Scare Tactics

scary music photoThis is the final week of the semester for the rock and roll history class that I teach for general humanities credit on the main Johns Hopkins campus. In this class, as we move through the various eras, we constantly see society lamenting the new musical styles in the belief that they will lead their children down what Count Basie quoted the contemporary haters of jazz as calling the “primrose path to hell.” So that the students will realize that this phenomenon was not new with Elvis and the first generation of rock and roll, we trace prior styles as far back as ragtime, which was dubbed “cheap, trashy stuff [that] could not elevate even the most degraded minds, nor could it possibly urge any one to greater effort in the acquisition of culture in any phase.” Similar invective was applied to such dissimilar styles as jazz, rockabilly, psychedelic rock, heavy metal, punk, and rap (among others).

Those of us in the experimental world have heard tales about horrified reactions to various premieres, including the famous Rite of Spring riots, Slonimsky’s conducting of Ionisation at the Hollywood Bowl, and several works of John Cage. The first complete performance of Satie’s Vexations was so notorious that it even led to one of the pianists involved, John Cale, and the sole audience member who stayed for the entire concert being featured on the game show I’ve Got a Secret.

In the past two decades, I cannot think of a single instance of a musical style—whether experimental or otherwise—frightening the public. Where is the new version of punk and its associations with anarchistic youth running amok? Where is the experimental music that causes society to take notice, in order to condemn its nature? Within this time frame, the art world has given us the controversies over the Mapplethorpe retrospective, the Andres Serrano Piss Christ, and the Chris Ofili The Holy Virgin Mary, but no similarly controversial music. Where the art world’s provocations continue to be met with society’s approbation, the general public seems surprisingly willing to simply ignore the music they find distasteful. In today’s world, is it possible to create music that will frighten the world into taking notice? Or have we seen the end of music that scares people?

While I remain confident that experimental music will continue to develop outside of society’s gimlet view, I worry that this situation might be dire for the future of rock and roll. At heart, rock always has been a music of rebellion, the teenager’s cry against the cruelness and unfairness of a world ruled by their elders. If the youth can’t shock their parents, then what remains for rock and roll?

Within the new music community, a great deal of effort is being applied towards creating a new mode of expression that welcomes people into it, that reaches out towards the engaged listener. Perhaps the lack of frightening popular music has left us with an opening. Perhaps we should try shock and fear. Perhaps our best chance at reaching new listeners is to instead try to scare people away.

7 thoughts on “Scare Tactics

  1. Ian Dorsch

    Many of today’s parents came of age with some pretty shocking stuff, from gangster rap to black metal to industrial to hardcore techno. I have a hard time imagining how my kids could come up with music that is horrifying enough to top the albums that are already on my shelf.

    I would imagine that for a lot of parents that grew up on the harder-edged popular music of the 90s, it takes the prospect of their kids listening to Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus to inspire genuine fear.

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  2. Brian

    People have many more options these days, more streams of information, more purveyors of culture. If something is offensive and/or not appealing to them, it’s possible to just look the other way, to click somewhere else, and never have to deal with it again. Fear as a marketing tactic only seems to work in politics.

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  3. Joseph Holbrooke

    “In the past two decades, I cannot think of a single instance of a musical style—whether experimental or otherwise—frightening the public.”

    Apparently you missed the recently released Lou Reed / Metallica collaboration. The public seems properly frightened.

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  4. Armando Bayolo

    Along the lines of Joseph’s comment, the Christmas album Bob Dylan released last year was received with a great deal of shock and consternation.

    I think, however, that Brian has it exactly right. The fragmentation of music thanks to the internet and other media outlets means people can get a hold of any music they like and completely ignore anything that frightens them of which they find distasteful in any way. Perhaps it’s the ephemeral nature of what we do that makes music different in this sense from the visual arts. In the visual arts there is, after all, something tangible to point at in disdain. What’s there in a piece of music? Once it’s played, it’s done until it’s played again! Also, music (even the most middle of the road, lyrically concrete pop) is essentially abstract (I consider it the absolutely most abstract of art forms, but I’ve been known to be wrong about these things) while even the most abstract visual art still presents the audience with a concrete set of symbols that can be represented, interpreted and misinterpreted in far more tangible and perhaps more seemingly obvious ways.

    Whether this is a good or bad state of affairs, however, I cannot say.

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  5. Chaz

    The issue with Serrano (at least in my understanding) was not that it was offensive, but that it was offensive and funded by the governmant. Not a lot of black metal or goth rap is funded by the government so the general concensus of “kids will be kids” seems to be prevalent. Also, there seems to be an almost universal sense of apathy towards the edgy in the world of culture.

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  6. Robert

    I can think of a few off hand.

    Górecki: Symphony No. 3
    Adams: Death of Klinghoffer

    I agree totally about rock and roll being threatened, and the potential opening it provides for us to embrace audiences in a meaningful way.

    I think over the past 30 years or so, as contemporary classical started to put forth works which the public embraced more readily than the highly organized but atonal works of the post-war period, that there was an unmentioned, subconscious wish that a new ‘style’ would emerge that helped classical music reclaim its former mantle of king of the arts as we surmise it did in Mozart and Beethoven’s time. Although there has clearly been a return to tonal elements, and regular rhythm, style still varies quite a bit in our time. And the most popular of all musical elements, melody, is our latest frontier. That the singable tune need not be met with disdain by art-musicians is a worthy technical and emotive challenge.

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