(As published in WORLD ... )
HOLE IN OUR SOUL: THE LOSS OF BEAUTY AND MEANING IN AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC, by Martha Bayles, The Free Press, 453 pages, $25.
“The central argument of Hole in Our Soul," writes Martha Bayles in her book's first chapter, "is that the anarchistic, nihilistic impulses of perverse modernism have been grafted onto popular music, where they have not only undermined the Afro-American tradition, but also encouraged today's cult of obscenity, brutality, and sonic abuse."
While popular books by Rush Limbaugh and the late Allan Bloom have made similar arguments, Bayles' book is the one that will most likely have a serious impact on those whose opinions influence the way serious music lovers think: professors in liberal arts programs and professional music critics.
For one thing, unlike Limbaugh and Bloom, Bayles is hard to caricature. As a graduate of, and teacher at, Harvard, and as someone who's published articles in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, she's both a product of and a participant in liberalism's intellectual mainstream. She's also a woman who matured in or at least near the '60s, all of which makes her a difficult target for those whose arsenals consist mainly of the labels "right-wing," "patriarchal," and "reactionary."
In addition, she writes like a conservative. For although she takes pains to distinguish herself from social conservatives (who suffer from "genteel old-fashioned American philistinism"), neoconservatives (whose allies "suspect, without knowing much about it, that art is bad for 'family values'"), and libertarian conservatives (whose "opposition to censorship is matched by support for the legalization, without regulation, of pornography"), she directs her most lengthy and articulate arguments against liberals--multiculturalists and postmodernists especially.
"Multiculturalists wouldn't dream of asking non-Western peoples to give up their own standards of excellence," she writes. "That demand is reserved for the West, where it's no longer enough to admit that racial and sexual bias has historically led to mistaken negative judgments. Now the West's positive judgments must be damned as well, and its noblest works reduced to a residue of prejudice."
Similarly, according to Bayles, postmodernists--or "perverse modernists," the term she prefers--seek to sever the present from the best of the past. "Too often artistic modernism has sought ... a repeal of morality--in the name of the radical freedom needed to create a radical new culture ... without any of the old culture's imperfections." Elsewhere Bayles is clear to number Christianity among those pillars of Western civilization that perverse modernists are foolish to try to topple.
But Hole in Our Soul's greatest strengths are the author's genuine love for American popular music and her understanding of the history of esthetics, a history she summarizes better than any commentator in recent memory. In the chapter titled "Three Strains of Modernism," she traces the philosophy of art from Plato and Aristotle--both of whom saw art as subordinate to truth--to "the rationalists of the Enlightenment," who severed truth from both religion and art and "put art on the defensive." From there she follows art through Romanticism and the early Victorian period (when, as common enemies of science, religion and poetry became confused with each other) to Symbolism and Naturalism, which retreated from and denounced the world, respectively.
"[B]ecause both impulses," she writes, "are fundamentally antagonistic toward life as it is actually lived, their interaction ... precipitated a plunge into artistic perversity."
In this Bayles lays the groundwork for her detailed discussions of the developments of jazz, gospel, R&B, and soul, Afro-American music forms whose histories she convincingly reconstructs based on her understanding of what she calls the "blood knot," i.e., the complicated relationship between whites and blacks in the United States, particularly the South. According to Bayles, no theory of American popular music that oversimplifies this relationship makes sense. She argues, for instance, contrary to the popular myth, that instead of white culture exploiting black culture for the benefit of a few, both cultures have consistently exploited each other for the benefit of everyone. Hence her use of the term "Afro-American" in the first place.
Bayles also finds in Afro-American music a complex and essentially stoic worldview that incorporates humility, irony, and humor, a worldview that today's "gansta" rappers and many white dilettantes have reduced to nothing more than a passion for animalistic sex and violence. Her skill at articulating the true virtues of Afro-American music makes Hole in Our Soul as valuable in terms of positive, optimistic criticism as it is in terms of the negative.
The book's weakness is Bayles' inability to see anything at all of the Afro-American qualities she extols in the music of those she distrusts. With the exceptions of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and U2, this includes almost every well-known pop musician from 1965 to the present. By grounding her criticism of the Rolling Stones and Madonna, for instance, in an examination of their publicity stunts instead of their songs, she leaves herself open to the charge that she doesn't always listen closely to the music she dislikes. Even National Review had a few sober good words for the rappers Ice-T and Sister Souljah in the heat of their 1992 controversies.
That aside, Hole in Our Soul represents the clearest and most coherent explanation to date for why so many serious people experience ambivalence or confusion when confronted with American popular music, and why we can and should go beyond the muddle "to trace the roots of our present predicament to their true sources in the larger culture." When we do, according to Bayles, we'll discover why we dislike the music we dislike. We'll also discover that the music most worth listening to is the music that "does not pursue the goal of innovation to enervating, self-destructive, or nihilistic extremes."
"Above all," she concludes, "it does not forget that its original purpose was to affirm the humanity of a people whose humanity was being denied."