As quintessentially expressed in the imaginative universe of rock music, the popular avant-garde, all the vague resentments towards organized religion, hierarchy, and privilege, all the secular cravings and dreams of earthly paradise that had been planted and fermented in the depth of Michelet’s People for centuries and perhaps millennia, are brought together.
The Beatles’ hippie anthem ‘All You Need Is Love’ may certainly have an undercurrent of cynicism, but no cynical rebounds of the often inevitable kind described in the romantic dialectic by Babbitt could stop the Rousseauan mission, and the basic message of the sixties’ neoromanticism was in a sense, in its own way, seriously meant. This is the kind of seriousness which rock shares with all romanticism. Few poems or other expressions of élite art or philosophy capture the whole credo of the empty, secular, immanentist, and utopian pantheism described by Pattison better than John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – and no forced ironic quirks following his own vague perception of simplistic naiveté prevented his dreaming in this song from being accompanied by the most palpable activism.
But we have also seen that Pattison shows how among the traditional cultural categories and distinctions that pantheism dissolves is that of tragedy, [This is of course implied also in Lasserre’s criticism.] and that Peckham argues that with Nietzsche, romantic modernism moves “beyond the tragic vision”. In this state, which was the postmodern one where all objective distinctions of reality were suspended or dissolved in the pantheistic process, the whole content and meaning of art, which previously depended on these distinctions, is ultimately reduced, if not to sheer nonsense, at the very least to triviality.
Pattison argues that the efforts of middle-brow modernist avant-garde critics to “ennoble rock by discovering in it the direct influence of art music” is sabotaged by the deliberate, provocatively vulgar stance of the rock musicians themselves. The romantic origins are the same; “In its love of technological noise as in everything else, rock follows the Romantic avant-garde, and it is no accident that the appearance of rock coincided with the great age of experimental music in America, the 1950s. The theories of the experimentalists are shot through with a love of the primitive, with oriental mysticism, with insistence on feeling, and with a desire to relocate performance in self – the hallmarks of rock mythology as well. The experimentalists are the linear descendents of European Romanticism, and not only do they share a 1950s art geist with rock, but a common ancestry in Romantic theory.” Yet rock is a mirror image of art music, “identical but transposed…identical in makeup but opposite in charge. What reverses the two is vulgarity.” [Op.cit. 130-1.]
Thus Frank Zappa, the pupil of Varèse, insists, to the horror of some critics, on undercutting “any refined suggestion in his work by a crudity as evident in the titles as in the substance of his music”. But even this situation soon probably belongs to history. The avant-garde is itself being submerged in the waves of the pantheism which it promotes, and significantly, in Ben Watson’s Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (1995), Adorno’s critical aesthetics is forced, with what is already perhaps only seemingly an ostentatious incongruity, into the service of the argument for the cultural relevance precisely of Zappa’s vulgarity.
Does it work? Is it not rather that today the remaining avant-garde, like romantic satanism, is reduced to mere entertainment? David Bowie says that “‘[p]eople like Lou Reed and I are probably predicting the end of an era…and I mean that catastrophically. Any society that allows people like Lou and I to become rampant is really pretty well lost.’” [Buckley, 214.] This may be true, but one has to ask what kind of revolution this is in reality. How serious is it? Does it really matter what Bowie says? Does anything matter in a thoroughly relativistic and nihilistic universe? Like Bowie, Mick Jagger and other surviving heroes of the sixties are shrewd businessmen. Rockers Mott the Hoople cite the romantic D. H. Lawrence: “If you make a revolution, make it for fun / Don’t make it in ghastly seriousness / Don’t do it in deadly earnest / Do it for fun.” [On the cover of the album Mott from 1973.]
Pantheism triumphs and takes Western culture beyond the tragic vision: “[R]ock chooses pantheism and says what Chuck Berry taught it to say: ‘Roll over, Beethoven…’”. Thus “the highest achievement of a rigorous pantheism like Whitman’s or rock’s is simply – ‘fun’”. Pattison shows how this difference between non-vulgar and vulgar romanticism is brought out in the – relatively complex – rock of Bob Dylan. “Fun” is
“the pleasure derived from a universe which is ourselves and which we cannot transcend because to know it is to be it…Chuck Berry’s is a universe that pivots on an untranscendent celebration of the energy I can extract from the present moment without recourse to anything but myself…The great rock song does not aim for permanence, insight, or rapture. Its virtues are transience, action, and feeling. Christopher Ricks cites Bob Dylan as evidence that ‘the best American poets convey the poignancy of there being nothing final’. He is right that Dylan’s rock stands in a vulgar American tradition of transience, but wrong that the effect of this tradition is poignancy, a word only a European would apply to American rock. Poignancy suggests a transcendent perch from which to mourn the impermanence of human existence. It is an emotion that high-toned poets deal in, not Bob Dylan, one of whose lyrical characters sings, ‘I might look like Robert Frost, but I feel just like Jesse James’. After the religious imagery of ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ and the mystic allegory of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, Dylan ended his John Wesley Harding album with the apparently incongruous country-rock ballad, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’…The troubles of the world enumerated in the lyrics of John Wesley Harding vanish in the rocker’s final commitment to the sensible present of tonight, and what Dylan tells his lover is what rock has to say to transcendental observers everywhere:
Close your eyes, close the door,
You don’t have to worry any more,
I’ll be your baby tonight.” [Op.cit. 197-8.]