Robert Pattison: The Triumph of Vulgarity

Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism

Oxford University Press, 1987


The Triumph of Vulgarity in a thinker’s guide to rock ‘n’ roll. Rock music mirrors the tradition of nineteenth-century Romanticism, Robert Pattison says. Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” can still be heard in the punk rock of the Ramones, and the spirit that inspired Poe’s Eureka lives on in the lyrics of Talking Heads.
Rock is vulgar, Pattison notes, and vulgarity is something that high culture has long despised but rarely bothered to define. This book is the first effort since John Ruskin and Aldous Huxley to describe in depth what vulgarity is, and how, with the help of ideas inherent in Romanticism, it has slipped the constraints imposed on it by refined culture and established its own loud arts.
The book disassembles the various myths of rock: its roots in black and folk music; the primacy it accords to feeling and self; the sexual omnipotence of rock stars; the satanic predilictions of rock fans; and rock’s high-voltage image of the modern Prometheus wielding an electric guitar. Pattison treats these myths as vulgar counterparts of their originals in refined Romantic art and offers a description and justification of rock’s central place in the social and aesthetic structure of modern culture. At a time when rock lyrics have provoked parental outrage and senatorial hearings, The Triumph of Vulgarity is required reading for anyone interested in where rock comes from and how it works.
“This is the most brilliant study yet written of the modern phenomenon of rock music.” – National Review

“An articulate elucidation of rock ‘n’ roll as the heir apparent to 19th-century romantic pantheism…Makes a convincing case for rock as the central aesthetic manifestation of our culture…Pattison writes amusingly and his rock ‘n’ roll fever is infectious.” – Kirkus Review

“A provocative, opinionated study about the origins of rock and about rock as an idea.” – Library Journal

About the Author:

Robert Pattison is Professor of English at Long Island University. Among his other books are On Literacy, Tennyson and Tradition, and The Great Dissent.

JOB’s Comment:

Yes, this is by far the best book on rock music, and a good book on romanticism too. Pattison makes reference to Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism and seems strongly influenced by his analysis, although he does not share his assessment. He should have shared more of his assessment.

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