Closed-hearted Ranting on Pop

Kurt Cobain in the video of ‘In Bloom’

Closed-hearted Ranting on Pop

Roger Scruton's new book 'Music as an Art' is generous and insightful when it comes to some musics, but those moments are far too rare, writes James Camien McGuiggan.

The publication of a new book by Roger Scruton fills me with an anxious anticipation. His thinking really only ever goes one of two antipodal ways: marvellously perceptive, humble, and religiously serious; or so asinine and intemperate that you want to avert your eyes in embarrassment for him.

The first chapter of Music as an Art (Bloomsbury Continuum) – or essay, really, as the chapters are mostly self-standing – gave me hope: here is Scruton at his best, the depth and breadth of his philosophical and musical erudition brought to bear on what a tune is, and how it differs from things such as melodies and themes, but brought to bear in a way that is never overbearing, and which never occludes a profound musical sensibility. Here is one who has spent his life in love with music, gently inquiring into the mysteries of this art. Present also is Scruton’s ability to organically connect music to its present and historical social and somatic contexts, as when he notes the etymology of ‘ballad’ in the ballet dance (p. 16), or likens the melody at the end of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross to ‘two hands wrung in grief’ (p. 25).

It is frankly a joy to read. Other chapters are written by the same Scruton: ‘Music and the Transcendental’ dispatches an impossibly ambitious brief with clarity, sober sensibleness and sophistication; ‘German Idealism and the Philosophy of Music’ shows how judicious Scruton’s criticism can be when it is of those whom he respects; ‘Franz Schubert and the Quartettsatz’ conjoins encomium with technical analysis fluidly; ‘Nietzsche on Wagner’ is careful and scholarly, but the wood is never lost for the trees. And so on. He even has moments of generosity in his discussions of things anathema to him, as in ‘Film Music’ and ‘Pierre Boulez.’

These moments, however, are far too rare among the seventeen chapters. For the most part, when Scruton discusses those with whom he disagrees – the primary stalking-horses here are serialists, typified (somewhat unfairly) by Adorno and Boulez, and pop/rock music – he has little more to offer than straw men, snide dismissals, and pompous generalisations. This would be bad enough in a student, but in someone with Scruton’s readership, it is shamefully irresponsible.

Illogical Nirvana?
These are strong words, and so I would like to spend some time supporting them with a discussion of the most objectionable chapter, ‘The Culture of Pop.’

The first thing to be noticed is that it is not even roughly clear what Scruton means by ‘pop’ or (what he strangely seems to consider functionally identical) ‘rock.’ Music that is popular? But there is no mention at all of hip-hop, and decidedly niche bands such as Meshuggah are mentioned; this suggests that he has in mind some musical tradition. But if this is so, then his examples should surely be the best in this tradition, rather than second-raters such as The Verve and Mary J. Blige. And further, is Scruton then seriously suggesting that we can helpfully generalise over these three artists?

It might be objected that I am not being fair to ask Scruton to give a clear target. Perhaps he is sniffing out vices that tend to manifest in all sorts of popular music, and so we are better off considering his criticisms of particular works. So let us consider a specific piece of musical criticism. He claims that Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ typifies the ‘externalization of harmony’ endemic to pop: the chords ‘do not move but merely replace each other, since none of their notes bears any melodic relation to its successor… [they] succeed each other in exactly the arrangement that is implied by the shift of the hand along the frets of the guitar, and in which the illogical sequence is led by none of the voices – not even the bass.’ (p. 235)

It is hard to know where to begin with this. In no particular order: first, the power chords of rock are more melodic thickening than harmonically functional, so to complain about the parallel fifths is just to mistake a stylistic feature for a systematic error. Second, there is not only a melodic logic to the progression of the main riff, but a blindingly obvious one, full of stepwise movement, a descending perfect fifth, familiar syncopation, etc. It is unusual, to be sure: the tonal centre is ambiguous, for instance, and Grohl’s drums, in their descending unpitched snare-and-tom answering sub-phrase at the end of each bar, somehow serve a melodic as well as rhythmic function; but – and this is the third point – it is not for Scruton’s ears, but all our ears, to determine whether these strangenesses are, as Scruton would say, illogical, or, as I would say, expressively potent. The song’s lasting place in the rock canon speaks for itself. 

Perhaps here Scruton would ask: ‘expressive of what?’ He occasionally intimates that pop is expressive, but that it is expressive of an adumbrated inner life – not the rich ‘sentimentality’ (p. 235) of bands such as The Beatles (pp. 242-4). So to the last point: to criticise Nirvana, of all bands, for not understanding tonal logic in the traditional way is to miss the whole bloody point: Nirvana’s minimalist grunge was (among other things) a response to this sentimentality, which Cobain saw as inauthentic, and which Nirvana parodied in the music video for this very song.

Virtues of classical and popular music
Responding to Scruton’s argument against pop in this way is to accept some of his descriptive characterisation of pop, but refuse to draw his evaluative conclusions from it. This, however, is to concede too much. It is true that some pop works as a spit in the face of received musical sensibilities, as Nirvana does; and Scruton is right to mark the limitedness of this response, even if he fails to do justice to the importance of this response within a larger musical and political context. (Nirvana are rightly part of a musical culture because adolescence is a part of life.) However, even those virtues that Scruton claims for classical music can be found also in popular music. 

First, Scruton talks of the value of extended musical argument (p. 6) – but for an example of this in the charts, we need look no further than Kendrick Lamar’s Damn: an album that can be played with reversed track order to tell a different narrative, and by which reversibility Lamar (on my reading) articulates what he takes to be the ineluctable curse of being a sinning mortal. Scruton also talks of the importance of tonal logic (chs 1, 5) – but hip-hop is the art of Sprechgesang, of the infinitely subtle rhythms and melodies of the human voice; in Eminem’s ‘Venom,’ every lilt, hesitation and cadence is musically meaningful. Finally, Scruton praises great composers for showing through music what cannot be said (passim, but esp. chs 3, 7, 9, and 10) – but this is exactly what Childish Gambino does in ‘Feels like Summer’: on first listen an easy summer tune, this is in fact a bitter resignation to our collective inability to prevent catastrophic climate change; the song’s tempo changing, when we realise this, from chillaxed to stagnant; the chords from sultry to suffocating.

The music of the future
I do not deny that much popular music is thin gruel or worse. However, my examples are not cherry-picked: they are all from the past year or so, have won accolades from pop’s institutions, and have been viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube. They are as much popular music as anything is. Scruton writes in ‘The Music of the Future’ that ‘[w]e must tell ourselves that it is possible to be modern without being avant-garde’ (p. 223). He is not wrong, but what he doesn’t know is that this music of the future is already here, and it does not need any advice from him.

Scruton is inestimable on the eternal music of the past; but his criticism of pop has not developed in the over twenty years since The Aesthetics of Music, and is, now as then, tired, closed-hearted ranting.

Music as an Art by Roger Scruton is published by Bloomsbury Continuum.

Listen to a playlist of the songs mentioned in this review below.

Published on 31 October 2018

James Camien McGuiggan holds a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. Prior to this, he studied music in Maynooth University. He is currently an independent scholar, with interests in the philosophy of music and R. G. Collingwood.

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