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Steyn on Allan Bloom--20 Years After Closing

Mark Steyn delivers wit, insight, and a scathing critique of where we stand 20 years out from the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. It is, he notes with much sadness, particularly closed vis a vis music. His last two lines are the most damning: And that’s the biggest difference between 2007 and 1987. What Allan Bloom observed in his students can now be found in the teachers.   

Discussions - 19 Comments

Mainly focused on the music chapter...the link seems to be having trouble now, BTW. The subtitle is "We're All Rockers Now." Always good stuff in a Steyn piece, here, some great '63-'64 cracks against the Beatles from Newsweek and the writers of James Bond. And there's a particularly important observation on the fact that much popular music these days is not actually popular, but sells only to a highly specified niche audience.

But all in all, too grumpy a piece. The bottom line is, we're in a confused state about music right now, conservatives more so than most because the arguments we find in Bloom, or in All Shook Up are pretty convincing, and yet, our tastes remain stubbornly pop-tuned. We learn to appreciate classical music, but speaking for myself, we don't find that it (and here I particularly mean preRomantic classical music) gives us as much order to our souls as the classical argument derived from Plato or Aristotle would suggest. Not living in some Jane Austen-appropriate manor, the order we can give to our lives, with music as with other things, does get interrupted by the press of frenetic contemporary life. Also, our souls respond to Hadyn, Bach, and Vivaldi, but many times not quite as powerfully, it seems, as to Jack Teagarden, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, Count Basie, Carl Perkins, etc. This is before we even consider our greater attraction, at many times, to the high romanticism of Berlioz, Mahler, or Bloom's favorite example, Ravel's Bolero (we esepcialy like this one, because, acc. to Bloom, it's essentially about sex!) or perhaps, Led Zeppelin's Kashmir.

I've blabbed on before at NLT why a rock v. rock n' roll distinction is useful in thinking about these questions, in the course of such blabs I've connected the American, and really, Afro American, traditions jazz, blues, country, and r+b to rock and roll, and suggested that rock is a high-romanticist/deep-primalist departure from those traditions, and usually for the worse.

All of this is to basically say to Steyn, "Yes it sucks that we are all rockers and disco-ers now, and that classical music is on the wane big-time. However, for a long time most of us in America have been adherents of Afro-American music. Sometime around 1920, someone could have lamentingly said, 'We're all Scott Joplinists Now!' Our distinctly American music is also threatened by primitivist rock and disco, but we can't pretend that it didn't help pave the way for them. You praise Benny Goodman for being able to play and appreciate Mozart. Very good, and of course something similar could be said about Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and all the old jazz greats. But don't pretend that Benny and co. aren't a part of the reason we're where we are today. They got us into the night-club, and while they didn't foresee the disco, didn't foresee the musically illiterate-but-I-Pod-powered masses, that appears to be where they got us."

Such an argument is incomplete by a long shot, and I do NOT present it to advocate a simple return to the more sober forms of classical music, to rewind the clock to 1890, or 1750, but to soberly address where we are, and without Steyn's useless pique towards liberal baby-boomer teachers who gush on about the Beatles. Where we are musically has something to do with African rhythmnic sophistication, something to do with the glories of classical music, something to do with America and its freedom/slavery tensions(and also w/ its freedom/religion tensions), and something to do with the decline of aristocracy (in the Tocquevillean sense). Figuring out how to get out of the musical rut we're in, or how to keep ourselves from heading in the direction of ever-more-homogenized World-Disco, obviously involves a return to some of the strengths of classical music, and the maturity necessary to turn off the damn oldies at the gas station, but there are no easy solutions here. Things will not turn out well if musically we all just do what Allan Bloom would do. In between the lines of his analysis in Closing , there is evidence that Bloom didn't know the way to go either. He loved to blast his high-romantic opera music (acc. to Ravelstein ) which he admits reflects a particularly refined and precious 19th-century sensibility impossible to maintain in contemporary times, and he confessed that he found his rock-loving students more thoughtful than his dutifully classical-appreciating ones. Nor does he ever say, "listen to the orderly, tuned to nature's music-of-the-spheres, classical music, and your soul will find the nourishment it needs." Indeed, his own example contradicted that.

Link's good now, must be problems here.

As a counterpoint, perhaps, to Steyn, this TNR bookreview might do well. It's long-winded, mean-spiritedly pompous, and infuriating at times, but usefully thought-provoking. The title says it all: "Defending Classical Music from Its Defenders."

Carl, I am a musical idiot--really, I confess to having almost no background or even much of an inclination in the direction of music. But, while I understand and appreciate your suggestion that jazz and other distinctly American rhythms led to where we are today with Rock and disco and, even, rap--I wonder if that really is as self-evident as it is taken to be. It is an argument made by so many people (both defenders of the genre and its detractors) that I am suspicious of it for that reason alone. Steyn's attempt to make distinctions between the things may not have been as apt as it could be (and I concede that the piece is a bit grumpy--though that's part of its charm in my view). But I'm not ready to dismiss the possibility that there are important differences in the jazz of the 1920s and the sounds of Benny Goodman as compared, say, to unrestrained sounds Britney Spears and Jay-Z.

For one thing, there is a lack of subtlety in today's music that is depressing. While the music of that earlier generation was directed toward similar themes--sex still had romance and self-assertion was restrained by being in a kind of service to self-respect. And the obscene was always veiled and playful and ornery as opposed to vulgar and debasing and low.

Perhaps you are saying that once the cat is out of the bag is impossible to train him. That might be true. I don't know, but I hope not. I still would like to believe that it is possible to allow the cat some time to romp and, yet, pull him back into the bag before he tears up the place beyond repair. Perhaps we can be mended by reflection on and exposure to the higher things. Pardon the mixed metaphor, but I am just as skeptical about a diet grounded only in these things as I am of a diet of pure dessert. I think we all need a little dessert but, even within the dessert realm there is a hierarchy of goods. At some level it is true that there is no accounting for tastes--but it is also true that cheesecake is better than a bowl of pure sugar.

In support of Carl's point I would suggest this amusing piece from 1921.

Julie, emminently sensible comments, and no I certainly don't mean to equate the likes of Goodman w/ the likes of Jay-Z. I listen to a lot of 30s era jazz, and like Steyn, I would like it if we had more music akin to its spirit, and like you, I don't think that's an impossibiliy.

But I do think we make a futile conservative gripe whenever we talk as if we can rewind the tape back to the spirit of Scott Joplin and Benny Goodman, or who have you. The Ladies Home Journal essay Moser links to (thanks) certainly does cause laughter, but for me, it's also a kind of nervous laughter...maybe these ladies were actually right, you can't help but thinking. They certainly were sincere. Part of the story is that the genius of Afro-American music usuually had to be channelled through the night club--consider the case of Ellington, working for the mob-run, black-exotica-selling Cotton Club--and so became more associated w/ a life of sin than it would have in a less racist society...but this explanation only goes so far...the adoption of the night club as a normal place for respectable persons to meet and dance, with strangers, no less, was really a big social change.

Okay, I'm oughta steam on this for now...

I know nothing of music and don't mind my own ignorance on the topic. Like fine wines or cigars such concerns seem aristocratic beyond my means. Why educate myself to the point of developing an expensive taste? I will take the $12 merlot the $8 cigar and be happy enough grilling and eating my $5 a lb T-Bone Steak, it doesn't have to be Kobe. I will go to a bar where as the music points out...I have friends in low places...and of course I love this bar. Once again a simple Bud Light will do, or a Jack Daniels if you please. Someone who isn't thick skinned enough to suffer through the minor irratation of music he doesn't like at a gas station is not nearly stoic enough for my taste. Some people have sophisticated tastes but I discovered that the enjoyment of food does not keep pace with the increased cost of expensive dinning. I have also been blessed to realize that a lukewarm cup of foul smelling water was once the best I ever tasted. And I will remmember sharing Rammen Noodles and hot dogs with a girl, when memories of my Kobe steak in Vegas are long forgotten.(I visited Vegas and it was everything I expected it to be, but I fared poorly.)

In any case I realize that I digress from the topic of music, but this is because I am largely indifferent to it vis a vis food and drink.

In any case I did pull myself away from the buffet at Paris and the card tables at Bellagio long enough to see a supreme illusionist at work...He started off juggling with two hands...then juggled with one hand...and then he juggled with no hands...somehow entertainment I can never pretend to understand seems quite superior to the craft of a musician. If only Illusion was taught as a subject in schools, I would have been a ready pupil if not naturally adept.

In terms of Aesthetics then much could be said and much has been said by those of more sensitive taste and equisite feeling towards beauty than I would ever care to develop. Perhaps Immanuel Kant is right, and Carl Scott and Julie hint at some version of the view that while taste may be subjective Beauty is objective. Perhaps...but I have always found the distinction weak.

In any case I find it telling and agree with Mark Steyn that there is no single culture. I am not sure which is cause or effect...but I think that this demonstrates that taste in music or food or art are more intertwined and dependent upon how people see themselves, and the background narrative towards a thing than the thing itself. In other words that water I drank from an old cantine I found after going without for over a day in 130 degree weather could be the best water I taste...despite the fact that once I quenched myself I came by degree to notice that my mouth was warm and my nose was regaining enough of the faculty of smell to note that it had been horrible foul smelling 90 degree stale water. I immagine that if Julie was abducted by Islamic Extremists, and latter on came to consciousness after being saved by Army Rangers to the sound of a rap video playing on an TV in a hospital in Germany...I have a feeling but I could be wrong that she wouldn't demand to be taken back on the double to a place where such foul refuse did not polute the air. Perhaps it would require such extreme circumstances for her to appreciate rap music, but it is not beyond the pale for me to believe that likewise there are people who would need extreme and severe circumstances to come to share her views on the subject. For while I am largely stoic to various forms of music, still I realize that people weave complex stories about what music means, and there is no real means of determining what sort of associations a person has conjured in making the artform meaningfull or tastefull to them.

Now I am not against saying that there is something about the thing itself which is beautifull or tasteful, I can say that a ferrari is objectively beautifull, and so are lambourghini's...I don't doubt that there is a lot to good merlot that I can't distinguish, I can certainly tell the difference between a $12 bottle and wine in a box...but I have tried $30 bottles and found them more expensive. I am happy to concede to the experts in bottled water that various waters have unique hints...but while Perrier may be objectively superior to tap water...I am comfortable with my indifference. In other words even if there is an "objective" Aesthetic measure of beauty it is rarely overpowering enough to prevent me from shrugging.

Maybe it's only possible to tame our own cats or to shape our own tastes for dessert? But enough of that sort of thing on a small scale can add up to a bigger scale. For my part, I am grateful to Bloom, and to Steyn and even to the 1920s Ladies Home Journal (which, honestly, was a much more serious publication in those days) for, at least, opening the door to the conversation. Part of the problem today is that we just can't seem to break through the dogma or received opinion on these matters. As Steyn notes, we go to the gas station and it is assumed that we want to or should hear the strains of U-2 pumped to us as we pump our gas. If we don't appreciate it, we're somehow odd or a fuddy-duddy.

As a regular listener to classical music and a great fan of opera to the point that I attend several in Los Angeles each year, I can well understand Alan Bloom's concern about declining musical tastes and a debasing of the musical ear. The (c)rock and (c)rap music is everywhere. Yet there is hope. I'm not a trained musician (although I sing in choirs and occasionally solo) but as one who had the good fortune to be exposed at home and in the media to beautiful music, I am more grateful than knowledgeable. I suggest that the gap--psychologically or historically--between today's popular music and classical music, even pre-rock popular music, is not so great if we give it a shot. James Lilacs made the comment on Hugh Hewitt's radio program last week that the first 15 minutes of reading Shakespeare requires making an adjustment, as I found recently when I began to re-read "Measure for Measure" (Why is it set in Vienna--does anyone know?). So it is with classical music if you haven't listened to it for awhile, and especially if you never have. My wife played "high brow" music for her high students as I did for my college students, and while many merely endured it others genuinely liked it. (Timing is important--the sooner the better.) But how could they know unless they had the opportunity to listen to it? One girl in my wife's class was so impressed with Kathleen Battle's rendition of "Un voce poco va" from Rossini's "Barber of Seville" that she was moved to reach its highest note, and did. Now she is in a doctoral program in music at the University of Kentucky and waiting in the wings for a career in the professional world of opera. FYI, there are three channels on Direct TV that have beautiful music all the time--864, 865 (vocals), 866 on my receiver. Symphonies and operas may not be as popular as they once were, but they are not dead yet!

I seem to recall a book review linked here, where the main contention was that the modern division of musical genre by race was created pretty recently by the music companies themselves. That is, black folk singers were expected to play the blues and white bluesmen were required to do something else.

Culture in general is getting dumbed down, not just music.

I was re-reading Kristols "Two Cheers For Capitalism" recently, and both the tone and the content is far in advance of most political commentary today. And that's only thirty years old! I believe the book is not even in print any more.

As always, there is much sense in what you say, JL. The best discussion of the distinction between taste and Beauty that I've ever read, however, is not to be found in Kant but in (of all places!) Winston S. Churchill's novel Savrola. You would like it.

As a girl who was born with a plastic spoon in her mid-Western mouth and into a family of hard-working (mostly blue collar) economizers, I can fully appreciate your sentiments vis a vis cultivating tastes beyond your means. There is certainly something to it. But I can also appreciate that there is something good and true and (sadly) missing from my experience. I may never come to know and love a symphony in quite the same way or in quite the same degree that Mr. Reeb or Allan Bloom describe their affections for it. But I know enough to know that the thing deserves their love. That knowledge isn't moving me to become a subscriber at the LA Philharmonic--it doesn't even move me (often enough) to play the few selections of classical music we have in our library. But when I do, I recognize that I am in the presence of something high. And I recognize that it isn't even close to the same thing as the Van Halen I have to admit (with no small amount of embarrassment) to liking. Part of that comes from the fact that it was the music of my youth. I still enjoy it when I hear it, though in a different way and for different reasons. I can see it is not Mozart. They are so different as to almost be separate kinds of things. It's hard describe them both as music. Van Halen is like a cartoon version--though there is a place for cartoons in our lives. I said cheesecake isn't the same thing as a bowl of sugar . . . but there's nothing wrong with sugar in your coffee!

That said, I would be a very happy woman--indeed--to hear the sounds of rap music accompanying any group of Army Rangers mounting my rescue from terrorists! I wouldn't like the music any better--but I'm with you on the shrug. I tend to think that those guys--at least the majority of them--will come to view their youthful fascination with that music in much the same way that I look back on my own attachment to Van Halen or (worse yet) Michael Jackson. My concern is more for those who don't "grow out of it." It seems to me that there are increasing numbers of those kinds of folks and a shocking number of grown up people who feel compelled to hitch their star to the wagon of today's youth. But that's almost another subject--our obsession with youth culture and the American propensity to worship its young.

I can't believe our kids will not get pretty sick of the music of our lives, because of the ubiquity. What lullabies do mothers croon to their children these days? Brahms? I'd be surprised and if one does, she probably does not know that it is Brahms. One young mother told me her child slept better with rock music playing than with the classical cd her parents (being good grandparents) had bought. I said the kid slept to get away from the racket, as they fall asleep when the vacuum cleaner is running.


As to Steyn's examples: P.G. Wodehouse also wrote "Bongo, it's on the Congo, and Oh Boy, what a spot. Quite full of things delightful, and few that are not." for Sitting Pretty, one of his best collaborations with Kern. It is a lovely musical and my daughter's favorite, but it is NOT deep in any sense, lyrically nor musically. I get sick of hearing it, while being grateful that it is preferred to the radio.

As to appreciating food, hunger, being or having been truly hungry, makes for the appreciation of food in any form.

I recommend that you read Tyler Cowen's In Praise of Commercial Culture.

I think any serious discussion of music should take into account the dominance of music in modernity, think MP3's, CD's HD radio, AM, FM radio...satellite radio...There is just so much music...it is unreal. I have no clue how much "music" the average american owns but I do know that it is tremendous. In my opinion if the american mind is closed in regards to music it only makes sense to say that it is closed to the consideration that music might not be worth accumulating/listening to. How many CD's do you own? 100? 1000? 10,000? How many times do you have to recharge your ipod before a song would be repeated? 1? 2? 20? 200?

Burning CD's is a national passtime.

I know that some of you have given up on Telivision, I have given up on music. I decided not to recharge my Ipod and opted for a functional phone that doesn't play MP3's. I don't dislike music per se, I don't think it evil. I just decided to quit idolizing it. My quality of life hasn't noticeably declined...perhaps when I am hungry again I will tune in.

In my opinion Classical music owes its beauty to an age when listening to music was an eventfull thing. My guess is that three quaters of all americans have more classical music ready to hand nowadays than they even had previously... Mostly it comes pre-packaged on MP3's and Ipod's...just to test this out I went to a friend of mine who worships mostly metal and rap music only to discover that he owned at least 150 CD's of classical music (albeit, in a total collection of over 30k). What does it say about music in america when one has to express Cd's each containing 3-25 songs in thousands?

What you say, JL is very thoughtful and thought compelling. I think there is something to it. Music has become too cheap . . . maybe. But is that in some tension with what you said above? Just a question, because I can't think about it too much now . . . have to run.

His name's Dick Cox. Huh-huh. Huh-huh.

Rock music's useful when you need rhythm.


Classical's better for times when you don't.


I love my Ipod for what is not on it.

Smooth without roughness, that's what I want.

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