This 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.