In replying to Richard Merton’s comment on my first article, in nlr 59footnote1 I take the opportunity to clarify and correct some of my own positions, and also to attack, some basic errors in Merton’s conception of the aesthetic status of rock music and its relationship to politics.
I willingly concede to Merton that ‘the regional autonomy of the artobject from the other instances within a social formation’ should not be confused with ‘an idealist “independence” from it’. I did not intend to claim such an independence, though I admit that in attacking the reductionist position I may have bent the stick too far in the other direction, particularly in my last paragraph. Nor did I intend to reject ‘the ABC of Marxist criticism’, i.e. the importance of studying a popular art in relation to its shifting social base, but this was not what I was concerned with in this article. What I did attempt, in the very limited framework of a book review, was to raise some of the questions which would have to be solved in order to found a canon of rock musical criticism. Merton despite some excellent critical insights, refuses to accept this problem, and this leads him into a quite different enterprise, rock political criticism.
Firstly, insistence on the dissociable character of artistic devices, while in itself correct, is used by Merton as a pretext for dismissing the task of studying also their inter-relation. Merton excels in discussion of rock lyrics, but disarticulation of a lyric from the complex musical totality runs the risk of involuntarily subsuming this lyric under the category of ‘literature’, and applying pre-existing critical canons foreign to the genre. In the absence of an analysis of the function of lyric in rock performance in general, and in the work of the group discussed in particular, there are no grounds for the sweeping judgements of artists that Merton freely dispenses on the basis of lyrics alone. Merton merely hints at this articulation when he speaks of the ‘alloyed, computed
The difference between the poetic and the musical functions of lyric, and the pitfalls of confusing the two, can be illustrated by a simple, almost trivial, example. In Long Tall Sally Little Richard sang: ‘well long tall sally she’s real sweet she’s got everything that uncle john need’. Once written, this couplet is immediately banal. But in the song the fact that the vocal line is broken after ‘got’ and not after ‘sweet’ produces an aesthetic charge that depends precisely on the tension between the verbal and musical messages that a sung lyric carries. Merton claims that, although in his discussion of the Stones he ‘deliberately refrains from adding a single word about the other materials (melody, instrumentation, vocalism) which combine with the lyric to produce the musical constructs in question’, nevertheless ‘there would be no difficulty in demonstrating that they would extend the line of analysis here taken’. In this instance that may be true. I am not sure that the articulation is always so simple.
Merton’s second point is that, while rock music cannot claim the ‘creation of a musical art of a complexity comparable to Vivaldi or Telemann’, its ‘true merit and significance’ is that ‘it is the first aesthetic form in modern history which has asymptotically started to close the gap between those who produce and those who appropriate art’ (Merton’s emphasis). ‘It alone thereby prefigures, amidst its innumerable poverties and confusions, the structure of future art in a liberated social formation: communism.’ He opposes this combined aesthetic/cultural legitimation of rock to my ‘hyperbolization of the possibilities of the genre’. But what precisely is involved in closing the gap between producers and appropriators? Is this a social gap, or one of artistic appreciation? Merton’s description of rock as a ‘people’s music’ strongly implies the former. But this is very dangerous ground. Sections of the Left still echo the populist defence of ‘folk’, skiffle, etc as forms desirable because everyone can join in. If the social distance between producers and appropriators is at issue, then all forms of avant-garde and experimentation are threatened as ‘anti-popular’ and therefore anti-communist or counter-revolutionary. A rabid campaign on just these lines was run against this year’s Camden Festival by certain left-wing groups; in fact the limited space that such festivals provide for avant-garde forms is generally the only positive feature of these otherwise turgid municipal ventures. The real gap between producers and approptiators that rock music has tended to bridge is that of musical appreciation. It is not that rock is a limited form and therefore close to the masses. Rock music, as it has grown to maturity in the last few years, has in fact cultivated an aesthetically sensitive mass base, which, even allowing for all its mystifications and illusions, is continuously sharpening its critical faculty. I would not want to quarrel with Merton on the nature of art under communism; there are no conceivable scientific grounds for such prophecies. The case is rather that the
The meaning of the term, ‘people’s music’ and of the ‘gap between those who produce and those who appropriate art’ are crucial questions. Merton’s implicit answers can be seen at work in the canon he employs to appraise the Stones’ development. ‘For our purposes, the most important element of (Street Fighting Man), which situates it well beyond even, say, the Doors—is the non-equation of music and politics in it.’ (Merton’s emphasis.) Merton’s whole analysis in fact reduces the Stones’ development to one of ideological progress alone. The Stones have reached a high point because they recognise the non-equation of music and politics, and are thus able to harness their musical medium to a political message. The reason that this is also good art (of a kind) is that the message (solidarity with the oppressed) is expressed via the devices of derision, patronisation, etc. This sophistication is apparently sufficient to rate Salt Of The Earth as ‘an extraordinary construct, one of the boldest yet most delicate that British rock has ever achieved’.
But the generosity of this judgement has an aura of unreality. The devices cited as translating the Stones’ ideological progress into a artistic construct are entirely non-specific to the medium of rock music—or any form of sound. There is scarcely an indication why Salt of the Earth, or indeed the whole of Beggars Banquet, could not be discussed in exactly the same terms if it were not heard at all. True, Factory Girl is ‘punctuated by the raucous echoes of a factory siren’, and we can assume that Jagger and Richard’s derisive lyrics are also sung with derision. But this is like judging the performance of a play by the writer’s stage directions. Merton does not even see the integration of lyric into the musical structure as a problem, as is shown by his remark that ‘a return to the heavy rhythm and blues style for which the group won its early fame may have seemed the safest option in the increasingly uncertain musical conjuncture of 1969.’ The ‘rhythm and blues style’ is here seen as a purely contingent factor. The crisis of British rock, for which Beggars Banquet is the ‘strong solution’, is a priori assumed as soluble by ideological development alone.