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The Fragments Are Coming!

Today's New York Times op-ed pages are filled with cultural angst.

Columnist David Brooks tells us about a new curriculum, drawn by Bruce Springsteen's own Little Steven, to teach high schoolers American history through music. It seems that Van Zandt, like Brooks, is anxious about the fragmentation of American culture, particularly rock and/or roll. We are creating, apparently, a generation of new musicians who have no sense of musical history.

I have three initial reactions to Van Zandt's proposal. First, there is no quicker way to kill rock than to codify it in a high school classroom. Kids listen to music to get away from school, their parents, and any other authority figure who tells them what's good for them.

Second, when has anyone liked being told what they should know and should like? The only difference is now musicians and listeners don't have to rely on Top 40 radio and record labels to hear what they want. Technology has reasserted consumer control—at least until some company, probably one that names all its products beginning with a lower case i, figures out how to push their taste on them. Of course our tastes are more fragmented than ever as a result. Why is that bad?

Third, music is as near a primal force as humanity can create. We react viscerally to it. Just because a history of some style might be lost does not mean we will ever stop creating the music we want to play and hear. Besides, every new tradition emerges out of a break from an old one.

But what really got my anger-crank turning were the idiocies tossed off by Brooks. In one choice moment, he drivels, "there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2." That's because it's temporally impossible, Dave. New bands are, well, new. Posterity hasn't weighed in yet. We simply don't know which ones will survive fame, overdoses, and the ravages of age.

A few paragraphs later, Brooks states, "It's considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles." One: Eminem. Two: if you check with your good friend and rock historian, Little Steven, he might tell you that a lot of early 20th century black musicians died penniless, while others, mostly white guys, claimed copyright and profited from their songs. That's at least inappropriate, or even immoral, so black musicians might be excused for being a little touchy about their contribution to American culture.

Brooks pinpoints the "pivot moment" in musical history to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when "the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation." I think the real cultural pivot is his essay, in which the always buttoned-down Brooks aligns himself with an aging rocker who dresses like a gypsy.

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