Today, the young, and the not so young, take rock and roll music very seriously. For many devotees, rock has a meaning beyond its obvious appeal to sexual anarchy and the abandonment of individual responsibility. It has a deeper significance which involves feelings of Paradise Lost and the need to re-establish a sense of spiritual oneness, the lack of boundaries, and the feeling that the whole world is one large community. A need to get back to The Garden.

German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche understood this feeling well. Nietzsche, after Thomas Aquinas, recognized that people must have joy which encompasses, but is more than, happiness or pleasure, and refers to a state of gladness, delight, rejoicing, and being filled. It is inextricably linked to perceptions of truth, goodness, and beauty, the focus of an age-old controversy. For some, the distinction of true from false, good from evil, beautiful from ugly is based on the very nature of things, and is measured in terms of its conformity to fact. Others take the opposite position. Various poor substitutes for joy have been created and many have been induced to accept some approximation of joy which does not satisfy their fundamental needs.

Vision of life

Some of the deepest fulfilments and joys are created by aesthetics, the force of beauty or what the individual perceives to be beautiful. Professor William Kilpatrick of Boston College writes in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, that proper education nourishes the imagination with rich, powerful, realistic images, on which the child can build a deep and adequate vision of life. Long after childhood, ethical behavior is still influenced by aesthetic preferences which attract the imagination. Any adequate analysis of moral behavior must consider the imagination as well as reason and volition or will.

No matter how brilliant an individual may be, his reason tends to be pulled along by his imagination and will. Many intellectuals in Britain, before the Second World War, led by an escapist imagination, refused to see what was coming despite the German arms buildup and warnings from Winston Churchill. The intellectual elite in both England and the United States refused, despite abundant evidence, to see the atrocities of Stalin’s regime because their imaginations had been captured by the utopian vision of Communism. Many Germans claim they knew nothing of the concentration camps and other Nazi horrors.

Today, society practises a similar type of averted vision and refuses to recognize modern, more subtle, totalitarian policies such as abortion, euthanasia, and other practices which threaten human life. The observance of little acts of self-deception let us glide past facts which might force us to reconsider our ways and outlook. This makes it difficult to break out of the cycle of distorted will, imagination and reason.

‘Attachment to virtue’

In a sense, all art, good or bad, contains moral lessons. Good art is faithful to the human condition. It is not escapist, illusory, or cynical and provides a revelation of ethical reality. Through the senses a child can come to love justice and wisdom long before he can grasp these concepts in their abstract form. In the words of Plato, the child may develop an “erotic attachment” to virtue which is not sexual but passionate, based on the attractiveness of beauty. In his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom mentions that the statues that graced the cities of Greece, attracted the young to the idea of nobility by the beauty of the hero’s body.

In post-industrial society, parents, teachers and others have, by default, allowed the entertainment industry to create in children an erotic attachment to all the wrong things. Rock music in particular, according to Bloom, does not channel emotions toward the development of passionate attachments to what is good, noble, and just, but instead pumps up emotions and inclines children away from self-control and encourages them to develop passionate attachments to their own needs, wants, and feelings. People like Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger become the heros, and the real heros, like parents and others who struggle every day to keep their promises and fulfil their responsibilities, are transformed into “chumps.”

Bloom has been criticized for failing to distinguish among various kinds of rock. The real question is not whether Bloom has presented a nuanced portrait of rock and youth but whether music has the profound influence on character formation that he along with Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, and Shakespeare claim. Few would argue that different kinds of music produce different effects on the soul. Gregorian chant does not have the same “soul” as rock. While Gregorian inspires prayer and contemplation, listening to the rock encourages shouting, stamping, whining, demanding, which most children seem to learn quite easily without musical inspiration.

Even at its best, the “soul” of rock is based on illusion which destroys imagination. It allows one to indulge in the expression of strong emotion while freeing him from the obligation of doing anything. Even at its most brotherly it is not up to the task of creating a real community because it yearns for a brotherhood that will come easily and not at the cost of self-discipline. In his book The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in The Mirror of Romanticism, Robert Pattison argues that the spirit of rock music is really the spirit of 19th century Romanticism with a heavier beat and a faster tempo. It is simply another version of the Rosseau belief that what is primitive is best, that it is possible to have a community in which everything can be done on instinct, everyone is free to express himself to the fullest, and that youthful passions do not need to be educated or transformed. The essence of romanticism is that it is never in love with a particular object or person but only with the feelings that person or object evokes. The Romantic spirit is fickle because it is in love with love and is always changing the object of its devotion in search of a new high. Its interest is in novelty and change and not in stability.

Performer’s ego

At its core rock is more concerned with the performer and his emotions than with the music. The song doesn’t matter and neither does the audience once it has paid its money to the rock promoter. It is essentially performance music which is not intended for participation but to dramatize the ego of the performer. Much of it is too idiosyncratic, exaggerated and unsingable by the average person. It denies its audience the opportunity to join together in song, which is one of the most powerful of all unifying experiences.

In return for giving up genuine participating, rock fans get to feel and show their own emotions if only through body language, like the performer on the stage. Some may engage in various forms of individual self-expression which do not involve singing such as: “Head banging” which involves a rapid jerking of the head from side to side to the beat of the music and “air guitar” whereby anyone who is so moved may stand up and start playing unreal riffs on an imaginary guitar. As Professor Kilpatrick states, at the beginning of adolescence the discovery of one’s emotional self may seem a profound discovery which few others have ever experienced or understand. Many young people would like to believe that this is a part of the self that most adults “just don’t understand.” Rock confirms their right to have and express strong, sensual feelings and tells them that “Your feelings are sacred, and nothing is set above them.”

The gullible rocker accepts the idea that he is the victim of society and custom whereby he is kept from his natural state of oneness with the universe by the sources of traditional wisdom — the church, the school, the government, and parents. Morally disarmed, it is relatively easy to convince him to throw off the cultural and sexual restraints which have been developed by society to protect the unwary from the unexpected consequences of their own destructive acts.

(Michael Farrell is a professor at the University of Quebec at Trois Rivières.)