In the fifteen years since Tipper Gore and Frank Zappa feuded over raunchy lyrics, a furious but confused debate has raged over popular music's effect on character. In a new book that shatters the assumptions of pop music's critics and defenders alike, Carson Holloway shows that music is both more dangerous and more beneficial than we think.
Conservative complaints about popular music focus on lyrics alone and appeal only to public decency and safety. Liberals, swift to the defense of any self-expression, simultaneously celebrate rock's liberating ethos and deny its cultural influence. Neither side appreciates the true power of music or is willing to examine its own musical tastes.
Previous ages, Holloway finds, were not as naive as our own. Plato and Aristotle, who saw that music can awaken the soul to reason or inflame it with passion, insisted on the cultivation of temperance through musical education. Rousseau and Nietzsche likewise recognized music's power, though these modern prophets of passion encouraged precisely the sort of music that the ancients would have deplored. The curious exception to this political concern with music is found in the intervening Enlightenment-the source of American politics. In their rejection of the classical notion of "statecraft as soulcraft," Locke and his contemporaries blinded themselves to the influence of culture on the character of citizens.
Only in recent years, as pop fare has reached extremes of depravity, have some Americans-most famously Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind-begun to worry about the destructive potential of music. Bloom looked beyond lyrics to the music itself, but in his elitism failed to consider music's full moral influence. Holloway, by contrast, is sympathetic to pop's appeal, and his well-rounded study compels us to take all music seriously. What he proposes-a rediscovery of the musical wisdom of Plato and Aristotle-will completely change the way we think about music.