Christianity has foundered in Europe, sunk by the baggage that European
Christians carried from their pagan past, leaving the United States as the last
Christian country in the industrial world. Idolatry in Europe lived in the
folklore and ritual of the old pagan religions that Christianity never quite
suppressed. Americans hear barely an echo of the ancient whisper of the
European forest. Some readers have asked whether Americans are quite free from
idolatry. The answer is: of course not. A good place to start is with American
Idol, the televised contest that allows a complete non-entity to become
a rock star for a day.
No other nation rejects the notion of a high culture with such vehemence, or
celebrates the mediocre with such giddiness. Americans prefer to identify with
what is like them, rather than emulate what is better than them. The epitome of
its popular culture is a national contest to choose from among random entrants
a new singing star, the "American Idol".
Three or four generations ago, US popular culture shared a porous boundary with
classical culture. The most successful musical comedy of the 1920s, Jerome
Kern's Showboat, contained classical elements requiring operatic voices.
George Gershwin, the 1930s' most popular tunesmith, prided himself on an opera, Porgy
and Bess. Benny Goodman, the decade's top jazz musician, recorded
Mozart. The most successful singer of the 1930s, Bing Crosby, had a voice of
classical quality. Never mind that what he sang was insipid; his listeners knew
very well that they could not sing like Bing Crosby.
Americans of earlier generations, in short, listened to music that they admired
but could not hope to imitate, because they looked up to a higher plane of
culture and technique. Today Americans favor performers with whom they can
identify precisely because they have no more technique or culture than the
average drunk bellowing into a karaoke machine. Taste descended by degrees.
Frank Sinatra sounded more average than Bing Crosby; Elvis Presley more average
than Sinatra; The Beatles more average than Elvis; and Bruce Springsteen (or
Madonna) about as average as one can get, until American Idol came along
to elevate what was certified to average.
The dominant popular style of the 1930s, Swing, required in essence the same
skills as did classical music. By the early 1950s, every adolescent with a
newly acquired guitar could hope to follow in the acne-pitted footsteps of Bill
Haley or Buddy Holly. This was "a voice that came from you and me", as Don
McLean intoned in his mawkish ode to Holly, America Pie (1972). That was
just the problem.
Stylistically, rock 'n' roll offered little novelty. It drew upon the music of
rural resentment, the country and hillbilly music that appealed to failing
farmers at county fairs and honky-tonks. Rural America began its Depression a
decade before the rest of the country, and country music developed as a
parallel culture before Hollywood adopted singing cowboys such as Gene Autrey
and Roy Rogers during the 1930s. Hard-time country audiences preferred the hard
edge of a Hank Williams to the mellifluous crooners who charmed the urban
What requires explanation is how the whining, nasal, querulous style of country
music came to dominate national taste with the rock 'n' roll of the 1950s. The
species leap from the county fair to The Ed Sullivan Show occurred
because the United States, for the first time in its history, had spawned a
distinctive youth culture. That is, the postwar generation of American
adolescents was the first with sufficient spending power to afford its own
culture. Before World War I, adolescents went to work. The years after World
War II produced an unprecedented level of affluence, and teenagers for the
first time had money to spend on records, instruments and cars. Young people
are as resentful as they are narcissistic, and the easily reproduced, droning
complaint of country music satisfied both criteria.
The resentful country folk who formed the first audience for the now-dominant
style in American music turn up in literature as noble, suffering peasants
fighting for a traditional way of life, as in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of
Wrath. Nothing could be further from the truth. American farmers were
migratory entrepreneurs who did well during World War I, when agricultural
exports surged, and very badly during the 1920s, when exports fell, and even
worse during the 1930s. Country people were resentful because they were
becoming poorer. That was unfortunate, but feeling sorry for one's self is no
excuse to inflict the likes of Hank Williams on the world. The object of high
art is to lift the listener out of the misery of his personal circumstance by
showing him a better world in which his petty troubles are beside the point.
What is the point of music that assists the listener in wallowing in his
troubles? Some country-music fanciers no doubt will find this callous, and I
want to disclose that I do not care one way or another whether their wife left
them, their dog died, or their truck broke down.
Word-play aside, what does this have to do with idolatry? Resentment is simply
an expression of envy, the first and deadliest of sins. Adam and Eve envied
God's knowledge of good and evil, Cain envied Abel, Ishmael envied Isaac, Esau
envied Jacob, Joseph's brothers envied the favorite son, and the Gentiles
envied the nation of Israel. Why reject what comes from on high to worship
one's own image, unless you resent the higher authority?
The culture of resentment runs so deep in the American character that the
self-pitying drone of immiserated farmers, amplified by the petulant
adolescents of the 1950s as a remonstration against parental authority, now
dominates the musical life of American Christians. Not only Christian country,
but Christian rock and Christian heavy metal have become mainstream commercial
genre. I agree with the minority of Christians who eschew Christian rock as
"the music of the devil", although not for the same reasons: it is immaterial
whether Christian rock substitutes "Jesus Christ" for "Peggy Sue", permitting
its listeners to associate putatively Christian music with secular music with
implied sexual content. It is diabolical because the style itself is born of
There are American Christians who had no choice but to invent their own music,
namely the African-American Church, whose spirituals are gems of rough-hewn
beauty. It is no coincidence that black church music maintains the closest ties
to classical music, and that the pre-eminence of African-American singers on
the operatic stage stems from the music training of church choirs.
By and large, though, the evangelicals ought to know better. Americans, like
the English, have Georg Frideric Handel's "Messiah" and other great classical
works, and access to a musical tradition that is one of the supreme
achievements of the human spirit. As I wrote in another context (Why
the beautiful is not the good, May 17, 2005):
grow in oysters to soothe irritation; the high art of the West grew pearl-like
in Christendom around an abrasion it could not heal: the refusal of mere humans
to place all their hopes upon the promise of life after death. Christianity
made Europe by offering the kingdom of heaven to barbarian invaders, while
allowing them to keep their tribal culture. The high art of the West gave these
rude men a presentiment of the kingdom of heaven and formed an authentic
Christian culture opposed to pagan holdovers.
The Beautiful is
not the Good. The Good is sui generis, independent of any beauty devised
by human craft. But we willfully choose what is ugly over what is beautiful
because we are ugly, and prefer to worship our own ugliness rather than the
beauty created by an inspired few. That is not merely execrable bad taste.
Ultimately it is a form of idolatry. The evangelicals' inability to rise above
the ambient culture is their great failing.
This helps explain why Americans are so stupid. Listening to the repetition of
three chords does not exercise the mind after the fashion of Mozart, to be
sure, but that is not the main reason that stupidity attends the culture of
resentment. One learns only by accepting a suitable authority. If one rejects
authority in favor of one's own impulses, one cannot learn.
Most Americans do accept an authority, to one extent or another, namely the
Bible. The Bible remains America's national epic, and the Protestant precept Sola
Scriptorum is alive and well in the United States. But the Bible is too
difficult a text for the ordinary reader to absorb; it requires a level of
culture inaccessible to all but a handful to read it properly. The culture of
resentment tends to reduce Bible-reading to slogans and sound-bites, with the
result that side-issues such as Creationism sap the emotional energy of
American Christians. Quite a shock will be required before any of this changes.