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Review: The Triumph of Vulgarity

September 7, 2016

Vulgarity is understood to mean indecency, obsceneness, and lewdness; but this is the vulgar definition of the word. The classical meaning of vulgar is of or pertaining to the common people, unrefined, undiscriminating, and accessible to all. The title—The Triumph of Vulgarity—captures the paradoxical nature of Robert Pattison’s examination of American culture through the lens of rock—it is a refined, discriminating, and narrowly accessible discourse on music that celebrates the opposite of those qualities.

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Pattison contends that rock is “the music of triumphant vulgarity” and “the liturgy of vulgar pantheism.” A reflection of nineteenth-century Romanticism, rock is “America’s most powerful weapon and most successful export.” Having received the embrace of both “high” and “low” classes in less than thirty years since its inception in the American south, vulgar rock has triumphed over the long tradition of humanity’s refined culture, embodied by the work of poets and artists from Homer to Wordsworth. Pattison’s claims hold implications for culture, society and politics, and are as worthy of consideration today as when Vulgarity was published thirty years ago.

Again, the book is paradoxical. The central revelation—“vulgarity has triumphed”—personifies vulgarity, like the Nike of Samothrace, and positions it over its enemies. This personification is a kind of metaphor commonly used in Classical and Romantic literature to uncover otherwise hidden or obscured truths; but the vulgarity that has triumphed scorns such revelatory talk. Pattison writes, “Vulgar is not a word in the vulgarian’s lexicon because he has no transcendent vantage from which to make the implied distinction between the ordinary and the cultured.” That vulgarity has triumphed is not a cry of exultation before the masses, but a frank revelation—perhaps a bitingly sarcastic one—given to those who speak the language of classical poetry—the cultured and the refined. The opening lines of the first chapter capture this irony with brilliant wit.

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The Nike of Samothrace

What follows is a beautifully articulated description of vulgarity and refinement, the history of pantheism, and its necessary connection with vulgarity and rock. The author’s stated methodology is “not to condemn [vulgarity], which has been done without success, but to describe it, which has yet to be undertaken.” Pattison’s description of pantheism overlaps with what some term “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” today—“Pantheism is necessarily vulgar because it rejects the transcendence from which refinement springs, because it delights in the noisy confusion of life, and because it sacrifices discrimination to eclecticism.” The author enumerates the positive features of rock’s vulgar pantheism—infinite tolerance, personal contentment, and outrageous energy, fun, and humor.

The examination of the mythology and pantheist ideology of rock that unfolds in subsequent chapters is challenging, even-handed, and hilarious. The tone long remains objective, however momentous may be the implications of vulgarity’s triumph. In the last two chapters, the author opens his mouth for the voiceless, articulating for the rocker a defense against the Marxists, psychologists, and fundamentalists that have attacked rock. In the end Pattison rebukes his academic peers and President Reagan’s Secretary of Education who “lust after foreign models of culture,” and counsels the few American “champions of refinement” that remain to pay tribute to triumphant vulgarity, which merits no more or less respect accorded to the “prophet of vulgarity” who anticipated the spirit of rock, Walt Whitman.

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Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Make the Most of Vulgarity?

Pattison says “vulgarity is here to stay.” He asks whether we can escape the fate of Rome given “the probability that civilization cannot survive vulgarity.” He estimates that “if vulgarity is without redeeming features, then civilization is lost, because the triumph of vulgarity is assured.” In his satire of American vulgar culture, he imagines a bitter end: “Civilization would pulsate briefly in the throes of anarchy, lapse into the paralysis of overindulgence, and pass finally into the void beyond mind, taste, and decency.” Despite the apparently grim prognosis of culture, the author’s suggestion is to “make the most of it,” and appreciate what redeeming features vulgar pantheism has to offer. There is an implied fatalism in this perspective, despite the appeal of vulgar pantheism’s benefits. Paraphrasing Wordsworth, Pattison says, “We cannot stop at vulgarity unless we are prepared to die in our souls, any more than the child can prevent his growth to manhood unless he is prepared to die in his body.” To accept vulgarity without moving beyond it is to substitute death for eternal life, according to Wordsworth. But his transcendent Romanticism is dead, Pattison says. Meanwhile, the “bastard” version of Romanticism, “unwilling to grow up,” is alive and well in rock. In his commitment to ideological consistency, Pattison offers his cultured readers two unattractive choices—continue to hope in the dead vision of self-transcendent refinement, or make the most of vulgarity’s triumph. It may be that the choices are not quite so stark if traces of transcendent Romanticism can still be found even in triumphant rock.

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William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Is Rock Necessarily Solipsistic?

Pattison states frankly that rock music is self-centered, solipsistic. This is largely undeniable, but surely some songs under rock’s wing are nothing of the sort—“You’ve Got a Friend,” by James Taylor/Carol King; “Don’t Give Up,” by Peter Gabriel; “Tangled Up Puppet,” and other Harry Chapin songs about fatherhood, “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton, etc. The list is long when rock is taken as a blanket term for post-mid-century popular music. In the nineties and beyond, hip hop songs such as “Unconditional Love” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” by Tupac, “Runaway Love,” by Ludacris make the grade of “vulgar” but self-transcending popular music. If the broad definition of rock is just, then without qualification it has become the musical idiom of American culture; but though rock was birthed as a willful reaction to the moralistic strictures of “respectable” society, it is not necessarily fated to remain the music of self-preoccupied youth. Perhaps in the rock idiom there is no way to denote the sort of joy, rapture, and ecstasy that, Pattison notes, is the subject of refined works like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and still remain rock. These qualities, indeed, belong to a world of transcendent values, which vulgar pantheism denies. But if the rock idiom is limited by a vocabulary that does not include “joy,” “rapture,” and “ecstasy,” musicians may yet denote those or similar ideas in whatever capacity the language does allow. In fact, the limitations of the vulgar language may permit a form of expression that was denied to Beethoven because his language was limited in other ways. James Taylor can informally deliver lyrics embodying brotherly love before relaxed audiences in the concert hall or living room. He can sing comfortably without projecting vibrato or displaying refined poetic craft, as a solo baritone reciting Schiller. He can use his catchy rock syncopations, warm major seventh chords, vernacular American English, and hint nothing of solipsism.

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Though rock was born as the music of self-preoccupied adolescence, it may, for better or worse, move beyond that stage. Steven Tyler and the Stones celebrate rock’s myth of eternal youth—examined by Pattison—to the present day; but Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) has expressed his monist worldview using the rock idiom, and Bob Dylan has opened the Great American Songbook of his generation’s sires. These examples, of course, come decades after Vulgarity was published, but they are living proof for today’s readers that rock is not necessarily solipsistic. Old and young artists, whether a minority or no, continue to prove otherwise.

It is highly likely, however, that certain subgenres of rock lend themselves more to self-transcendent expression. “You’ve Got a Friend,” for one, belongs in the soft or folk rock categories. It is less likely that psychedelic rock or heavy metal should fall short of self-glorification. This is no pejorative comment per se. Pattison has made the case compellingly that, as vulgar pantheist, the true rocker would either welcome the indictment of solipsism with alacrity or else shrug at it with indifference. Pattison’s contention that it is impossible to make the liturgy of vulgar pantheism “respectable” must be granted—but all rock music may not constitute that liturgy.

Does Rock Music Have No Effect On Its Listeners’ Behavior?

Pattison demonstrates that rock is “impervious to the diatribes” of its accusers. Answering charges that rock correlates with violence, immorality, and crime, Pattison argues that there is a gulf between what rockers feel and what they do. Like religious believers, they can “live a full emotional life inside the myths, not in the danger of external events.”

The traditional metaphysician may argue that under true vulgar pantheism, morality disappears. The “kindness, decency, and toleration” of which Whitman was a model become matters of personal preference, and cannot logically be superior to their opposites. Thus Charles Manson cannot truly be condemned for his violent intentions and murders, apparently inspired or exacerbated by the Beatles’ proto-metal song “Helter Skelter,” because to condemn him or anyone else is to stand in the transcendent place and look down like a judge on hateful deeds—but that place is supposed to be illusory under vulgar pantheism. So the one who approves not only the mythic celebration of violence in music, but the enactment of it in the real world as something neither better nor worse than Whitman’s kindness and toleration holds the most ideologically consistent view under vulgar pantheism.

But if the rocker who maintains the moral rectitude of his Romantic predecessors is accused of contradiction for claiming “nothing is forbidden, all things are permitted,”and meanwhile holding signs that say “fuck war,” the response available to him, Pattison says, is a spate of nonsense syllables. “Rock in its vulgarity,” he articulates, “wants no part of eloquence or logic.” Whether this constitutes a defeat of the rocker’s ideology can only depend on one’s  predetermined system of values. Insofar as logical consistency and articulateness are good, the rocker loses; insofar as unfettered commitment to the expansion of infinite self is good, the traditional metaphysician loses.

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In any case, while the suggestion that rock inspires violent intentions in those who have not already entertained them may indeed remain nebulous, it cannot be that rock (or any other kind of music) is without effect on its listeners. If so, it is meaningless to speak of it as a “powerful weapon.” Pattison writes, “Any connection between rock mythology and the behavior of large numbers of people is unproven and probably unprovable.” And yet earlier he states that the rocker’s apathy toward capitalism “translates into decreasing percentages of voter participation and detachment from public debate and gainful employment;”and later he cites the marked decrease in church attendance that has coincided with the advent of rock. Whether either of these trends are good or bad, again, depends on a predetermined value-system; but if rock helps create or sustain apathy toward religion and politics, then it is not, as intuition seems to confirm, without effect on the behavior of its listeners. Its status as a powerful force is evident in the real world.

Is Civilization Doomed?

Pattison claims that rock is the product of vulgar American democracy, which is premised on self-interest and liberation from authority. In his words, the American revolutionary myth prizes the same values stressed in rock’s liturgy under the names “democracy, pluralism, individualism, limited government, manifest destiny, and civil rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” American democracy, he states, provides “an ideal setting for the growth of romantic pantheism.” Those in American leadership who wish to “save America from its own vulgarity” live in contradiction, because it is impossible to disdain vulgarity while supporting “the democracy out of which it grows.” That the political system of the United States explains the vulgarity of its popular culture is a point well taken. De Tocqueville, Pattison notes, foretold it before the Civil War, and Arthur Sullivan, he observes, trembled prophetically at the prospect of Edison’s talking machine putting great power into the hands of the vulgar masses.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Donald Trump (b. 1946)

Perhaps the American Experiment of democracy has proven that, especially after the Industrial Revolution, vulgarity trumps refinement; but to undercut those who would encourage American citizens, particularly children in the context of education, to move beyond vulgarity is surely fatalistic. Those whose commitment to self-transcendence is absolute may take heart that Jefferson, with Adams, envisioned an America led by the “aristocracy of virtue and talent,” that the political system is not immutable if people are willing to sacrifice for the possibility of achieving a more perfect union; they may respond to Longfellow’s exhortation in his “Psalm of Life” to summon one’s commitment to higher things, and reject the authoritarianism or moralism that serve to stoke the flames of the very vulgarity it seeks to quell. They may do all this and not be guilty of lusting after foreign models of culture. Artistically, Americans have many examples of culture-creators past and present whose work moves beyond vulgarity—Samuel Barber,  John Coltrane, Leonard Bernstein, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Whaticre, to name a few. A fatalistic response to the truths, realities, and powerful myths described in Pattison’s work is not the only response available.

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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Conclusion

Pattison’s analysis of rock as idea offers unique perspective that thinkers and creators of today ought to consider. His command of world literature and assimilation of a broad spectrum of scholarship inform the challenging discourse presented in Vulgarity. The book succeeds brilliantly in relating the underlying philosophical divisions that are reflected in contemporary music, culture, and even politics. Pattison states that, “American democracy necessarily grows more not less vulgar.” Using popular culture and the RNC as the barometer, who can deny that this statement has already proven accurate in the thirty years since Vulgarity was published? While artists, educators, and critics that still value refined craftsmanship must look squarely at the stark reality around them which Pattison has described, they may yet—perhaps they must—contribute to culture in ways that move beyond or coopt vulgarity, whether or not its broader triumph is absolute.