ROCK & ROLL AND REPUBLICANS (PART TWO)

Contention: Liberals can say they listen to Rock & Roll because of their political affiliation, conservatives only in spite of their own.

I turn to the eighteenth-century thinker Edmund Burke to supply some principles of classic conservatism. Burke is, after all, the patron saint of conservatism for many Republicans. Like all conservatives, Burke upholds tradition. This is what he—and all conservatives—want to conserve.  

To illustrate, here is Burke: “Four hundred years have gone over us [the English]; but I believe we are not materially changed since that period. Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers.” To paraphrase, this is Burke’s conservative rallying cry: ‘Our institutions have not changed in centuries, and we’re proud of it!’ To some conservatives, Burke might be overstating the case. But you can’t be conservative without wanting to preserve tradition, without protecting the older ways of doing things.

Conversely, Rock & Roll was born in defiance and rebellion. To hell with the older way of doing things. Rejecting tradition is in its DNA. When Elvis starting shaking his pelvis, a nation was scandalized. No one had ever done anything like that before. When he popularized (stole?) black music, the older generation proclaimed, “What is this? This is not our music!”

When Dylan sang his protest songs armed only with a guitar and harmonica, American nationalists called him anti-American. They had never heard music and lyrics like that before.

When the Beatles started flopping their mops and, later, combined their music with peace, love, and experimentation in every sense of the word, they re-conceptualized Rock & Roll and threatened American mores. They were not making the music of their parents’ generation.  

Golden Notes was, among other things, my attempt to write a Rock & Roll fable, which means I tried to distill the essence of Rock & Roll—strip it to its essence—and put it into my story. And how could I do that without including rebellion? I had to write a story about rejecting tradition because the framework I chose for my novel forced it upon me. In addition, part of the Rock & Roll archetype is generational conflict. Thus in my story a daughter rejects the worldview of her father, just as he rejected the worldview of his father. No generation in Golden Notes accepts the status quo of the preceding generation.

That is the dialectic of Rock & Roll. It’s always changing. It never lets itself get too comfortable. Burke and the conservatives who follow in his wake don’t love change. And the change they do permit is always a very slow change. Change is dangerous and unpredictable.

Rock & Roll thrives on danger and unpredictability. It revels in risky innovation. Consider only one year separates the bouncy pop of the Beatles' Twist and Shout (1964) and their groundbreaking album Rubber Soul (1965); Sgt. Pepper’s came only two years after that. Like so many Rock acts (Bowie, U2, Radiohead), the Beatles re-invented themselves.

Of course, the musical experimentation of the Beatles went hand-in-hand with the counter-cultural movements of the 60s, all of which defied tradition and the values of conservatism. Rock & Roll came of age alongside an unprecedented movement in cultural history that constituted the biggest threat to conservatism in the twentieth century. You cannot divorce the historic rise of Rock & Roll from that movement.

Its genetic need for rebellion was so great that Rock & Roll even rebelled against itself. The Doors rejected the idealism of counter-cultural music. Iggy Pop and later the Punk movement did the same in a much more self-conscious way. Rock & Roll hates stasis. It will challenge any ideas—musical or otherwise—when they become too comfortable, even if that means that Rock & Roll must challenge itself.  

Whenever even the most amateur musicians stride into a garage, plug in their guitars, and sit behind a drum kit, they enter in to a ritual built upon a framework of defiance.

Recently, Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly landed an unlikely interview with Bono. Speaking on behalf of his fellow cultural conservatives, Daly told Bono that “more orthodox folks see you as edgy, maybe too edgy at times.” Well, name one rock star that “more orthodox folks” would not see as “too edgy at times.” To be a rock star is to be edgy.

And even when Daly and Bono found common ground—in their case, a shared faith—their perceptions diverged. At one point Bono referenced the passage in the Gospels in which a would-be Jesus follower says he must first bury his father. Jesus says no: “Let the dead bury the dead.”

“Seems cold hearted,” replied Daly.

“No,” answered Bono, “seems punk rock to me.”

Insofar as he unsettled traditional beliefs and the status quo, Jesus himself was a rock star.