Saturday, July 16, 2011
It’s an interesting facet of American ethos and culture— we are a heavily religious country. Most of America’s religious sensibility is Christian or Catholic. We are also a country that has transformed many rock musicians into huge cultural icons. Some rock stars are outwardly religious— but the majority are ambiguous on this level. Are they implicitly endorsing atheism? Why would a Christian country let entertainers who allow themselves to be ambiguous on this level become icons? You could say that Americans have a genius for compartmentalization— not every cultural joint needs to touch. Or maybe it’s that the American public sees in rock performers what they want to see— performers act as pure mirrors. The public enjoys ambiguity on this level, because the (in)appropriate projections create images of perfection. The entire process is loose— it has to be to work, because few name rockers are avowed Christians or Catholics. U2 arrived and announced themselves avowed Christians— but it was always unclear whether their massiveness arose from hard-line religiosity or from good solid rock songs. Considering the turn their music took in the 90s, the latter seems a more accurate answer.
Bob Dylan made waves in the late 70s by converting to Christianity— but it could be debated whether the public watched with sympathy or mere curiosity. John Lennon’s famous mid-60s remarks on Jesus and Christianity set him up as a cultural iconoclast. He more-or-less retained the role for the rest of his life. George went “East” (and briefly dragged the others along with him). Paul McCartney has made many humanitarian commitments, but remained publicly ambiguous about his specific religious beliefs. The excesses of their lives might’ve made the “twenty-seven club” (Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Jones, Cobain) look like perfect heathens. Led Zeppelin were medium-heathens— no more or less debauched than other 70s megastars. Their major albums sold about twenty million copies each. It’s reasonable to think that among twenty million Americans (or Westerners), a large proportion were religious. How could they rationalize Zeppelin-immersion? It’s a tribute to the enormous flexibility of the American psyche. America, as a totalized entity, could be construed as a massive adolescent— torn between conservatism and youthful, egalitarian exuberance. It’s Puritans vs. Settlers, rock-style. Where culture is concerned, and as is their wont, Americans never quite choose a side.
So, it became conclusive in the 60s, and has stayed this way ever since— rock stars are allowed to be cultural icons without being religious. Politicians, of course, usually have no such options. It’s curious to wonder whether the American populace knows more about politicians and politics or rock music and rock stars. Ideally, it should be politics, but it may or may not be the case. The vast majority of rock stars are left-wing, too— they will often put together package tours to support liberal causes. But the biggest rock stars have always been buoyed by large enough numbers that they cut into conservative demographics also. One inescapable conclusion is that the United States, willy-nilly, is more than one country. Red (conservative) America and Blue (liberal) America are tied together by threads that are more tenuous than in generally known. If one of those threads is popular entertainment, including rock music, Blue America doesn’t need to flex its “ambiguity muscles” quite as tensely as Red America does, but both masses seem to have problems prioritizing what is allowed to enter their mind and what isn’t. But I come to praise rock, not to bury it; and, just by creating a thread between two distinct countries-within-a-country, rock has made America more cohesive than it otherwise would’ve been. Even if cohesion is an American ideal that has yet to be realized yet in America. What coheres between Blue and Red America is confusion, pride and prejudice. Rock music is (here) a safe shared outlet.