Hole in Our Soul

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The cultural and musical legacy of the 1960’s, like that decade’s political legacy, is a smorgasbord of balkanized sociocultural enclaves, each doing its own thing, apparently with little or no heed for or communication with its several adversaries. By the mid-1990’s, popular music was well into a distinctly postmodern period, characterized by the insufferable preening and mugging of indistinguishable maudlin young “alternative” bands; an endless string of all-star tributes resembling high-school reunions, in which once genuinely great artists such as Eric Clapton and Tina Turner rub shoulders with latter-day mediocrities such as Bryan Adams and Paul Young; yet more albums from the Rolling Stones, amid jokes about Boy Scouts helping Mick Jagger and Keith Richards across the street; all too much “dance music” accompanying semipornographic videos; vulgar and violent rap; and an assembly line of cookie-cutter Nashville stars sporting seemingly made-up names like Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1994, many an aging lover of good, original, lively popular music—and many not-so-aging—could be heard to mutter beneath the din, “What’s going on? What went wrong?”

Martha Bayles, a former teacher of writing at Harvard University and arts critic for The Wall Street Journal, articulates the exasperation others may not have known quite how to put into words and suggesting that a hopeful way forward just might exist. Indeed, probably the most substantial achievement of Hole in Our Soul—the title is from the old saying “If you don’t like the blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul”—is simply that to the extent that it is read and discussed seriously, it will have shifted the boundaries of discussion and (so the author obviously hopes) fostered in readers a renewed respect for the Afro-American musical tradition that is the very lifeblood of almost all music that can legitimately be called American.

A reviewer who shares Bayles’s distaste for cant can be grateful that she insists on using the relatively old-fashioned term “Afro-American” rather than the fashionable “African American.” Bayles has something particular in mind: she uses “Afro-American” to refer to the American musical tradition as a whole, as opposed to the European classical or “serious” tradition. Her point is well taken: American music, like American history and culture in general, simply cannot be understood in any meaningful way without rigorous and respectful study of the history of black people and black music in the American context. Thus Bayles uses “Afro-American” quite pointedly as a near-synonym for “American.” The interaction of this (Afro-)American tradition with certain European or quasi-European habits of mind and assumptions about high and low culture constitutes the history of American popular music. This interaction and its motley legacy is the subject of Bayles’s trenchant critique.

She structures her polemic both chronologically and thematically, in four sections, starting with a discussion of “The Three Strains of Modernism,” moving through “The Obstacle of Race,” “The Taint of Commerce,” an appreciative discussion of the history of jazz, the transition from 1950’s rock ’n’ roll to 1960’s rock and the counterculture of the late 1960’s (of which she is not fond), to critiques of the major strains of post-1960’s music, including headbanging, disco, punk, the eclectic post-punk “new wave” of the early 1980’s, and hip-hop or rap. She lambastes rappers such as Ice-T and 2 Live Crew for using sexual vulgarity, violence, and outlaw personae as cheap publicity tools. “Anyone, black or white, who worries that the outlaw culture is encouraging American society to disinvest in black youth, can only feel dismay at this particular marketing gambit,” she writes. She ends by observing that there is hope, as evidenced by many young black performers—among them rappers dissatisfied by the limitations of their genre—consciously reaching back into the wellspring of their musical heritage, and performers in their forties or older who “share a deep traditionalism that has helped their music endure,” whom she calls “root doctors.”

Two central confrontations have shaped the development of American popular music, according to Bayles. One is “the blood knot,” the inescapable historical fact that whites and blacks in America share an ineradicable cultural and indeed genealogical heritage from which none can escape, try as one might. Attempts to escape the blood knot result in the intellectual dishonesties of black cultural separatism on one hand, white “racism” on the other. (The word “racism” is rendered in quotes here because it is a term few writers ever bother to define. The unfortunate evasion, of which Bayles partakes, will be discussed below.) Bayles is by no means the first critic to take note of the blood knot, as she readily acknowledges. Her very welcome contribution is to have taken the trouble to untie it carefully and cogently. Noting the very real...

(The entire section is 2079 words.)