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Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music

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From Queen Latifa to Count Basie, Madonna to Monk, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music traces popular music back to its roots in jazz, blues, country, and gospel through the rise in rock 'n' roll and the emergence of heavy metal, punk, and rap. Yet despite the vigor and balance of these musical origins, Martha Bayles argues, something From Queen Latifa to Count Basie, Madonna to Monk, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music traces popular music back to its roots in jazz, blues, country, and gospel through the rise in rock 'n' roll and the emergence of heavy metal, punk, and rap. Yet despite the vigor and balance of these musical origins, Martha Bayles argues, something has gone seriously wrong, both with the sound of popular music and the sensibility it expresses. Bayles defends the tough, affirmative spirit of Afro-American music against the strain of artistic modernism she calls 'perverse.' She describes how perverse modernism was grafted onto popular music in the late 1960s, and argues that the result has been a cult of brutality and obscenity that is profoundly anti-musical. Unlike other recent critics of popular music, Bayles does not blame the problem on commerce. She argues that culture shapes the market and not the other way around. Finding censorship of popular music "both a practical and a constitutional impossibility," Bayles insists that "an informed shift in public tastes may be our only hope of reversing the current malignant mood."


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From Queen Latifa to Count Basie, Madonna to Monk, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music traces popular music back to its roots in jazz, blues, country, and gospel through the rise in rock 'n' roll and the emergence of heavy metal, punk, and rap. Yet despite the vigor and balance of these musical origins, Martha Bayles argues, something From Queen Latifa to Count Basie, Madonna to Monk, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music traces popular music back to its roots in jazz, blues, country, and gospel through the rise in rock 'n' roll and the emergence of heavy metal, punk, and rap. Yet despite the vigor and balance of these musical origins, Martha Bayles argues, something has gone seriously wrong, both with the sound of popular music and the sensibility it expresses. Bayles defends the tough, affirmative spirit of Afro-American music against the strain of artistic modernism she calls 'perverse.' She describes how perverse modernism was grafted onto popular music in the late 1960s, and argues that the result has been a cult of brutality and obscenity that is profoundly anti-musical. Unlike other recent critics of popular music, Bayles does not blame the problem on commerce. She argues that culture shapes the market and not the other way around. Finding censorship of popular music "both a practical and a constitutional impossibility," Bayles insists that "an informed shift in public tastes may be our only hope of reversing the current malignant mood."

50 review for Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    Found this on a stoop in my Brooklyn neighborhood, one of my favorite ways of discovering books. Bayles has interesting things to say about modernism (she identifies three kinds) and jazz/blues. She points out that Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard all grew up in the pentecostal church. And she's excellent on the Beatles' formative influences -- skiffle music (which I never understood until reading about it here) and American J.D. films primary among them. Then everything falls apart. I Found this on a stoop in my Brooklyn neighborhood, one of my favorite ways of discovering books. Bayles has interesting things to say about modernism (she identifies three kinds) and jazz/blues. She points out that Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard all grew up in the pentecostal church. And she's excellent on the Beatles' formative influences -- skiffle music (which I never understood until reading about it here) and American J.D. films primary among them. Then everything falls apart. It's not that the writer's against virtually all popular music made since 1970, or even that her explanation for that music's creation and reception is so odd (what Bayles calls "perverse modernism"). It's that she seems to have encountered that music exclusively in the pages of books, rather than having listened to the stuff. That said, I couldn't put "Hole in My Soul" down. Weird!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jim Nirmaier

    This fairly deep academic study and dive into popular music, published in 1994, was written by the former TV and arts critic for the Wall Street Journal and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, and the Claremont Review of Books. As of 2018, Ms. Bayles has been teaching humanities at Boston College and lives in Newton, Massachusetts. The author begins the book by a detailed background of modern art and then drills down to dissect three separate and distinct kinds of modernis This fairly deep academic study and dive into popular music, published in 1994, was written by the former TV and arts critic for the Wall Street Journal and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, and the Claremont Review of Books. As of 2018, Ms. Bayles has been teaching humanities at Boston College and lives in Newton, Massachusetts. The author begins the book by a detailed background of modern art and then drills down to dissect three separate and distinct kinds of modernism: Introverted, or art for art’s sake, as exemplified by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky’s abstractions and early 20th Century Anton Friedrich Wilhelm von Webern’s Austrian atonality musical compositions; Extroverted, which revitalizes tradition and reaches out to its audience, the way painter Vincent van Gogh and jazz-meister and composer Duke Ellington did; and Perverse, which “makes obscenity and serious artistic value synonymous.” Her basic thesis, in a nutshell, is the farther away music has moved from primitive and basic impulses of the African-American esthetic: continuity, professionalism, community participation, and moral fervor; the more “Perverse” it has become. And there is no doubt that the tribal rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean, combined with the sacred intensity and fervor inspired by the traditional Christian worship within the Black community, as well as the passionate embracing of “having a high old time on Saturday night, as long as you are in your pew on Sunday morning;” were all fundamental building blocks of what eventually became, jazz, blues, and gospel. Which, in turn, coalesced into what became the national sensation known as Rock ‘N’ Roll in 1956 (the name originally from a Black term for making love). That was in turn, to a large degree, co-opted for the masses by such whites as Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and Leonard & Phil Chess (among many, many others). Ms. Bayles posits that “popular music,” while it still remained anchored in the above African-American cultural esthetic building blocks, was able to remain culturally viable and legitimate. However, as popular music “drifted” away from these fundamental aspects, over time it became “perverted” culture beginning in the late 60’s. The author expresses some rather controversial and perplexing views on music from the latter 60’s onward: “Compared with a country blues master such as John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan was the rankest amateur.” “For Dylan’s more rambling, free-associative lyrics display the typical vices of beat poetry: deliberate obscurity, self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and (most damning) indifference to the aural texture – the music – of words.” “Compared with the originals, the Rolling Stones’ early covers are amateurish; no blues fan would ever place their “Rooster” above Howlin’ Wolf’s. The Stones beat the Beatles at paying tribute to their black American sources. They weren’t always graceful about it, as when Jagger wrote, in a 1964 letter to Melody Maker, ‘These legendary characters wouldn’t mean a light commercially today if groups were not going round Britain doing their numbers.’ “ “But there were problems with all this tribute. First was the fact that its sincerity was rarely tested. In Britain the cloak of blues purism that the Stones wrapped around themselves was also the costume with the best commercial prospects – not because the general British public loved the blues, but because a small but influential audience was still seeking an alternative to the “pop” commercialism of the Beatles.” “The real genius of the Stones lay in their cultivated contempt for their audience. Instead of grinning at the camera, they scowled. Instead of signing autographs, they spat. Instead of ending their televised performance at the London Palladium with the show-business ritual of going out on the revolving stage to greet the fans, they turned their backs and stalked off. The irony of course, is that the Stones wrapped themselves in the cloak of blues authenticity while rejecting the crowd-pleasing manner that is an essential part of every bluesman’s stock in trade. Even the notoriously moody Howlin’ Wolf never failed to behave courteously when performing for his newly acquired white fans. Like all bluesmen, he lived by the old adage: ‘The people can make you, and the same people can break you.’ “ Including the above cited examples, the author continues to rip through more “perverse” culture/musical eras such as Art or Prog Rock, the Psychedelic or Acid bands, “Soul loses it’s Soul” with the advent of disco decadence and urban contemporary slick dance music and ballads, as well as “Punk: The Great Avant-Garde Swindle.” Ms. Bayles makes some interesting points and I found the book enlightening while learning quite a bit, but her virtually blank across-the-board dismissal of legitimate late 20th Century music as obscene and perverse, is too broad-based. The nihilism of the Sex Pistols, as calculated as it was, was also in many ways a response to the alienation and economic disparity of Thatcher’s England, as the coarseness and aggressive sexuality of much of 80’s music such as Madonna, 2 Live Crew, and NWA was partially a response to the AIDS crisis and the prudish conservatism of the Reagan era. Not to mention the music that has transpired in the nearly 30 years since the book’s publication. I do recommend this intellectual study of 20th Century music for serious fans of the art such as myself, but for the casual listener, I would pass.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Constantine

    First of all, Martha Bayles is not the editor of this book...she is the author. A Harvard graduate with a pretty impressive resume. I found this book in a used book store...cheap!!!Glad I did. As a musician (made my living at it for 15 years...still play regularly, but no longer road dog it) I love to read about the music of my times. This is a very vigorous, well researched and erudite look at American Pop Music.There are 35 pages of notes!!! Well worth reading for anyone interested in music,an First of all, Martha Bayles is not the editor of this book...she is the author. A Harvard graduate with a pretty impressive resume. I found this book in a used book store...cheap!!!Glad I did. As a musician (made my living at it for 15 years...still play regularly, but no longer road dog it) I love to read about the music of my times. This is a very vigorous, well researched and erudite look at American Pop Music.There are 35 pages of notes!!! Well worth reading for anyone interested in music,and/or cultural history. Stanley Crouch had this to say on the back jacket..."Through this work we arrive at a more thorough recognition of the difference between fresh, artistic vitality and contrived impotent vulgarity." Amen, Stanley.... our culture is indeed a vulgar abomination. This book can help you to discern between the likes of Big and Rich (vulgar sham) and,lets say,Buddy Miller(artistry) or early Ray Charles(genius) and,lets say,Boys to Men(what the F...?). Pick your genre....discover that there are degrees of "soul".

  4. 4 out of 5

    Blair

    This was the first book about music I ever read. I really liked it, especially how it privileges the influence of black music on our culture. But I find her viewpoints to be elitist, particularly with hie views on punk, metal, and the like. Without that, it's a great read. But it's like she thinks that anything made after the early 1970s is a waste. Too narrow-minded. This was the first book about music I ever read. I really liked it, especially how it privileges the influence of black music on our culture. But I find her viewpoints to be elitist, particularly with hie views on punk, metal, and the like. Without that, it's a great read. But it's like she thinks that anything made after the early 1970s is a waste. Too narrow-minded.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Svelteassassin

    I read this along time ago but what I remember is that even though I didn't agree with everything she said, she did make good arguments for her claims (which is basically that everything recorded since the '60s is awful). I read this along time ago but what I remember is that even though I didn't agree with everything she said, she did make good arguments for her claims (which is basically that everything recorded since the '60s is awful).

  6. 4 out of 5

    Douglas Wilson

    Impressive.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

    Fascinating look at 20th century modernism and pop culture as reflected thru music.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Joe Blevins

    This book exists. If you want to read it, do.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Bielski

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kathy D

  12. 5 out of 5

    Nick Visconti

  13. 4 out of 5

    Abdullah Başaran

  14. 4 out of 5

    Reede

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bob

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tony

  17. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  18. 5 out of 5

    Spencer

  19. 4 out of 5

    Victor Caamaño

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jennie Wood

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Zade-pollard

  22. 4 out of 5

    John

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sara

  24. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Compton

  25. 5 out of 5

    Diskojoe

  26. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Moes

  27. 5 out of 5

    Josh

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Miller

  29. 4 out of 5

    David W.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Will

  31. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  32. 5 out of 5

    Martijn Van Duivenboden

  33. 4 out of 5

    B.J.

  34. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

  35. 5 out of 5

    Reader

  36. 4 out of 5

    Art Levine

  37. 5 out of 5

    Scott Eaton

  38. 5 out of 5

    Glyven

  39. 5 out of 5

    Liam

  40. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

  41. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  42. 4 out of 5

    Graham

  43. 5 out of 5

    James

  44. 5 out of 5

    Jason Farley

  45. 4 out of 5

    Molly

  46. 5 out of 5

    Sheila Thoburn

  47. 5 out of 5

    Adam Ross

  48. 5 out of 5

    Bops

  49. 5 out of 5

    Yian

  50. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

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