In an opinion article at The New York Times, Jennifer Finney Boylan asks, “Should Classic Rock Songs Be Toppled Like Confederate Statues?” Maybe it was the editor who came up with the headline, as Boylan focuses mostly on Don McLean with a brief mention of the Rolling Stones and a few others. Regardless of who did, however, the Gray Lady has since updated the headline to the less inflammatory, “Can We Separate the Art From the Artist?” which is far too anodyne for so serious a topic.
As to the artists in question, McLean is personally problematic, as are Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Eric Clapton, Boylan writes. The Stones are insufficiently apologetic about their song “Brown Sugar,” which they have stopped performing, he adds.
Boylan’s arguments are well and good, but they don’t go far enough. All musicians — at least the good ones — are degenerate and it’s time to cancel them all.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, despite not living in River City, enjoyed billiards. He also plagiarized some of his music from a black man. Richard Wagner was likely an antisemite and Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer. Lead Belly tried to kill a guy.
There’s also the tendency amongst musicians to write paeans to young girls. Ringo Starr sang “You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.” That song is not included on this inexhaustive list about underage girls, nor is Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” which includes the lines, “Now I’m singing all my songs to the girl who won my heart/She is only three years old and it’s a real fine way to start.” (Apologists claim “The Ocean” is about Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant’s daughter, but we can’t be sure he wasn’t foreshadowing the creepy imprinting thing from “Twilight.”)
And we haven’t even gotten into the fact that most music, at least the good music, is rife with sex, drugs, and other types of fast living, up to and including dancing.
At this point you may argue that I’m being too broad and ignoring many religious compositions and hymns, many of which, unlike Christian rock, are actually good. Well, sometimes you do have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, especially given all the problematic history in various religious traditions and denominations.
Racism, sexism, and myriad other bad -isms abound. If you don’t believe me, just ask an atheist who’s never studied religious history to explain it to you.
So when Boylan writes, “The past several years have seen a reassessment of our country’s many mythologies — from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical glossing over of slaveholding founding fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a hard look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture,” the only thing he gets wrong is his focus on current pop culture.
Would the world really be worse if the only thing we could listen to in the car were NPR stories about drinking bicarbonate of soda? If Cyrano could help Christian woo Roxane without a guitar, can’t you do the same, assuming you’re not asking a young lady to a dance? If you’re on the receiving end of wooing, do you really need heartfelt melodies and stunning arrangements or can’t you be content to sign a letter of consent?
No, you don’t need the melodies, whether giving or receiving. None of us do. We must all don our hairshirts — the generic secular variety, of course — and pay penance for getting any joy whatsoever out of life. To even hum an original tune is to ignore the ways in which each of us is problematic, because we’re all problematic.
As Orwell wrote in “1984,” “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
If we are to have a fair, just, and equitable society, we must do the same. We’re already tearing down statues, renaming buildings, and destroying records. It’s time now to embrace the endless present and extend that destruction to records of the vinyl variety. Also CDs, cassettes, and digital files.
As Simon and Garfunkel sang in “The Sound of Silence,” “And in the naked light, I saw/Ten thousand people, maybe more/People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening/People writing songs that voices never share/And no one dared/Disturb the sound of silence,” it’s time to embrace the sound of silence but also never mention that song again because it’s been canceled.
Paul Simon is guilty of cultural appropriation and while we don’t know what Art Garfunkel has done yet, there’s surely something out there. Now get to work, internet sleuths. Just make sure not to whistle while you work.