Hear No Evil—My Perspective on Rock Music
When I was a child, I was not exposed to as much contemporary music as my peers. My father listened to Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and John Denver; my mother to mostly classical music. Aside from a very few songs like La Bamba, Lean on Me and those from a Little Anthony and the Imperials album, I was essentially ignorant of all things Rock ‘n Roll until I entered my mid teens. However, when I was thirteen years old I was informed by a teacher at my Catholic high school that “Rock music is evil, because it has an intrinsically sexual beat”.
I haven’t found this observation to be restricted to that single individual, and throughout my life I’ve encountered other Catholics as well as many Protestants who have shared the same opinion. You don’t have to look too far on the Internet to find a variety of opinions from Christians on the subject, although the advent of the “blog” makes it difficult to track down legitimate articles and criticism. It has been openly discussed in my family circle and among friends. This is still very much a contemporary debate—with people basing their opinions on everybody from Aristotle to Cardinal O’Connor.
Naturally, hearing this “the Rock beat is sexual” perspective as a young teen made me want to listen to as much Rock as I could get my hands on. Still, as a child with no transportation I was exposed only to a smattering of offerings that the children in my neighborhood were listening to—and I certainly wasn’t of age to put it into any context. So it wasn’t until I got into my later high school years and college that I was able to take a full survey of the Rock ‘n Roll era and see what it contained.
At least musically speaking, I’m not a child of my generation. I was an individual who was raised on Handel and Gershwin, and didn’t think poorly of them. Today, I love music, and I love exploring its history. As a musician and a listener I’ve sampled a vast variety of musical forms.
Rock Music Does Not Have a Sexual Beat
I have come to the conclusion that Rock ‘n Roll does not have an intrinsically sexual beat. Given the general history of the Rock ‘n Roll / Rock movement, I can certainly see why one would be tempted to think in this dismissive manner—after all, beginning with Elvis (and others) we’ve had a long and virtually innumerable string of artists that have hyped their own music and image by marketing and glorifying sexuality.
I’ve listened to plenty of Rock music, devoid of suggestive lyrics or an accompanying visual, which doesn’t stimulate my libido any more than “Swing Era” greats such as Sing, Sing, Sing (Bennie Goodman) or any similar tunes that were recorded in that portion of the Jazz era. When I listen to them I feel happy, it certainly lightens my step and puts a tap in my toe—but I do not feel sexually stimulated. The beat moves me, but not, shall we say, in an inappropriate manner.
What Is the “Rock Beat”?
First of all, the essential characteristic of the “Rock / Rock ‘n Roll beat” is the emphasis that is placed on the #2 and #4 beats in a four beat measure. As in, “One and TWO and three and FOUR.” However, varieties of Rock music abound, and it is pretty much impossible to infallibly attach a song to the overall genre by its beat alone. Herein lies the first fallacy of the “sexual beat” argument—much music is condemned that doesn’t have this beat at all, and much music is not condemned that does have this beat. As an example of the latter, you don’t have to look too much farther than most modern country music.
The Roots of Rock
Astonishingly, many of the same individuals who would advise me to never listen to Rock music listen to Jazz themselves and never bring the rhythmic roots of Jazz music into a discussion of the rhythmic roots of Rock ‘n Roll. To me this is like stereotypically labeling all modern art employing nudity as immodest or deviously vulgar while at the same time defending Michelangelo’s work as being pure and properly motivated.
I find this perplexing and more than a touch hypocritical—especially since during the 1920s and 30s (and beyond) you didn’t have to look far to hear the exact same arguments applied to jazz music and dancing to this music. Some moral pundits considered jazz music to be intrinsically degrading to the human spirit, in part due to the fact that its beats were derived from African tribal music that was used during pagan celebrations oriented around the worship of Satan. On the fringe of creating a rationale for what I feel is mostly a reactionary bias, you’ll encounter the same criticism of the Rock beat.
This argument is akin to saying that I shouldn’t use the word “pundit”, because it has Hindi roots that could be associated with Hindu worship practices. To make the claim that putting the emphasis on a certain set of beats is intrinsically demonic (as some have done) is ridiculous. Elvis and (later) Jagger weren’t thinking about this. Their link between sexuality and the beat was a matter of convenience; an edgy method of communicating with an already receptive audience. If American culture had responded with consistent and effective censorship, or even complete antipathy to this trend, how long do you think it would have lasted?
The Rock Hook Isn’t Always the Rhythm
When Blues Traveler (who are definitely children of the first Rock ‘n Roll generation) released the single “Hook” in the early 1990s, the lyrics didn’t refer to the rhythm, but to the melodic undercurrents of the song. Listen to the bass line and you’ll see that the hook is the same as that utilized in Pachelbel’s Canon. The hook is C,G,A,E,F,C,F,G (repeat).
Besides, there are a variety of forms of music (with different rhythms) to which I could add additional points of emphasis by gyrating my hips. The Tango, considered one of the most provocative forms of dance music, has a different rhythm altogether.
As the decades of the twentieth century have come and gone, we’ve seen a variety of musical genres evolving and changing, utilizing a variety of different rhythmic variations, with many of them using sex as a methodology of hooking the audience—Jazz, Country, Rock, Rap, you name it. I can’t even browse the Classical Music section of Barnes and Noble without being subjected to it (and I’m not even referring to groups like Bond, from whom I expect such nonsense). I think this is something you can expect to see more of in coming years. The plunging neckline is the ultimate substitute for real quality, and creates insecurities that make already established artists throw it in (just in case). Nearly every opera diva employs it, and not just when in costume.
Music’s Ability to Stir Emotions and Reach the Soul
Undeniably, music has a special key to the human soul and can evoke a variety of emotions—so the listener must be self-aware when considering his choice of music. In my personal experience, the exhilaration produced by listening to Johnny B. Goode does not differ widely from the excitement that I feel from listening to a well-performed version of Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64, No, 2—or a Wynton Marsalis interpretation of a brisk Jelly Roll Morton piece.
Rock music should be analyzed in two ways: by the morality of its lyrics and by its composition and execution. Both contribute to its beauty. I love music that is well composed and well performed. Rock music that is otherwise tastefully composed can be ruined by immoral lyrics. But outside of that you debate relative questions of beauty, and whether or not any music of this genre contributes to the pursuit of truth and beauty. I believe that some Rock music passes muster under this analysis, and some of it doesn’t.
There are many arguments that I regard to be (at the least) worthy of consideration regarding various other additions to the Rock music genre as having a degenerative effect on our concepts of beauty—such as the distortion effect. I also recognize perfectly well that there are many who will be unable to disassociate any Rock ‘n Roll tune from the sexual antics of many popular performers.
This perspective is not meant to discourage a cautious approach to Rock. Caveat emptor!
But for evil, look outside the beat.
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