Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Triumph of Vulgarity

We live in a vulgar age.  Vulgarity celebrates youth and energy, demands authenticity, and exalts feeling and sensation as the essential components of the life fully lived.  Refinement, by contrast, values maturity, discrimination, silence, and contemplation.  Vulgarity is intrinsically egalitarian, while refinement is inescapably elitist.  According to Robert Pattinson, the hegemony of vulgarity in modern culture is the product of the ascendance of Romantic pantheism, where pantheism is understood as the religion of immanence.  The ritual music of Romantic pantheism - and its ultimate distillation - is rock 'n' roll.

Pattinson's judgement-free exploration of the cultural roots of rock finds in the triumph of rock music a headlong flight from reason and refinement into an irrational barbarism without inhibitions or limitations.  In his account, however, this is not the product of an invasion from without, but entirely a development from within Western culture, appropriating tools from other cultures.  He contends that the African-American roots of rock have been primarily used as a founding myth which exploits the African as a totem for the primitive.  Rock's early critics denounced the music as promoting "animalism and vulgarity", but, in Pattison's eyes, that was precisely what made rock so compelling - it provides an escape from the confines of civilization into a savage paradise where each man is the center of his own universe.

The book, like its subject, is full of energy, but somewhat ambiguous and sloppy.  Pattinson explicitly acknowledges the problem with citing works from a wide array of musicians with extremely varied styles, backgrounds, and worldviews.  Similarly, he recognizes that there is a refined as well as a vulgar Romanticism, and that the tradition includes transcendentalism as well as immanentism, but generally he uses all of these works indiscriminately.  On the other hand, he makes what seems to be a rather too definite division between the myth of the transgressive rocker and the supposedly much more mundane reality.  Finally, one might question whether his analysis still holds true in an era where hip-hop has eclipsed rock, although his case is bolstered by the manner in which the cults of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, like those of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, have joined those of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin - and Shelley, Byron, and Keats.

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