I first posted this over at GaragePunk.com, so I figured why not put it here too:
It is typical of Marxism to view art and culture as a epiphenomena (“superstructure” I believe is the correct jargon) of economics. The first Marxist art critic was Marx himself, writing in “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”:
. . . is Achilles possible side by side with powder and lead? Or is the Iliad at all compatible with the printing press and the steam press? Does not singing and reciting and the muses necessarily go out of existence with the appearance of the printer’s bar, and do not, therefore, disappear the prerequisites of epic poetry?
I find it somewhat strange that the Iliad should not be compatible with the invention that made it available to millions for the first time, but the Homeric epic was originally the creature of an oral culture, so something is inevitably lost in translation. At any rate, though I reject economic determinism as a species of scientism, there is something to be said for looking at economic relations vis-a-vis the art forms associated with them, or looking at the medium as well as the message.
So what does this have to do with Rock and Roll. Well, Camille Paglia has written about it, connecting Rock with Romanticism, yet without that movement’s typically reactionary take on technology. She sees it (as a subspecies of pop music generally) as having a kind of therapeutic function in industrial capitalism:
Nature’s clock ticks behind technology’s facade. Try as we will to perfect society’s gleaming latticework of metal and microfiber, we are hostage to our stubborn bodies, which still pulse to primeval rhythms.
Modern culture has been obsessed with speed since the invention of the steam-powered locomotive in the early 19th century. Our sense of space has progressively contracted and collapsed because of our ability to cross huge distances with magical effortlessness. Many chronic stress-related medical complaints are certainly aggravated by this headlong pace, which has disrupted our physical perception of time.
My theory is that the massive rise of rhythmically intense pop music over the past 70 years is partly due to our urgent need to reset our inner clocks to match this new world. Similarly, the modern pornography industry serves an important function in reorienting our high tech consciousness toward our baseline identity in the fleshly and the organic. Love poets in the lascivious carpe diem tradition have always known time is transient, written in the human body, which blooms only to decay.
-Camille Paglia, “Rock Around the Clock”, Forbes 11/30/98
Paglia celebrates Rock and other pop-culture phenomena. But where she sees “an important function” a Marxist would likely see incorporation into an insidious system (“the rhythm of the iron system” in Adorno’s words) and a conservative, it almost goes without saying, sees decadence and degeneration. Rock and Roll is both primitive and capitalistic (by this I mean a market phenomenon, which is not necessarily the same thing as what we often mean by “Capitalism”), which is why old-school (pre-1960’s) Marxists and conservatives have united in abhorring it. Defenders of State Capitalism (to say nothing of the creators of the music themselves) have not necessarily seen it that way. Roger Kimball, co-founder of the Neoconservative cultural magazine The New Criterion , updating the late Allan Bloom’s critique, writes ““rock music is a potent weapon in the arsenal of emotional anarchy.” As an anarchist, and a despiser of neoconservative politics more generally, I can think of no higher praise. And economist Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture looks at the anti-authoritarianism that inherently makes it suspect in the eyes of the state (not that we really need any intellectuals to point this out for us):
Just as Savonarola was one of the most perceptive viewers of Florentine art, so were the Soviet apparatchiks among the most perceptive analysts of rock. They understood that rock was pro-capitalist, pro-individualist, consumerist, and opposed to socialism and state control.
Of course anybody is free to like whatever music they happen to like, but I think that Rock and Roll is the most natural aesthetic corollary to libertarianism and anarchism.