By Kevin Twit
Almost everyone has an opinion about rock music. Some seem to think
that it is God's gift to the 20th century, others, that it has more
diabolic origins. A lot of rhetoric but little firm argumentation characterizes
most of these debates. Many would consider foolish the attempt to enter
into these often murky waters. However it must be done. Part of the
legacy of the Reformed world-view is the conviction that God's Word
has implications for all of life. This means that it has something to
say about culture. Christians are obligated to seek to understand and
evaluate all cultural expression. This is one dimension of the cultural
mandate of Genesis 1. Unfortunately rock music, though an important
cultural expression, has been largely neglected by Christian scholarship.
Most of the few studies done have shown very little understanding of
the genre or appreciation for its positive aspects.
But recently there has been some fresh work in this area, notably by
Quentin Schultze and his associates at Calvin College in a book entitled
Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media.
They've done a fine job but have only scratched the surface in some
areas of this vast field. One of the areas that remains to be discussed
more fully is that of how to evaluate rock music. Others have delineated
some guidelines but have not explored this field with much depth. In
addition to this, there has been renewed interest in the serious study
of pop music (of which rock is a type) among non-christian scholars.
This paper is a humble attempt to add to the growing body of literature
in this area. I write as a trained rock musician (some may wrongly consider
that an oxymoron), a recording engineer, and a budding theologian who
stands firmly within the Reformed tradition. It is this last aspect
that has caused me to embark on this project. I am saddened by the lack
of understanding and respect demonstrated by many of my (even Reformed)
brethren with regard to rock music. Most of the critiques I have read
are at best uninformed but more often elitist. This trend toward elitism
in Reformed writings on art disturbs me. It seems to owe more to people
like Allan Bloom than to serious theological reflection. Thus there
is a great need for a thorough, Reformed, and musically-informed evaluation
of rock music. In addition to understanding rock as a cultural expression
which must be evaluated, this study will also help to show how we can
use rock as a bridge in communicating with a large segment of our culture.
My method will be first to discuss the nature of rock, how it communicates,
and its meaning. Then, I will propose some criteria by which we can
both better understand and judge rock music; judgment that will hopefully
lead to a redemption of rock music as an art form capable of glorifying
God in uniquely emotional, and powerful ways. Quentin Schultze has demonstrated
how we can go about Redeeming Television. I would submit that
even rock and roll is not an unredeemable medium.
Before we can engage in a serious study of rock 'n' roll, there are
several widely-held presuppositions that must be challenged. The first
of these is the high art/ low art dichotomy. This has become such a
part of our vocabulary that it seems like a self-evident truth. Low
art is said to be inherently inferior to high art. This is the crux
of the arguments of people like Allan Bloom and Ken Myers. However there
are a number of serious problems with this simplistic reduction.
First of all it is musically naive. As Lawrence Levine points out in
an insightful study, most discussions regarding high and low art can't
define where the dividing line is. I would suggest that this
is because the line is largely arbitrarily drawn. Ken Myers has this
problem. He attempts to call pop music low art and then wants to turn
around and claim jazz (rock's cousin by virtue of their common parent
the blues) is high art. He can't seem to comprehend how anyone could
analyze a pop record and learn anything. I would contend that he has
fallen into the elitist trap. He is attempting to force rock music to
fit a certain set of criteria derived from Western Classical music.
However if one knows how to listen to rock, (and unfortunately
for the critics who dislike rock this requires quite a lot of listening
to develop), it too can be appreciated. Myers has bought into the orthodox
musicologist viewpoint that pop music is of "no great aesthetic
importance." Like many Christians, he has attempted to give theological
reasons to account for what is largely a matter of taste. Now I believe
that judging music is more than a matter of personal taste (as this
paper will show) but we mustn't naïvely think that judgments regarding
music are a-cultural.
Music is cultural activity, as William Edgar points out. He defines
it as, "...human covenant response in the aspect of ordered sound."
The attempt to find a universal music that is a-cultural is misguided.
Yet this is often what traditional, elitist, Classical musicologists
attempt to do. Edgar points out the cultural relativity (in a sense)
of music by citing the example of Eskimo throat-game music. He points
out how only after years of study could a Westerner understand or enjoy
this kind of music. He then contends that the music the Psalms were
originally set to would sound very strange to our Western ears and probably
would not convey the same emotional meaning to us as it did to an ancient
Israelite. This is food for thought and should lead to more caution
in making sweeping generalizations about what constitutes "good"
The second problem with the elitist view is that it constitutes a misuse
of language. Levine argues (I believe rightly so) that we shouldn't
use "pop" as an aesthetic judgment, rather we should use it
literally to mean that a piece of music has popular appeal. But who
says that popular art is necessarily bad art? We must be very careful
about automatically equating high art with tradition and intelligence,
and low art with the poor, ignorant masses. Levine shows how in the
19th century in America, Shakespeare was pop art! The shift in America
took place around the turn of the century and is closely connected with
racism and the attempt of one segment of the culture to gain control.
William Edgar also picks up on this historical phenomena. The high /
low dichotomy in art is not an eternal fact it is a cultural development.
Thirdly, as Edgar points out, this elitist view actually lowers the
standards of pop music because pop isn't taken seriously. Do we send
the message that all fields are worthy of our best effort except pop
music? I've gotten that distinct impression from some Reformed conferences!
Surely we would be better off to take pop seriously and encourage talented
men and women to invest their energy in this field, than to simply dismiss
it as unredeemable.
Another presupposition that must be challenged is the view of many
Christians that art is not important. Many see it as useful only if
it serves the cause of evangelism. They thus "...relegate art to
the very fringe of life." To this I would respond, firstly, that
the Reformed doctrine of calling needs to be recovered. Secondly, God
is concerned with culture and all human endeavor not just witnessing.
Our view of evangelism probably needs to be expanded. As Schultze points
out, in a sense, all we do as Christians either reflects positively
or poorly on God and His grace. We can't radically separate our evangelism
from our life as cultural beings. Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer
have both made such a good case for why Christians should not neglect
the importance of art, so I'll refer the reader to their writings for
more on this point.
What is Rock?
What is rock anyway? This is a much more difficult question than it
may first appear. Many writers try to leave the question shrouded in
vague generalities, and in a sense, we'll have to also. But we can say
a few things. First, bear in mind that trying to describe it is much
more difficult than listening to a piece of music and categorizing it.
Almost anyone in our culture can identify rock when they hear it. I
believe that there are three aspects that must be included in our definition.
It is a cultural phenomenon, a way of playing (an attitude if you will),
and a particular form. None of these dimensions by themselves are sufficient
to explain what rock is.
I've already discussed how all music is a cultural activity. Rock music
is closely connected with the youth culture and the quest for eternal
adolescence. We could say it is an expression of our culture's idolatry
of youthfulness. As such Schultze and his associates say, rock is, "...a
dramatic participatory anthem of teen life, freighted with the intense
experience of what teens believe, feel, value, and do." They are
getting at the sociological dimension of rock, but there is more to
rock music than this. As they point out, it also can be defined as a
musical genre. It is this aspect that is particularly hard to pin down.
First of all the rock genre has a certain style to it. This is brought
out by various elements like the beat, emotional intensity (drawing
often on the blues), particular sounds (like the raspy human voice,
electric guitar, and drums), and a certain feel. As a musician, I approach
rock in a very different way from how I play jazz, or country, or classical
music. This includes rhythmic feel the way I use micro-tonal embellishments,
vibrato, and the tones I use. The interesting thing is that a musician
is usually instantly aware (and often so are the rock fans) when someone
is trying to play rock with an inauthentic feel. This "feel"
is not something that can be captured by traditional musical notation
and is similar to what Bill Edgar says about jazz; it's a way
of playing. That's why "...sheet music is not much help unless
one is already a jazz musician." The exact same thing could be
said about rock music!
In addition to the style, there is also a certain form or structure
to rock music. In a very insightful article, Andrew Chester makes a
helpful distinction between the "...extensional form of
musical construction..." (which most Western Classical music follows),
and "...intensional development..." He points out that
while rock has some forms that follow extensional development, usually
("like many other non-European musics") it follows "...the
path of intensional development." Extensional development he explains
as where, "Theme and variations, counterpoint, tonality, are all
devices that build diachronically and synchronically outward from basic
musical atoms. The complex is created by combinations of the simple,
which remains discrete and unchanged in the complex unity." In
other words the music generates interest by taking small elements and
combining them creatively in interesting forms. Rock does have an element
of this, but primarily it works in a different way. Chester explains
that in intensional musical development, "...the basic musical
units (played/sung notes) are not combined through space and time as
simple elements into complex structures. The simple entity is that constituted
by the parameters of melody, harmony, and beat, while the complex is
built up by modulation of the basic notes, and by inflection of the
basic beat...All existing genres and subtypes of the Afro-American tradition
[of which rock is but one] show various forms of combined intensional
and extensional development." Thus, though the form may be considered
very limiting in rock, actually it is a challenge to work creatively
within it and to try variations on the structure itself. The artistry
comes in maintaining the balance between freshness and breaking the
form by going too far. Chester shows the implications of ignoring the
extensional/intensional distinction. "The 12-bar structure of the
blues, which for the critic reared on extensional forms seems so confining,
is viewed quite differently by the bluesman, for he builds "inward"
from the 12-bar structure, and not "outward." So we see that
it's important to reckon with rock as it is rather than how Western
classical musicologists wish it could be. Fundamental to any definition
of what rock is, is this formal aspect.
How Rock Communicates
Now that we've discussed what rock is, we need to look at how it actually
communicates. This is an area where a lot of confusion exists, especially
among Christians (though certainly this problem is not confined to them).
We must be aware that communication extends beyond mere words. Actually
we communicate by symbols which includes both "...words and images,
which convey meaning." Included in the idea of image are both visual
images and also aural ones. However bear in mind that there is a certain
amount of cultural relativity to what message a sound communicates.
In other words a distorted rock guitar may communicate rebellion to
one person yet, to a rock fan, it may communicate a sense of joy or
power. In rock, "...the primary mode of meaning and expression
is not 'rational discourse'...rock in particular is a non-rational mode
of communication, dealing with the sensory and the emotional, employing
figurative lyrics, musical mood, and symbolic gestures." As Schultze
points out, because of this, "Perhaps all attempts at determining
the specific meaning or the expressive content of particular rock songs
will meet with limited success because rock music is the ultimate existential
art form. While neat dichotomies are dangerous, it is safe to say that
for the most part rock and roll features feeling and experience more
than thought and analysis..."
But this doesn't mean that rock doesn't communicate, in fact it is
quite a powerful medium of communication, as many of its critics are
well aware. But attempts like the PMRC's (and many Christian's crusades)
to deal with rock solely in terms of lyrical content are naive and misguided.
As Eddie VanHalen (a popular and influential rock guitarist) once quipped
when asked if he was worried whether his mother would be offended by
the lyrics to his band's songs (written by the singer David Lee Roth),
"I don't know what the lyrics are." "[I]t is certain
that much rock is not received primarily in terms of text: indeed, the
texts of some genres of popular music are not clearly discernible by
its fans-- those who are most devoted to the music-- and the obscurity
of the verbal dimension seems even to be part of the attraction."
In addition, rock communicates on several levels at once. As McClary
and Wasler point out, unlike verbal language, "...music relies
on events and inflections occurring on many interdependent levels (melody,
harmony, timbre, texture, etc.) simultaneously." and each of these
has it's own "grammar of expectations." Actually most human
communication does this at some level (for instance body language and
voice inflection in human verbal communication) but it is good to emphasize
it as an aspect of the way music works. To understand the message of
rock we must seek to understand how it is working together at a number
Rock also communicates because of its social context. We mustn't try
to interpret it in a cultural vacuum. Several writers point out how
we must look at the social conditions of rock's origins and use to fully
understand it. However we mustn't evaluate it merely as a sociological
entity. Rather there must be an interdisciplinary approach combining
sociology and musicology. Allow me to just mention some of the ways
rock works sociologically. Schultze and his colleagues cover this ground
very well so I'll just summarize some of their insights. They speak
of rock as new romanticism, as celebration, as protest, and as healer.
Let us explore briefly what each of these entails.
Calling rock the new Romanticism they say, "The outrageous punk
band..is not merely "bad" or nihilistic: it is the latest
embodiment of the romantic urge to live life free of limits and disentangled
from responsibility to society and nature. This urge is sometimes expressed
in extreme ways..." This attitude is certainly open to moral judgment
but right now we are concerned with understanding, we'll cover value
judgments later. Rock is also an expression of, and symbol for, celebration.
Rock is just fun. It can be an expression of "...a kind of innocent
and exultant hedonism, a delight in the simple pleasures of the body
and of consciousness, of the goodness of being alive." Though this
can be abused and made into an idol, fundamentally there is nothing
inherently wrong with expressing the joy of life through making and
listening to music. In fact to try to deny that at times we do
enjoy life would be to attempt to deny our humanness.
One of the ways rock is most often perceived is as protest. But this
protest can take different forms. If it is advocating anarchy and the
destruction of all legitimate, God-given institutions, rock must be
criticized. But not all protest is bad. It depends on the morality of
what is being protested against and also the motive behind the protest
(is it a true concern for justice?). Then we must ask if the protest
is proportional to the evil protested against. Some music is so violent
that we may legitimately ask, "Is life really that bad?" For
the most part though, with regard to protest, rock's bark is worse than
its bite. "As a vehicle for rebellion and protest...rock has been
far more ambiguous and contradictory than dangerous and violent. More
influence has been attributed to it than it has ever been capable of
wielding." We must reckon with rock as protest but not all protest
is bad. In a fallen world, with institutional injustice, there is always
a place for prophetic critique and protest.
One of the often overlooked ways that rock works in our culture is
as a healer. Schultze says, "...it contains enormous cathartic
power to help youth deal with life's problem's and contradictions. For
whatever else it might do, rock does at times provide solace and define
community..." Again this is not an unqualified good or evil, it
depends on how it is used. Music can be a healer but it can also be
abused and used merely as escapism (and this is true of both rock and
Classical music!) But using music for leisure and relaxation is not
wrong in itself. Perhaps we need to gain a better perspective on the
value of leisure to appreciate this aspect of rock music.
Evaluation of Rock Music
Evaluation of music, and rock music in particular, is very tricky.
As McClary and Walser put it, "...music is an especially resistant
medium to write or speak about." It would be much easier to play
examples of rock music to illustrate the points being made, but that
is not possible in a paper. There are a number of reasons why it is
difficult to write about and evaluate. One of the foundational problems
is that there really isn't a developed language to speak about music
as there is for visual art or literary art. There is a high level of
abstraction involved in trying to capture the essence of sounds in ordinary
language. What language does exist, to describe and critique music,
is often inappropriate to discuss rock music. This is because the categories
are derived from Western Classical music which, as we saw, has some
fundamental structural differences. As Lawrence Levine rightly complains,
we often, "...employ frozen categories ripped out of the
contexts in which they were created." In fact what we see happening
today is that because of the particular challenges of popular music,
musicologists have had to rethink the way music is understood and judged.
Another complicating factor is that often criticism ends up sucking
the life out of the music. When we try to dissect music to explain it,
we usually find we have killed it and mutilated it to the point where
it is unrecognizable to the average rock fan. There may be another subtle
element at work here as well. Because of rock's threat to neat, orderly,
rational categories of explanation, the temptation is strong for the
rock critic to "..keep at arms distance the dimensions of music
that are most compelling and yet most threatening to rationality."
Music moves the passions and this mustn't be feared or we will be tempted
to try explain rock's impact without this vital aspect. Incidentally,
moving the passions (a term used by the Baroque theorists) is not necessarily
a bad thing. There seems to be an unspoken assumption among many Christians
that music which affects us emotionally is somehow less spiritual and
more dangerous than more cerebral music. Of course this is baseless
and fails to see the connection between music and emotions throughout
With regard to how music affects us, another problem we have in evaluating
it is that it seems to affect us directly. But in reality, it is mediated
through culture and we interpret it at an almost subconscious level.
Furthermore people often find it very difficult to express why they
like a particular piece of music. A little reflection could go a long
way towards improving most people's aesthetic taste. As it is, there
is almost "...no consensus as to what aesthetic merit really is."
But just because there is so little agreement does not mean that we
can't attempt to make some sort of judgments regarding aesthetic merit
(as well as moral goodness). However to evaluate rock music we must
take it seriously. The fans and the creators certainly do. Anyone who
has sat in a recording studio for 12 hours while a musician is working
on one guitar part trying to get it just right will never again be able
to say that this is just mindless entertainment music. Donald Fagen's
1982 album "The Nightfly" required 365 8-hour days to complete!
So how do we evaluate rock music? First of all we must avoid the trap
of "...trying to control the music by means of a single totalizing
method." We need to have a three-fold dimension to our evaluation
that deals with form, content, and function. If we fail to do this we
can fall into moralism or produce propaganda art (by judging content
alone), or we can fall into formalism ( by only judging the structure).
We must also keep in our minds the fact that music works on all of these
levels at once. Therefore we must evaluate each of these areas individually
and then also look at how they work together. Do they work together,
or do they contradict? Some music even sets up a tension between these
3 aspects to communicate a message beyond the surface meaning. A good
example of this is the song "Missing You" by John Waite. He
sings "Since you've been gone, I ain't been missing you at all"
yet clearly from the way he sings and the mood of the music,
he really is missing his girl. (This is confirmed by a closer examination
of the lyrics of the verses and bridge.)
Besides this three-fold evaluation of form, content, and function,
we must add the overall dimension of purpose. Art is purposeful. In
fact everything that man does has purpose in a sense. It is part of
what it means to be human. There is no neutral cultural activity. This
is not to deny the reality of adiaphora (morally indifferent things)
but simply to contend that creating music can never be adiaphora. As
William Edgar explains, it is either an expression of rebellion or obedience
to God. But what is the legitimate purpose of art? Here Quentin Schultze
has some important insights. He contends that the purpose of
art (as in all cultural activity) is to glorify God, but under this
are many valid sub-purposes. As sub-purposes he includes things like;
telling truth, entertainment, beauty, expressing realistic emotions,
etc. Each of these is a valid purpose for art but if we try to elevate
any of them to the purpose we have a serious problem. I believe
this is a very helpful perspective. Not all art has to be beautiful,
though beautiful art is certainly valid. Not all art must be realistic,
abstract art is certainly valid.
Purpose is important but what constitutes a valid purpose it is not
as narrow as many would try to argue. We also need to remember that
because of common grace, and the continuing reality of sin in the world,
nothing human can be totally good or totally evil. Thus in seeking to
evaluate art we will need to think of a continuum from bad to good rather
than making absolute, total judgments.
Before I propose some useful criteria for judging rock music, I need
to say a quick word about some invalid criteria. First, we need to heed
Edgar's caution that music is neither neutral or inherently evil (which
would be Manicheism). Thus we must reject a purely alarmist view of
rock which sees it primarily as manipulation. Even if rock music did
affect us physiologically, which is far from clear, this would not provide
a basis for evaluating it because this is not an inherently bad thing.
Another invalid criteria commonly advanced is that of complexity. In
itself, this is not a preferable thing. The question is, does the complexity
serve the purpose? For example no one would argue that Bach's 2-part
inventions are somehow inferior because they are not as "complex"
as a Mozart Symphony. Yet often rock is criticized for not being complex.
This is a false criteria that doesn't help us in trying to evaluate
what is truly excellent in the rock genre. (Or in the Classical genre
for that matter!)
The final false criteria I wish to look at is a false distinction made
by C.S. Lewis, Ken Myers and others. They talk of using art rather
than receiving it. They contend that pop art is only capable
of being used and not received. First of all there is much rock that
is worthy of serious study and brings new insight every time it is enjoyed
(for example Steely Dan, or the music of Sting), but the real problem
with this elitist view lies elsewhere. It is way too simplistic. Much
"high" art is merely escapist and doesn't lead to reflection
either. As Edgar asks, "Why should not art be used as well as received?"
Do we really want to say that the purpose of art is to reflect on "higher"
or "more spiritual" aspects of life? This is a very Platonic
view of art which sees it as valid only as a catalyst for thinking of
the spiritual realm. We must reject this view of Myers and Lewis because
they illogically assume that art's greatness is to be found primarily
in its ability to cause us to reflect on universal themes. However I
do believe that art which does this is good. This is certainly a valid
purpose for art but it is not the purpose.
Criteria for Judging Rock Music
A distinction between morally good and aesthetic good must be made.
However, if we are to do everything to God's glory, aesthetically bad
art does have moral implications. Always listening to consistently poor
art is a failure to be a good steward of our time and God-given gifts
to make judgments about art. We must maintain the delicate balance between
Christian liberty and seeking to improve our aesthetic standards as
an implication of the cultural mandate. If part of sanctification is
cultivating the enjoyment of what God enjoys, then there are more serious
implications for what, and how, we listen to music than many of us would
care to think about. But we must combine this insight with the fact
that often the judgments we make about art are judgment calls. Thus
we must not seek to simplistically legislate what is "good"
art but discuss it with others and seek to learn together.
The following proposals are intended to stimulate discussion and give
some guidelines rather than mandating absolutes. Music in the real world
is very complex and may excel in some of these areas and fail in others,
thus there is no way to talk about absolute good or bad art. How a piece
of rock music excels or fails in these areas is a matter of judgment.
God wants us to exercise thoughtful discernment and so he doesn't give
us a rigid set of criteria for how to judge art, rather he gives us
principles. Some Christians are bothered by this and thus we see the
tendency to make hard and fast rules seep into this discussion (it's
analogous to the legalistic tendency in other areas.) I have taken the
broad outline of these criteria from Dancing in the Dark by Quentin
Schultze et al, have added to them, and sought to expand on their discussion.
Technical Excellence: This is a large area. Schultze
includes both freshness and fitness within this category. Basically
good art will exhibit some trait of excellence rather than mere mediocrity.
In rock (as with all art) there should be an aspect of creativity (or
freshness) and also a dimension of appropriateness (or fit). With regard
to creativity, trite art is bad art. However before we can judge triteness
we must bear in mind that only an informed judge can accurately judge
if a piece is truly trite within its genre. We must have a wide knowledge
of both the genre itself and also the history of it. The historical
context of a piece is vital to properly evaluating its freshness. Does
the piece exhibit freshness for it's era? Does it represent a particularly
important piece because of its subsequent influence?
A piece must also exhibit appropriateness. Basically this means that
it must be tasteful. Seeking to introduce elements that don't fit or
even destroy the form (if there is no artistic purpose in doing so)
will produce poor art. This is a very tricky area because in reality
there is always a tension between originality and appropriateness. Going
too far in one direction will produce poor art. "Faddishness"
comes from trying to introduce freshness without purpose. Thus the freshness
is used as a gimmick which quickly grows old and boring. There is also
an appropriateness within the various sub-groupings of rock. What fits
in a metal song may be totally wrong in a Southern rock song. The question
is, "Does this piece exhibit creativity while retaining appropriateness?"
And even this tension can be used creatively. Sometimes there is a deliberate
stretching of the form for a particular effect. As always the question
of purpose looms in the background.
There are many areas where judgments of technical excellence can be
made. For instance, "Does it exhibit exceptional skill in the performance
of the song; or even in a particular part of the song (like a great
guitar solo)?" Is the vocal performance exceptional? This doesn't
just mean in tune (which in a blues-influenced genre may sound stiff),
it covers such questions as, "Is it passionate?" and "Does
the vocalist groove with the track?"
Since I've mentioned groove, I better explain what it is. Groove refers
to the overall rhythmic pulse of a song. All the various instruments
working together create a beat which has a certain feel to it. To the
makers of rock, groove is essential. The groove may be different in
different sub-types of rock. For example the rock of Bryan Adams often
is played on top of the beat. This means that within the continuum of
where the pulse is, the musicians are attacking beats 2 and 4 (in 4/4
time) a little early. But with a band like ACDC, or especially Little
Feat, the groove is more laid back. In this case the musicians play
beats 2 and 4 a little bit late, and the music has a heavier feel to
it. Yet all of these groups have a tremendous groove. The point is that
a skilled rock musician can fit in with the rest of the musicians in
a way that rhythmically his part adds to the groove of the whole. Often
a great groove makes an otherwise ordinary song something exceptional.
Closely related to the groove is the improvisational element. Though
many seem unaware of it, there is a tremendous amount of improvisational
interplay between musicians on most rock records. Often this takes the
form of subtle variations in the phrasing of a passage or in varying
a rhythmic figure. At times the drummer may play a drum fill that breaks
his normal pattern thus creating tension (that will soon be resolved).
We should ask, "Does this piece demonstrate excellence in its improvisational
Then we can examine the writing of the song, which must be distinguished
from the performance of it (even though the writer is often among the
performers). With regard to the song itself we can ask "Do the
lyrics, melody, harmony, and form demonstrate excellent craft?"
Do they exhibit excellence in their creativity?
We can also look for technical excellence in the area of the sound
of a record. Technical excellence in this area does not mean merely
realism (though often realism is desirable--depending on the purpose).
Often sounds are created that are deliberately unreal for a desired
effect. This area covers the arrangement (how the instruments are combined,
what parts they play, and which instruments will be used), and the engineering
(done by the technician who artfully manipulates or realistically captures
the various sounds and mixes them together for a unified effect). Over
both of these stands the producer. He is the one with the overall vision
of what the final product will be and guides the various people to bring
it about. All of these areas can exhibit technical excellence (freshness
and fit) which is why we give Grammy Awards for these categories.
So we see, technical excellence is a wide-ranging and vital criteria.
And we mustn't forget to judge technical excellence within its historical
context. We shouldn't anachronistically critique earlier rock songs
for failing to achieve the level of technical skill exhibited by many
newer records. (Not that all newer records actually do exhibit greater
Moral and Religious Integrity: Because rock music
(like all art) is human cultural activity, it can and must be judged
for truth value and its moral goodness. T.S. Eliot has argued that literary
criticism from a Christian perspective, "...should be completed
by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."
All cultural activity is (as Quentin Schultze explains) what people
do before God to decide what they are. As such, culture can never be
neutral. Cultural activity has a moral dimension which must be judged
by God's standard of good and evil, right or wrong. When we apply this
to evaluating rock music there are a number of areas to consider.
First, mankind was given the task of keeping and tilling the world
. As Edgar explains, "The musician is also called to 'til and keep'
his environment. As ruler over God's world, he must find his place in
the world of music and attend to its becoming a lovely environment for
his dwelling and a glory to God." While I would want to expand
the purpose of art beyond just creating beauty, Edgar touches on an
important point here. As Charlie Peacock expresses it, God has made
us, in His image, to be "little creators." So we must ask,
"Does this art use, in a responsible manner, the gifts God has
given the creators of it?" Admittedly this is a judgment call,
but some rock is obviously sloppy and lazily done. This is poor art.
We must also ask, "Does this art further the cultural mandate?"
Keep in mind there are many ways that a piece of rock can do this. Schultze
speaks of "illumination" which means, "Does this art
shed light on the human condition?" Edgar points out how rock is
often an honest look and commentary on life as it is "under the
sun" in "...very much the same way as the Book of Ecclesiastes..."
We must evaluate not just whether or not a piece of music is beautiful
or makes you feel good, but whether or not it's true. In a fallen world,
the truth is often painful and ugly and a valid purpose of art (and
a common purpose of rock) is to cut through the niceties and portray
life as it is. Bruce Springsteen brings this out well, "...[Y]ou
do your best work and hope that it pulls out the best in your audience---that
some piece of it spills over into the real world and into people's everyday
lives. And it takes the edge off the fear and allows us to recognize
each other through our veil of differences. I always thought that was
one of the things popular art was supposed to be about..." I am
not saying that all rock must do this, but if it does, then it is worthy
of praise. We must ask, "Is it true?" recognizing that no
human activity will either be totally true or devoid of truth. By examining
the message (admittedly often a very difficult thing to do since the
message is more than just the lyric content) we can judge it by God's
word with regard to its truth.
But truth doesn't just refer to it's message, it also applies to the
spirit in which the rock is done. Is it true to its intent, or does
it prostitute itself simply to make money? There is nothing wrong with
rock for the purpose of entertainment and making money, but we must
ask, "Does it attempt to pass itself off as something more than
that?" We must try to judge whether a piece is true to it's intent.
Morally we must ask, "Is it good?" Does it promote racism?
Is it derogatory or pornographic? Does it attempt to do away with all
structure? Edgar contends (rightly so) that trying to do away with all
structure is evil in music because it rebels against God's order. However
we must be careful to distinguish between doing away with structure
as rebellion against God (which is evil), and destroying structure as
a powerful way to comment on the institutional evil in our society.
Deliberately breaking the structure may be a technique to challenge
the status quo. Again we must look at the intent and also judge whether
or not there is a correspondence between the evil protested against
and the depth of rage in the protest Some anger in rock music does go
too far because it is unjustified by the circumstances, but we can't
say that all anger in music is wrong.
Aesthetic Expressiveness: This is a difficult
thing to pin down yet it is a vital criteria nonetheless. "Although
philosophers disagree about what gives one art product more aesthetic
value than another, nearly everyone involved with popular art expects
it to express something and voices disappointment when it fails. Almost
everyone wants art to capture something about the world and to present
it in an effective way. The best art in this regard engages and sometimes
deeply moves." Basically we should ask, "Does it move you
in some way?" In the Renaissance era, musicians explored how music
moves the passions and wrote about this at length. However, many today
are suspicious of popular music precisely because it engages the passions.
This is unwarranted and is a failure to come to terms with how music
Some would say that music which unlocks deep passions and longings
in us is not "safe." But who decided that art should be safe?
By its very nature, art is risky. It seeks to communicate in less obvious
ways than normal language and if it succeeds, the effect is very powerful.
Sometimes however, it fails and is misunderstood. The artist considers
it worth the risk, those who nervously sit on the sidelines usually
view all artists with suspicion. The body of Christ needs artists and
it needs those who would hold artists responsible. Moving the passions
is not all there is to music, but as Duke Ellington once said, "It
don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing."
Good rock should have energy and passion both in the way it's played
and in how it is perceived. There is a certain intangible quality in
good rock. It moves you. However passion and energy, by themselves,
aren't sufficient. There must also be some substance to the music or
it will soon grow boring and trite. We can also ask, "Does the
music express a certain mood?" Is it creatively done? Does it express
itself well, and does it achieve it's purpose? If a song is intended
to communicate anger and instead communicates despair, we can say it
didn't fulfill its purpose (providing we know what the purpose was intended
Closely related to aesthetic expressiveness (and it could even be considered
an aspect of it) is amusement value. Entertainment is a valid purpose
for art. There is nothing inherently unspiritual about it. Though we
live in a culture where entertainment is often made an object of idolatry,
abuse does not negate the proper use. This is a logical fallacy that
characterizes much of the criticism of rock. So we can ask of a piece
of rock, "Does it entertain?" However rock (like television)
is not merely entertainment. And in fact, as Schultze and his
colleagues point out, "Although the purpose of "entertaining"
is usually seen as mere amusement or just moneymaking, its real purpose
is education." Entertainment is thus both friend and teacher.
Political Significance: So far we have considered
evaluations of form (technical excellence) and of content (moral integrity
and aesthetic expressiveness), but rock also has function and so our
evaluation must include this. Political significance is one aspect of
function. Schultze says that this includes how rock, "...serves
to encourage or discourage motivations, attitudes, and behaviors that
might liberate disadvantaged groups and work toward justice for everyone."
Of course not all rock does this but where it does, it must be praised.
Many of the detractors of rock have completely missed this important
(and often very powerful) function of rock. In a fallen world, challenging
injustice is a commendable activity. Music has a sociological aspect.
Does it contribute to human flourishing? Does the music heal? Musicians
can be ministers of God's common grace to mitigate the effects of the
fall. It is in this way that we can ask, "Is it beautiful?"
Beauty is one way in which the effects of the fall are mitigated, but
it is not the only way. Also worthy of consideration is the question,
"Does the piece of art encourage reflection?" As I argued
before, not all art has to do this, but it is a to be praised when it
This is the place for us to discuss the sexuality of rock. As McClary
and Walser argue, "...[U]nless the sensual power of the music is
dealt with seriously, the rest of the argument becomes irrelevant. It
lacks credibility." Sexuality is a common theme in rock and a part
of its social function in culture. However not all rock is about sex!
Even if it was, we would still have to ask, "Is sexuality treated
in a true and healthy manner or is it used in an illegitimate way and
depraved from what God intended?" For example Charlie Peacock's
record "Love Life" deals with the issue of sexuality from
a thoroughly Biblical perspective. In doing this he challenges the Victorian
prudishness of much of the Church saying, "I don't want my children
to learn about sex from the world. I want them to know that sex is delightful
in God's eyes, and it's a part of being human and that God is not ashamed
of it...Somehow, we get the idea that God is a shy God, easily embarrassed,
and that when a man and woman who are married lie naked together in
bed, God somehow turns His head. That's utter foolishness. We're talking
about the Creator of the Universe." We must judge what a song teaches
about sexuality (remembering of course that this goes beyond lyric content.)
Social Scope: This is not mere popularity but
is more properly conceived of as a piece of art's "...reach in
the society or audience for which it's intended." Schultze says
this includes both its breadth (the fact that it speaks to many segments
of the intended audience), and its depth (the fact that it goes beneath
the surface of people's lives.) Both of these are commendable in a piece
of rock music but, as Schultze points out, these two elements are often
in tension. Still if art is to communicate (and it must) then we must
ask, "Does it communicate broadly (encompassing universal themes)
and does it communicate deeply?"
Schultze and his associates include economic worth as a separate criteria
but I conceive of this as a practical measurement of whether or not
the music has communicated broadly and deeply. Along with this we could
consider a piece of rock's longevity. Classic rock stations abound because
many rock songs have achieved a "classic" status to rock fans.
I think it would be a serious mistake to conceive of this as mere nostalgia
(though this is probably part of it), rather I think this demonstrates
that a certain piece of music has connected with people. Rock's staying
power testifies to the fact that it touches people, often long after
it has dropped off the "Hit Parade."
These criteria are by no means exhaustive but they should provide a
well-rounded point of entry into the task of evaluating rock music.
We can judge cultural activity, it is not all equally valid,
but we need to exercise great caution. We must be careful not to impose
false criteria, or to elevate "personal taste" to the level
of moral absolute. Hopefully, as we grow in our sanctification, there
will be a greater correspondence between personal taste and God's standard,
but we must always be humble about it. In seeking to evaluate rock music,
we are engaging in a worthwhile, and necessary cultural activity. May
God be glorified by our attitude in this venture and by our skill and
hard work as we undertake this task.
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