Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Our Readers on Rock Music

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 23, 2005

Among the many comments we received in response to my recent Highlights column on Rock music, I am delighted to report that most were favorable and several extended the discussion in important ways.

For example, Jeremiah Joiner of Divide, Colorado pointed out the relationship between the perceived negative impact of a stimulus and the “norms” (or what I would call conditioned expectations) of the audience. Thus, he notes, the negative impact of Rock music on most older adults is much greater than on most young people, because for people over a certain age, Rock is something they have not been conditioned to accept, while for young people it is a constant and normal component of life. The reverse, he suggests, is unfortunately true of religion.

John Sanborn of Amherst, New York emphasized the distinction between techniques employed (such as two I mentioned, distortion and high volume) and the message that may be conveyed partly through the use of these techniques. Because the techniques themselves are morally neutral, John argues, one must be cautious about interpreting the message based only on one’s response to the techniques. John, who is a songwriter and used to be the webmaster for a music web site, also points to the growing popularity of “unplugged” rock music, in which the same music is performed acoustically (that is, without electronic amplification and effects). Listening to the same song both ways brings certain issues into focus.

Finally, I had a particularly enjoyable exchange with Fr. John Morley of St. Bartholomew Church in East Brunswick, New Jersey. First, Fr. John suggested a richer appreciation of sound and technique by invoking an example from his own musical experience: “I always and still do enjoy the music of Carlos Santana. Much of his success is due to his refined use of distortion, sustain and feedback to produce a unique signature sound. Being a musician I understand and have used distortion because it generates harmonics that give a guitar a warmer sound (not an angry one). This is why tube amps are still popular, because they cause a warm distortion.” Nonetheless, Fr. John finds some uses of distortion ugly and, at a more metaphysical level, he is equally concerned about the negative impact of some Rock music. He emphasizes the importance of understanding more perfectly the transcendentals—the true, the good and the beautiful. But he underlines the difficulty of translating our respect for these transcendentals into a useful measuring rod, and he rightly cautions against treading heavily on fragile ground.

Finally, Fr. John asks why it is that many young people seem to be drawn toward ugliness. His closing insight is worth pondering as we prepare for Easter: “I don’t attribute all or even most of it to their personal tastes. They see the world around them as ugly and, unless they have faith in God, this world can look very bleak. Only faith can bring light to the darkness that is present in the world.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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