Allan Bloom was a 20th century scholar and philosopher with a conservative bent. This piece was written in response to his chapter on Music in his book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987. You don’t have to necessarily read it if you want to take my word for it that he said what he said. I actually wrote it for my Philosophy class and was received well by the professor (except I had spelled Bloom’s first name wrong). Without further ado, here is me cracking skulls:
In Allan Bloom’s essay entitled “Music”, he makes many claims about the nature and influence of rock music, specifically in regard to the sexuality of young people. Some of his initial thoughts are clearly stated and agreeable. Anyone can look at the numbers of record sales and see that classical music, his apparent choice, is nowhere near as successful as rock music. This, by itself, cannot be disputed. But, his lack of defining “rock music” and his resulting over generalizations make the argument that rock music’s sole appeal is to awaken teenage sexuality is both weak and myopic. In this response, I will focus on paragraphs 9-14 and 21, where Bloom reaches a climax of allegations toward the broader genre and explains further his idea that rock music is detrimental to society because of its deliberate, targeted attempts to take a young captive audience prematurely into their sexual awakening, either through sublimation or tacit permission. In this paper, I will attempt to point out some of the flaws in Mr. Bloom’s arguments as well as provide counter arguments that seek to disprove his summary hypothesis.
In paragraph 9, Bloom summarizes his position clearly by writing “…rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love…”. In this definitive statement, he either has chosen to mislead the reader or he is ignorant to the vastness of the rock genre and the myriad sub-genres that rest beneath. No one who has been exposed to the works of Bob Dylan, whose poetry comes alive in song, can say that his works of the 1960’s were about sexual desire. One of his most prolific songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, is more of a call to the listeners for introspection than it can ever be said to encourage voyeurism. The Godfathers of Heavy Metal, Black Sabbath, can also be used to disprove Bloom’s accusation. Nowhere in songs like “Iron Man” or “War Pigs” is there a call to youngsters to masturbate or to engage in any sexual behavior. Instead, they appeal to those who may be fearful of war and its impact on humanity. While it can certainly be said their music was dark, it was the echo of what people felt in the wake of the Vietnam War. Both Dylan and Sabbath had expressed what the peace movement had already communicated, albeit in two completely different styles while under the same umbrella. Bands like KISS have certainly made a good living off of selling sex through song, but to compare them with the symbolism and meaning behind a Nobel Laureate’s work would be disingenuous.
Bloom continues in paragraph 10 by observing “The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire…” Again, he shows himself as someone who over-generalizes and lacks the proper inspection to be taken seriously. One of the more popular songs of 1982, “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls, is a song about love lost and does not mention a single instance of “implicit or explicit” descriptions of bodily acts more than a touch to the face. Bloom feels that the sexuality he observes in rock music “has a much more powerful effect than does pornography.” But taking the lyric from “I Ran”, “Reached out a hand to touch your face…”, and plugging it into his equation, his conclusion instantly becomes inane and, therefore, loses most, if not, all authority. I can cite more examples, especially from bands in the progressive rock genre such as Yes, early Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd and even Bloom would be hard pressed to find an example in any of their opuses that “describe bodily acts” of sexual desire.
He continues his rant, expanding his objections into the next paragraph by writing that the “three great lyrical themes: sex, hate and smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love” are what rock music is about. He goes so far to look down on the philanthropy of the “We are the World” effort in 1985 and further states, “Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such a tableaux.” I think he and I agree would certainly agree that it wasn’t the most skillful song, but to question it’s intent is beyond the pale. What is his idea of nobility then? Would it not be noble to raise over $50 million for starving children in a suffering country such as Africa? As far as saying that nothing can be profound or sublime in rock music, I have to ask Bloom, is there nothing that is enlightening to be found in Joan Baez’s “At Seventeen” or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children”? Is “Your Song” by Elton John indelicate or tasteless? I would argue anything but, and those are all songs that fall under the rather large umbrella of rock and roll.
Confident that he has made his case, Bloom continues on to describe the effect, now that he has established his cause that rock is the driver for unbridled and untended sexuality among our youth. For him, the effect of this moral disintegration is the lack of progress. Opening on paragraph 12, he begins by providing the reader a scenario of a teenage boy who is listening to music while doing his homework and asserts that the boy has no appreciation for what he has access to. Bloom states, “He enjoys the liberties hard won, …he is provided comfort and leisure, …science has penetrated the secrets of nature…” and then asserts that the boy’s goals are to engage in “onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes music.” This is a brash and unfounded generalization. One can easily find that both men and women who appreciate this genre of music have aspired to and achieved becoming civil servants, scientists and great leaders of our time. We have all seen President Obama’s iPod playlists that includes artists such as rap star Common and the Beach Boys. It has yet to be shown that the former President has killed anyone’s parents or was interested in cross-dressing for fame’s sake. Bono, lead singer of U2, has received worldwide notoriety as a philanthropist, not as a cross-dressing masturbator. It is worth it to note again, that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for poetry. These men surely can be looked upon as successful on a global scale while rock music has been a major part of their lives. Progress has not slowed for them or for those they positively affect.
As Bloom accurately points out, rock music is played loudly, at times. But in both paragraphs 13 and 14, he describes this fantastic flowchart that begins with the volume of the music and ends in an eventual spiral out of control in paragraph 15 where the parents have lost all control over their “children’s moral education”. Such a dire prediction of a dystopian future brought about by music. How powerful it must be! He warns us “people of future civilizations will wonder at this and find it incomprehensible as we do the caste system, witch-burning, harems, cannibalism and gladiatorial combats.” He clearly is equating the influence of rock music to inequality, violence and barbarism in such a fearful manner that he is willing to go that far. It’s as if he is a victim himself of it’s power and now has found some prison-like enlightenment or he’s a former chain smoker pulling cigarettes out of the mouths of everyone he sees lighting up. I challenge this just by using the example of folk rock from the 1960’s peace movement in response to the Vietnam War. Artists such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and The Doors would hardly be viewed upon as anything but influential in promoting exactly the opposite of what Bloom suggests. More contemporary artists such as The Beastie Boys, who supported a free Tibet, and U2’s Bono, who has done work for Amnesty International among other charities, could not be seen as promoting the type of violence and inequality that Bloom prophesizes. A future civilization would see at least a glimmer of goodness and selflessness in that, no?
In the last paragraph, Bloom states that rock music is much like taking drugs in that it provides “premature ecstasy” and it “artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors – victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of truth”. This is one of his most severe indictments of the genre and the greatest encapsulation of his ignorance. Using some of the examples I’ve mentioned above, one can argue that peace, philanthropy, beauty, love and art are all abstractions that rock music has in one form or another shed light upon and has inspired others to continue and create on their own. By taking only the most extreme examples without acknowledging all parts of the whole Bloom does himself and his readers an injustice and denies them a path to find truth themselves. He simply cannot afford to let anyone experience beauty he does not see.
There are indeed cases to be made in support of Bloom. While there are many songs that have been published and classified as “rock” that show a fascination with sex and drugs, there are plenty more examples that would render his writing to be viewed as dishonest at best. Popular music, such as the music that is ever present on Top 40 charts, often contain lyrics that are overtly sexual or use double entendre, and the artists perform live wearing costumes that are hardly humble. I cannot dispute that and, in fact, agree that this may desensitize us to increasingly more extreme displays of sexuality. But, Bloom’s proclamations border on absolute certainty and, as I believe I have made the case, this is not the sum of what all rock music has to offer. Even taking into account that this essay was published in 1987, there are plenty of examples such as the ones I have listed that can be used to dispute Bloom’s strongly worded assertion that rock music is merely a device used to prematurely awaken teenage sexuality and that it encourages the actualization of sex drives in our most vulnerable. My plea to anyone reading his paper would be to expand their scope so that they may find the beauty and higher purpose of this music rather than judge it solely on the efforts of a few.