One recent Saturday morning, National Public Radio's Scott Simon was interviewing a documentary filmmaker who'd just finished a film on Muslim fundamentalism. The filmmaker was talking about the views Muslims have toward the influence of U.S. popular culture in their societies—the unbridled sexuality, the materialism, etc. Simon interrupted and said, "You know, there are Christians in America who have some of the same complaints. They're concerned that popular culture pulls children away from the influences of family and church."
The filmmaker responded, "Yeah, but Scott, they said that about rock and roll when we were kids. And we turned out okay."
That rejoinder ended the broadcast discussion. And there was a time when it would have settled the question for me, too. I am, after all, a lifelong and unrepentant rock and roller, and I turned out okay. But I am also the father of three young children who looks around and sees the music that has provided me with solace and inspiration for four decades thoroughly embedded in a pop culture marketplace that is in fact hostile to every human value except consumption. And that leaves me genuinely vexed about the role of 21st-century popular culture in our lives.
Yes, rock and roll did pull me away from many of the traditional values of my time and place. And, at the time, that was a good thing. Does that mean that it's always good—in every time and place—to disrupt all traditional values and mores? I'm not so sure. And I'm not sure that the analogy between the influence of 1950s and '60s rock and that of MTV holds up to much historical scrutiny. In its founding generation, rock and roll was a genuine shock to the corporate system. But while rock can still cause the occasional grumble or hiccup, it is now thoroughly digested by corporate America.
LET'S STOP HERE and stipulate that this is not the traditional old fogey complaint that kids these days don't know music when they hear it. I'm not arguing that the music was better in the old days. In fact I would argue that the '80s, '90s, and '00s have produced music as engaging and substantial as any in rock history. But what has changed drastically in the past 30 years is the process by which popular music is produced, distributed, and consumed.
1950s and '60s rock was a revolt from outside, and beneath, the cultural mainstream. It was a liberating trans-racial explosion that caught corporate America napping. By the 1970s the captains of industry were catching the wave of the new music. In the late '70s two phenomena—punk and hip-hop—arose to fight the power.
The punk revolution fizzled in America. But hip-hop didn't. It prospered. And, as rock and roll did in the '50s, it started from the African-American experience and pulled along millions of white young people. Obviously, hip-hop is mainly where the heart of rock and roll is still beating. But people and movements don't make themselves in a vacuum. Rock and roll arose in the age of Kennedy and King. It was a time of struggle, but it was also a time of utopian hope. Hip-hop happened in the age of Reagan, which was a time of cynicism and cashing in, and, despite a healthy dissenting wing, hip-hop has largely been a creature of its time.
One of the major achievements of the Reagan administration was media deregulation. And one of deregulation's favorite children was MTV. The beginning of the end for rock as an insurgent force can be dated to the 1982 debut of the cable music channel. With MTV it became possible for a product to be concocted, delivered, and consumed entirely within the corporate advertising bubble. Uncomfortable contact with free-thinking artists and grassroots uprisings could be kept to a manageable minimum.
Today rock dozes comfortably in the belly of the beast. Liberation is a commodity you can purchase at any mall. Rock is still about rebellion, but rebellion is now a marketing strategy. Young rebels of the 21st century can hardly find a cubic foot of air to breath, much less a place to stand, outside the commercial cocoon. That is why, when their rebellion finally found political form, it involved smashing windows at The Gap.
All of this to say that questions about the influence of pop culture on children can't simply be shrugged off, or put down to Puritanism. So what's a parent to do? Or a kid, for that matter? Certainly this is fodder for a continuing discussion.
But rest assured, I am still teaching my 11-year-old to play guitar.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.