practice. Unlike the opera, orchestra, cultural and visual arts with their grants and subsidies. Even the radio stations in NZ specializing in classical music and opera rely on State funding. It is the former that I would label the flowers in this modern world of State dependency, towering above the ballet bludgers, orchestra cadgers and cultural performing arts parasites."

This is a bizarre rationale for promoting excrement at the expense of beauty. The issue here was never one of state funding. I would be the last person to defend the selective elitism of those who dispense tax loot to Concert FM, the NZSO, et al. (In any event, Iím not so sure that punk bands are immune to state hand-outs. Think of NaZis On Air-sponsored videos. After all, a culture that awards prizes to "haunting and provocative" semen-stained sheets is just as likely to reward its musical equivalent.)

No, the real issue here is why libertarians of all people would choose to glorify music that embodies a sneering, cynical and often violent attitude towards life. At its core is a profound loathing of anything resembling tenderness, romance or the wonder of the mind. Yet its appeal is by no means restricted to a tiny minority of the general public. Rap, for example, now outstrips country music in the United States, with its most obnoxious form - gangsta rap - enormously successful. A recent article by Val Aldridge in The Dominion detailed the rise of this new "music."

"In its simplest form it is an infectious sound played at ear-splitting volume that sends breakdancers into a joyous spin; more insidious are the hard versions with lyrics glorifying drugs, murder, crime, rough sex, rape, the constant denigration of women as 'hos'(whores) and bitches and language so explicit that to call it 'swearing' is too mild. A Wellington parent got a shock introduction to the genre. Her children, aged 10 and 12, returned home from listening to rap at a friendís house chanting the lyrics: 'Shut up bitch and suck my dick.'"

Gangsta Rappers such as the hugely popular Eminem do not require their audiences to think. Quite the contrary, in fact. Their music appeals to listeners precisely because of its anti-mind qualities. ("Your music is too intelligent," an acquaintance recently complained of my own preference for Puccini over Punk.) This is nothing new, of course. Punk, Heavy Metal - call it what you will - all cater to the disaffected and the vulnerable, with teenagers their easiest prey, as another contributor to the Libertyloop acknowledged.

"When I was a student nurse, some days were pretty bad, and hard for a previously very innocent 18-year-old to take: sad deaths, destroyed lives, heartbroken relatives. When I couldnít sleep for the mental pain, I used to go into a 'noise' bar, get as close to the band as I could, and dance the night away with a blare of noise such that I literally couldnít think - I didnít at that point want to. I wonder if there is a connection between love of music that does this to the mind among the young, and the youth suicide rate."

No doubt there is, if my own observations are anything to go by. I once knew a deeply unhappy young man who was drawn only to modern music that confirmed his bleak vision of life. This form of musical nihilism appeals in equal measure to the malevolent elements of society. I recall the dark cloud that enveloped Wellington in 1995 when the heavy metal band, AC DC, performed in the capital. It was horrible. Seemingly from nowhere came hordes of black jersey-wearing mob recruits. A palpable air of menace descended on the city. Naturally, there were the usual stabbings (almost 'de rigueur' at such concerts), prompting one local wag to comment wickedly: "Perish the thought, but if by chance a bomb were to fall on that audience, just imagine how much the national crime rate would fall!"

Not that operatic audiences - historically at least - have been immune to violence, either. Duels between supporters of rival prima donnas were commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries. But at least they were fighting about something worthwhile - such as which singer had the more beautiful voice. For that is the goal of the great operatic and classical composers: to show off the very best that humans can aspire to in melodic line, intensity of performance and beauty. Ah, I hear the punk-worshippers reply: "But our music has intensity!" Yes, but to what aim? To glorify life or to relish in its destruction? For at the very least, such music demands that its listeners abandon any sense of morality. There is a track entitled Kim on Eminemís latest CD in which the rapper boasts of killing his estranged wife in front of the coupleís daughter. Is that intensity enough for you? Depressingly, more than 50,000 copies of the album have been sold in New Zealand alone.

Of course there will be those who claim it is unfair of me to lump Punk and Rap into the same cesspool. Proponents of early Punk will have you believe the Sex Pistols represented a golden age of musical achievement. One Libertylooper declared his admiration for the groupís "originality and innovation," and "energy, power [and] emotion." I challenged him to give examples. After all, "innovation" to me does not usually entail vomiting on the stage and wearing a weird assortment of safety pins. Energy? Give me a break! Real energy involves filling a massive concert hall with your voice for two hours with nothing but your own set of lungs to support you. Compare that, I wrote, "with the pathetic whinings of a bunch of pimply, pasty Poms prancing about, all the while fellating their mikes." The apologistís response was swift:

"By innovation I mean creating and being the greatest exponents of the genre of Punk Rock. It did not exist before [the Sex Pistols] and they are still the greatest at it, they could blow any modern day Ska [?] Wanna-bes out of the water. Itís not apples with apples. Operatic music and Punk are different. Why shouldnít I challenge Jose Carreras to pick up a Fender and earn the respect of the mosh pit at the Big Day Out?"

Aside from the fact that Jose Carreras probably views earning "the respect of the mosh pit" with the same urgency that Lindsay Perigo places on becoming the life partner of Margaret Wilson, this is a sad excuse for lamentable taste. I struggle with the concept of Punk as a "genre"; to do so would give credibility to the inclusion of chainsaws and flushing toilets into our permanent musical vocabulary. (Though given Victoria Universityís predilection for such "innovation" - as Perigo himself has noted - I suspect it is already too late to stop the rot.)

Mercifully, however, it is not all doom and gloom. Among the Libertyloopers is Cameron Pritchard, a proponent of beauty in a sea of caterwauler-lovers. Despite his university education Cameron has retained the capacity to think, and he is quick to condemn "screaming voices and screeching guitars which actively discourage thought." The final word should go to him.

"I think thereís a similarity between [punk, etc] and the Nazi rallies. At the former, we observe masses of braindead youths (and elderly bogans) gathering to switch off their minds and replace thought with a kind of primal, group 'instinct' as they jerk their limbs away to the noise. At the latter, we again see masses of braindead people gathering to switch off their minds and replace thought with a primal, group 'instinct' as they raise their right arms to salute the Fuhrer. I think the parallels are not surprising. Both Nazism and most modern music are anti-thought. The worry is that my generationís excuse for music will deliver it into the hands of another Hitler in the future."

Sieg Heil, Rappers!

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