August 28, 2006


American Idolatry (Spengler , 8/29/06, Asia Times)

Young people are as resentful as they are narcissistic, and the easily reproduced, droning complaint of country music satisfied both criteria.

The resentful country folk who formed the first audience for the now-dominant style in American music turn up in literature as noble, suffering peasants fighting for a traditional way of life, as in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Nothing could be further from the truth. American farmers were migratory entrepreneurs who did well during World War I, when agricultural exports surged, and very badly during the 1920s, when exports fell, and even worse during the 1930s. Country people were resentful because they were becoming poorer. That was unfortunate, but feeling sorry for one's self is no excuse to inflict the likes of Hank Williams on the world. The object of high art is to lift the listener out of the misery of his personal circumstance by showing him a better world in which his petty troubles are beside the point. What is the point of music that assists the listener in wallowing in his troubles? Some country-music fanciers no doubt will find this callous, and I want to disclose that I do not care one way or another whether their wife left them, their dog died, or their truck broke down.

Word-play aside, what does this have to do with idolatry? Resentment is simply an expression of envy, the first and deadliest of sins. Adam and Eve envied God's knowledge of good and evil, Cain envied Abel, Ishmael envied Isaac, Esau envied Jacob, Joseph's brothers envied the favorite son, and the Gentiles envied the nation of Israel. Why reject what comes from on high to worship one's own image, unless you resent the higher authority?

The culture of resentment runs so deep in the American character that the self-pitying drone of immiserated farmers, amplified by the petulant adolescents of the 1950s as a remonstration against parental authority, now dominates the musical life of American Christians. Not only Christian country, but Christian rock and Christian heavy metal have become mainstream commercial genre. I agree with the minority of Christians who eschew Christian rock as "the music of the devil", although not for the same reasons: it is immaterial whether Christian rock substitutes "Jesus Christ" for "Peggy Sue", permitting its listeners to associate putatively Christian music with secular music with implied sexual content. It is diabolical because the style itself is born of resentment.

There are American Christians who had no choice but to invent their own music, namely the African-American Church, whose spirituals are gems of rough-hewn beauty. It is no coincidence that black church music maintains the closest ties to classical music, and that the pre-eminence of African-American singers on the operatic stage stems from the music training of church choirs.

By and large, though, the evangelicals ought to know better. Americans, like the English, have Georg Frideric Handel's "Messiah" and other great classical works, and access to a musical tradition that is one of the supreme achievements of the human spirit. As I wrote in another context (Why the beautiful is not the good, May 17, 2005):

Pearls grow in oysters to soothe irritation; the high art of the West grew pearl-like in Christendom around an abrasion it could not heal: the refusal of mere humans to place all their hopes upon the promise of life after death. Christianity made Europe by offering the kingdom of heaven to barbarian invaders, while allowing them to keep their tribal culture. The high art of the West gave these rude men a presentiment of the kingdom of heaven and formed an authentic Christian culture opposed to pagan holdovers.

The Beautiful is not the Good. The Good is sui generis, independent of any beauty devised by human craft. But we willfully choose what is ugly over what is beautiful because we are ugly, and prefer to worship our own ugliness rather than the beauty created by an inspired few. That is not merely execrable bad taste. Ultimately it is a form of idolatry. The evangelicals' inability to rise above the ambient culture is their great failing.

Spengler perhaps underestimates the degree to which country music celebrates the quintessential American values. It ain't Bach, but Josh Turner's Long Black Tran and Johnny Cash's Man Comes Around are Good.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 28, 2006 11:18 PM

Spengler is as resentful as he is narcissistic, his snobbish droning complaint about country music satisfied both criteria.

Posted by: ic at August 28, 2006 11:42 PM

Handel's Messiah always brings a tear to my eye, as do many of the great Christian hymns, but as the Kris Kristoffersen song goes: "And if you don't like Hank Williams, honey, you can kiss my ass"

Posted by: Jason Johnson at August 28, 2006 11:44 PM

Maybe he just doesn't listen to it enough.

Posted by: oj at August 28, 2006 11:47 PM

The narcissistic resentment of which Spengler writes is typified by the savage NON SERVIAM of the twisted baseball cap. Thus does the resentful give vent to his or her rebellion aganist nature and nature's God, as much as by barbaric music.

It is a small thing, but it stands for a great thing. Furthermore it is, despite what the writer holds, a species of idolatry. The very reason the rebellious resent and defy reason and order is that they grasp at uncontingent autonomy, whereby the self is a god, the sole authority in the universe, "free" to be a slave to every sinful, base urge.

Understand this and you will have gained an insight into the culture wars of this age.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 29, 2006 1:21 AM

Country music is popular because it is the last refuge of a good tune. Try whistling modern pop music. You can't. But you can whistle country music. And the musicians still play their instruments live, which is a real rarity these days.

Maybe Spengler can't whistle and listens to the lyrics instead... Of course the words stink; nothing ruins a good tune faster than its lyrics!

The greatest music ever written was by J.S. Bach. For popular music, listen to the jazz of Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington.

For more recent music, Pat Metheny is a real treat. It is pop jazz with a spirituality and musical sensibility rare among anything "pop".

Posted by: Randall Voth at August 29, 2006 3:32 AM

Goethe jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 29, 2006 3:50 AM

Another guy who can't whistle.

Posted by: Randall Voth at August 29, 2006 5:36 AM

What an exquisite, artful rant! It ranks right up there with Muggeridge on sex and Bloom on rock music as a sublime expression of cranky social conservatism. It's both outrageously exaggerated and bang on the money, thus guaranteeing splenetic rages in reaction. Stuff like this gives a reason to go on living as the bones start creaking and the passions fade. How can anyone lose interest in this vale of tears when there are just so many wonderful modern things left to savage?

Gotta go. I'm trying to finish up my two volume tirade against the cell phone.

Posted by: Peter B at August 29, 2006 6:03 AM

Perhaps the poor chap was forced to watch George Hamilton as Hank Williams and his mind snapped.

Sarcasm not withstanding, from whence came the soulful music which pierced the heart of most listeners come into the head of an unschooled kid like Williams who was dead at 26 or the unparallel magnificence and complexity of what Mozart, another unlikely genius who died young, heard completely formed in his own head.

It takes a poet to describe how music affects us, not a crank.

Posted by: erp at August 29, 2006 7:32 AM

"Nobody knows the troubles I seen..."

"gems of rough-hewn beauty?"

Further demonstrating that critiquing pop music is a waste of everyone's time...right up there with writing about motion pictures, both foreign and domestic.

Posted by: Brian McKim at August 29, 2006 8:58 AM

I don't care who he is, but anyone who wants to make fun of both kinds of music (Country and Western) is fine by me, even if they have to do it from behind chicken wire.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 29, 2006 11:24 AM

"...I do not care one way or another whether their wife left them, their dog died, or their truck broke down."

Strawman argument. I listen to country all the time, have for years. I've not heard a song like that since the 1970's. And I think it was a parody then.

Posted by: Brandon at August 29, 2006 1:38 PM

"Jambalaya" sung by Hank Williams is the culmination of culture in the known world. Simply toe-tappingly wonderful.

Posted by: erp at August 29, 2006 4:05 PM

Given what passes for C&W these days, I suppose Spengler just hates popular music. When it comes to a culture of resentment, consider hip-hop.

Posted by: Ed Bush at August 29, 2006 4:24 PM

What would he think of Klingon opera?

Posted by: ratbert at August 30, 2006 12:04 AM

Well, all I know is

Once you're down in Texas
Bob Wills is still the King.

BTW - Best title I've ever heard for a C&W song:

She flung down my heart and stomped that sucker flat!

Posted by: Jack Okie at August 30, 2006 12:13 AM

"In fact, statistics show country fans to be more educated than either adult contemporary or rock audiences. Thirty-six percent of country fans have a college degree, as opposed to 30 percent for adult contemporary and 22 percent for rock fans" (Gene Edward Veith, Honky-Tonk Gospel, p. 11).

Posted by: chasid at August 31, 2006 11:55 PM