Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

So What’s Wrong with Rock Music?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2005

Some weeks ago, Peter Mirus argued that the rock beat was not intrinsically sexual or evil, and should not be cited as proof that there is something wrong with rock music. I agree that those who focus on the beat, which is characterized by an emphasis on 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3, are grasping at straws. But if that’s so, what is the explanation for the fact that so many well-formed Christians find rock music all wrong?

The Difficulty of Drawing Lines

Works of art, including musical art, seldom convey a direct or explicit moral message. For this reason, the morality of art is extremely hard to discuss. Various kinds of art may have a tendency to stimulate us in negative ways, to portray evil in a positive light, or to communicate a faulty understanding of reality. But because the message is almost never as clear and direct as an argument, art can be received in different ways by different people, and precise lines are difficult to draw. Even among those with similar values, problems with works of art often induce consensus only at the extremes.

Moreover, since art of all kinds has a strong affective element, its emotional impact is determined to a very large degree by our own personal tastes. Certainly the maturity of our moral sensibilities influences our tastes, but so do many other factors, such as our own past experiences, differing kinds of exposure over the years, the general environment in which we were formed, our genetic makeup and, in short, nearly everything which has contributed to the formation of our own unique personalities.

If we dislike a work of art, it is necessarily true that we find in it something jarring, out of place, emotionally unpleasant, contradictory, ugly or unsavory. Yet experience shows that another person with similar moral values may encounter the same work of art without having any of those perceptions. There may sometimes be a moral element to this difference, or a civilizational element, or an element of sophistication, all of which are worth discussing. But often the difference will consist in that most elusive of all causes, personal taste.

Only a fool assumes his own superior judgment is the best explanation for every difference of this type. To avoid such foolishness, we must recognize that the evaluation of art requires us cautiously to engage some very complex and difficult ideas, above all ideas relating to the true, the good and the beautiful.

The True, The Good . . .

The True does not often enter into musical discussions. Works of musical art seldom advance clear arguments, precise statements or even bald assertions. There is a kind of truth in goodness and in beauty which, when violated, suggests something debased or false to itself. But at the level of truth per se, we are left primarily to the evaluation of lyrics. Something is clearly wrong with musical groups which consistently convey a false or otherwise evil message in the words of their songs. While this problem is by no means universal in rock music, it is probably characteristic of a larger portion of rock than of most other genres. It is not uncommon to encounter rock lyrics obsessed with narcissism, anger, rejection of authority, despair, destruction, sex, drugs, paganism, and satanism.

The evaluation of truth in the lyrics is closely allied to the question of the Good, but goodness is also a central issue in the rock lifestyle. Here I refer not so much to the private lives of the musicians (for the private lives of a huge number of popular entertainers of every type are deplorable), but to the degree to which evil (including ugliness) is deliberately incorporated into the performances themselves. If the bizarre and immoral lifestyles of musical artists are incorporated into their acts—with immodesty, vulgarity, perversion of human dignity, a manifest desire to be shocking or outrageous, advocacy of immorality, the smashing of instruments, and rude gestures or other actions—then the warning flags have already risen high and clear. In the same way, one may be justly critical of the names many groups choose for themselves, especially when they make direct reference to something pagan or evil. For example, the names of some rock groups are drawn from pagan gods, the devil or other evil spirits.

Still, it is only fair to note that these problems of truth and goodness do not speak directly to the music itself. Moreover, they are far from universally associated with rock groups. Nonetheless, it is clear that evil components of the so-called “rock culture” are incorporated into the public personae of many groups (whether for deliberate moral or merely business reasons). Young people, who are necessarily immature, may not always perceive this in a world in which ugliness and evil are so often “popular”, “awesome”, “honest”, and even “profound”, but well-formed adults can recognize these problems with reasonable objectivity. Deciding to avoid certain groups based on these manifestations is easier than doing a strictly musical evaluation, and it will leave us with a body of musicians and musical art far more deserving of a strictly sonic evaluation.

. . . and the Beautiful

It is here that we come up against the question of the Beautiful. The rock genre encompasses a fairly wide range of sub-genres. Lighter rock sounds are seldom seriously criticized and, in fact, critics of rock music very often seem to forget that there are large portions of the genre to which they do not object. But as the sub-genres grow “harder” or “heavier” or more “metal”, the danger signals increase, not only because of the more frequent evil associations, as noted above, but because of certain elements in the music itself.

The first of these elements is distortion. While no sound is intrinsically immoral, and even distortion has its place in making a thematic point or portraying a particular mood, distortion is a staple of hard rock, which seems to delight in perverting and making ugly sounds that would otherwise have far more musical merit. Here the music mirrors the moral distortions with which it is so often associated.

The second element is the sheer volume of sound. Just as harder forms of rock almost never present a sweet passage without following it with the inevitable angry distortion, so also they rarely present a soft passage without following it with an ear-splitting (and ear-damaging) wall of sound. At a certain point of volume, all sounds become mere noise. True, apart from concerts, one can listen at lower volumes, but these electronically-generated sounds are built, as it were, for high volume, and the suggestion of electronic noise is very often present no matter what the playback volume. It has been suggested, and I think with reason, that there is an almost drug-like aspect to this immersion in a physically-damaging volume of sound.

The third element is the perversion of the human voice. Again, in fairness it must be noted that nearly every genre of music (with the possible except of folk) is defined in part by its peculiar shaping of the human voice. Whether we are listening to opera or country, there is a characteristic shifting of the voice for use in a predictable instrumental way. However, in hard rock music with male singers, the nearly universal and deliberate distortion of the voice into a toneless shout or growl suggests again a perversion of human characteristics and values. This trend reaches its nadir in the self-evidently and deliberately ugly sound of the “death voice” in certain Satanic and near-Satanic genres.

More might be said, but a vexing personal question will still remain. At what point does a certain confluence of sounds cease to be beautiful? When we use the term “musical” to describe something, we generally refer to something that has an auditory sweetness to it, a sequence of notes and a convergence of sounds which distinguishes itself from mere noise and becomes something at least closely related to song. At what point does the combination of distortion, repetition, unremitting beat emphasis, and even bad musicianship at high volume begin to pound the human psyche rather than progress through any significant theme which may delight it? At what point does this become ugly because it has become noise?

The Eye of the Beholder and The Eye of God

Inevitably I return to where I began. So much of our appreciation of music is determined by personal taste and cultural conditioning that we must be wary of drawing hard and fast lines, and of resorting to foolish arguments. But even the best arguments will be lost on those who are attracted to bad music until they get to a certain age of detachment and reflection, often not beginning until the early 20’s even in the best of environments. For the sake not only of morality but of artistic maturity, parents must continue to set reasonable limits, while pastors, teachers and advisors must continue to make informed recommendations. I have attempted to provide at least a few reasons for such limits and recommendations above.

But let parents, pastors, teachers and advisors not grasp at straws. Let them not advance silly arguments or base their conclusions on dubious authorities. As with legitimate questions of liturgical style, where so often personal taste leads to high passion, there is no alternative here to engaging the issues seriously and fairly. And not only must the discussion be informed, it must also be humble. It is easy to assume that youngsters, and even oldsters who disagree with our taste in music, are as-yet unregenerate, blind and deaf, while we possess the judgment of God. If we examine our consciences at the end of the day, however, we know that we very seldom instinctively see as God sees. How likely then, if we are not very careful, will we hear as He hears?

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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