For much of its history, rock music has acted as the soundtrack for generation upon generation of angst-ridden white, middle-class teenagers. From Elvis to Everclear, rock and roll has been an outlet for young people to express their dissent from the moral and religious traditions imposed on them by society, to attack the abuses of the government and various other institutions, and to denounce injustice in general. What resulted in the 60s was a revolution of free loving, authority disrespecting youth. And this trend has continued to our present day. While it has done a lot of good (like co-opting with the civil rights movement), it has also degenerated into a less authentic form of rebellion.
Some of the hippest and most “avant garde” rock music has actually been quite despairing, thoroughly postmodern, and ultimately nihilistic – even when it sounds light hearted. Whether it be the quirky and psychedelic sound of The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s,” the sullen melodies of Joy Division’s “Closer,” or the angry pounding of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (three bands I love, by the way), a lot of critically acclaimed rock music seems to share a common perspective – that existence is absurd.
The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus is probably the best known proponent of the “theory of the absurd.” For Camus, the universe is irrational and meaningless, yet he recognized that humans desire rationality and meaning. According to Camus, these two “facts” create the tension and angst that humans feel, and this led him to the conclusion that “existence is absurd.” A lot of rock music shares his perspective. It expresses the joys and pains of human existence divorced from any overarching purpose or meaning. And despite all its optimistic associations (i.e. world peace, free love, etc.) a lot of rock music has at its heart a completely pessimistic view of the world. This is the condition of many of our modern rebel rockstars.
When we take a closer historical look at the cultural perspective that gave birth to rock and roll however, we see something completely different than we see today. In many ways, we see something more authentic. The early rockstars, or pre-rockstars I should say, had several characteristics that our modern rockstars are lacking.
First, they were truly oppressed. The first rock note ever sung did not come from the throat of an angst-ridden, existentialist white kid in a beatnik coffee house somewhere in affluent San Francisco. It most probably bellowed out of the gut of a poor and oppressed African-American in a rural chapel somewhere in the obscure South. Rock and roll started as a hybrid of blues, gospel, and country. Both blues and gospel music are very much the creations of African-American culture, which grew out of slave culture. A fellow by the name of David Townsend is working on a (as yet unpublished) manuscript on the historical origins of rock and roll. He has made the same observation as I have. He writes:
Rock ‘n’ roll is an African-American hybrid, but its strongest root is the very suffering, and survival, of generations of slaves, who learned how music could help a man to transcend earthly pain for awhile….It’s also easy to understand the strong bonds between the Blues (and later R&B and rock ‘n’ roll) and Gospel music: from a secular point of view, singing about the Lord lifting you up and singing about the Blues fallin’ down like rain are spiritually equivalent acts.These people truly had something to lament about; something to cry out in opposition against. The comfortable, middle-class white kids on the other hand, not so much. What? They suffered because the cultural norms prevented them from sleeping around and experimenting with drugs? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t move my heart quite the same way.
Secondly, as Townsend so astutely points out, the pre-rockstars had faith. The African-American culture of the pre-rock era was very spiritual, and specifically Christian. Gospel music is the sound of a soul crying out to her Creator. Many of the modern rock counterparts on the other hand do not believe in a Creator to cry out to; they deny any objective purpose or meaning in life. They believe only in a cold and indifferent universe. The pre-rockstars’ religious beliefs informed them that the world is meaningful and life has purpose, and this belief helped give birth to an exciting and ground breaking new musical style. Many modern rockstars on the other hand believe life is absurd, and they sneer and mock religious beliefs in general.
Lastly, the pre-rockstars believed in moral ideals. One of the beliefs informing the African-Americans’ conviction that the oppression they were suffering was wrong, was the belief in an actual right and wrong! It is certainly difficult to denounce anything as evil if you believe that good and evil are superstitious concepts and that right and wrong are nothing more than cultural conventions. This is the point were the skepticism of the modern rockstar undercuts his authenticity. G.K. Chesterton articulates the problem better than anyone in his book Orthodoxy:
But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it….Thus…As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is a waste of time….He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble….In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.Chesterton was writing in England in 1908. But his point is still timely and relevant today. We could update his argument a bit as follows: The modern rebel rockstar has no loyalty; therefore he can never really be a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern rockstar doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus, he plays at a political rally where he cries out that war is a waste of life, and then sings a song about how all life is a waste of time. He claims that national sovereignty isn’t important, and then he disparages the U.S. for invading a sovereign country. When he plays at “Rock the Vote,” he attacks politicians for trampling on morality; when he plays at the University, he attacks morality for trampling on the youth. Therefore the modern rockstar in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything. His rebellion has become a gimmick.
A lot of this may not sit well with some of you. Something may not quite make sense yet. After all, isn’t religion opposed to rebellion? That depends on what you mean by “religion.” If you mean a rigid dogma, then yes. If you mean faith in a Creator, or higher purpose, then no. The pre-rockstars were true rebels. Their rebellion was that stubborn refusal to give up hope that we call faith. In the face of injustice and oppression, the pre-rockstars refused to take on a pessimistic view of the world, despite their suffering. They defied the temptation to succumb to defeat – to believe in nothing. They lamented and despaired at times, yes. But, like the Biblical psalmist, their lamentations were an expression of their faith, not a denial of it. They never gave up the hope in a higher purpose. They never gave up hope in real goodness and justice and retribution. They never gave up hope in God. And they did all this in the midst of true suffering.
In stark contrast, the modern rockstar has resigned himself to a pessimistic defeat. He mocks faith. He sneers at morality. He sees existence as absurd. He believes only in a meaningless and indifferent world. His rebellious exterior is nothing but a facade. He is merely thrashing at the wind. For, deep down he has no real reason to fight; he has defeated himself. And his rebellion does not come from a place of true suffering. It comes from a place of ennui; in the midst of comfort and luxury. Faith amidst suffering is the most authentic form of rebellion. Pessimistic ennui is just a poser.
Let me be clear. I am not arguing that a rockstar must be an oppressed Christian to make good music. Most of the Christian rock music I’ve heard sucks, in my opinion. And I love all the bands I’ve mentioned or implicated in this article so far, not many of which were/are Christians to my knowledge. Actually, I’m not arguing for what makes good music at all. I’m only arguing for what makes authentic rebellion. Nor have I claimed that all secular rockstars, including the ones previously mentioned, are complete nihilists (even Camus was opposed to nihilism). I’m making a generalization based on observation and my personal experience in the music industry. My intention with this article is really to point out the contrast between the cultural perspective that gave birth to rock and roll, and how far we have drifted from that perspective. We have forgotten our roots; no, we have even come to resent our roots. And that’s unfortunate. Furthermore, I am arguing that the original perspective which gave birth to rock and roll is much more authentic and genuine than its modern counterpart, for the reasons I mentioned above.
That is why someone like Johny Cash – who lived through the Depression in the poverty stricken South, exercised his demons, and then later found his faith and made peace with God – can take a song like Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” and make it even more powerful, with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a piano, and his voice. I like both versions, personally. But there is certainly something different, more subtle and pure, and – dare I say, real - about Cash’s version. Reznor’s original version is powerful in itself. Trent makes you believe that he really believes what he is singing, and that’s one of the marks of a great artist. However, somewhere, in the very back of the mind is a nagging doubt. It is the subconcious and almost invisible feeling that, despite the beautiful melancholy of the song, it just isn’t true. Because, “by rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
* P.S. *
If you enjoyed this article, you might find the following blog article interesting:
It’s a blog frequented mostly by atheists, anti-theists, and other kinds of “free-thinkers.” I primarily want to draw your attention to the comments of people listing bands whose music they think could be categorized as “atheist-rock.” The Beatles, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails are mentioned numerous times; as well as Muse.
Here’s an excerpt from comment #4:
“I think if I could be said to have any religion, it would be rock ‘n’ roll. Rock and various other popular musical genres have been sort of elbowing religion out of its former privileged places in culture, and that’s fine with me. I say we just declare rock ‘n’ roll to be atheist music…”
Oh ye of little faith.