Modernism and Modern Music Thesis

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Rock Modernism

Rock Music and the Modernist Dilemma

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The end of the 19th Century brought with it a host of changes which, as driven by technology and spreading urbanization, brought the entire world under the sway of the Industrial Revolution. Factories, tenements and immigrants filled the cities of Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, and with them came overcrowding, urban blight, aesthetic conformity and the seedling of mass consumerism. The artistic community produced an organic resistance to this social impulse that would be represented by its commitment to abstract visual forms. As early as the 1880's, the modernist movement of art, literature and design logic began to present itself as a refuge from rigid Victorian ideals of aesthetic appeal or even the definition of that which could be labeled as art. This moment of inflection may seem in some ways a far cry from the throttling adrenaline of a Led Zeppelin concert stark alienation of a Radiohead album or the sheer poetic insight of a Bob Dylan lyric. But in a sense that will be explored here further as we attempt to define that which is meant by the concept of 'modernism,' these passing citations in rock music reflect a larger aesthetic in this mode of expression that renders it a social force of some considerable power. Though over its 50-year history rock music would undergo considerable change, and in particular, would cycle through a perpetual ebb and flow of artistic evolution and commercial prioritization, at those points where both conditions seem to have been satisfied, rock comprises a modernist statement that makes new usage of old forms by attempting always to strip away socially imposed conceits.

TOPIC: Thesis on Modernism and Modern Music Assignment

Before entering into a discussion of rock music both as a form of popular culture and as a mode of artistic protest, it is appropriate to return very briefly to the era of the Industrial Revolution, which by virtue of the trauma and change that it foisted upon all the people of the world, caused those with expressive outlet to seek dramatic reconsiderations of form. In the pursuit of this concept, the assumed notions of visual art-form convention, architectural necessity and craft conformity were rejected in favor of individualist aesthetic parameters. In modernism would be represented an ambition on the part of the artist to be removed from the equation of commoditization characterizing life with the inception of industrialization and its materialist tendencies. Thus, efforts to remove from its social packaging any medium in which expression might be sought would result in a broadbased philosophical change in that which was to be regarded as artful. The infusion of specifically European principles into the American craftsman's impulse brought to the fore an emphasis on abstractions of color, shape and proportion. Figures such as Lewis Comfort Tiffany, renowned for his trademark glass innovations, and architect Louis H. Sullivan, who brought the cubist abstractions of Art Nouveau to the Midwest through the vessel of what is now Norwest Bank Owatonna, helped to make modernism a form of populist resistance to aesthetic conformity. (ArtsMIA, 1)

In the manner of greatest importance to its identity, rock music was at its purest to be taken as such a populist notion. Upon its inception into popular consciousness in the 1950s, rock and roll was derided by its critics -- informed by no small degree of racism toward a music inspired by black R&B combos of the prior decade -- as a form of music requiring the least of talents. At least as its traditions compared to the virtuosity of jazz or the form and precision of classical music, it was true that rock and roll was a more basic, even primitive form of expression. Before such time as the medium would be expanded by postmodern experimentalism, this primitive nature has been regarded by many as rock and roll strongest and most defining feature. The democratic nature of a musical idiom with this level of accessibility would not mean that every young man could grow up to be Elvis Presley -- a singular talent at least to those with the foresight to recognize it at the time of his emergence -- but it would mean that everybody could have a shot at expression within its parameters. And more than that, the earliest accomplishments of rock and roll speaks to the modernist instinct to remove the layers of affectation, of aesthetic and even of perpetuated value systems in order to return to a point at which the mode of expression could stand on its own. The wild thin sound of early rock and roll demonstrates to a clear point that the previous generation's syrupy string arrangements, big band orchestras and ballroom waltzes was to go the way of that same generation's segregation, social conservatism and arch-materialism. The rattling menace of early Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or Bill Haley succeeded brilliantly at undermining the conventions which had previously dressed music in so much slick fanfare. When the conceits of a materialist society were brushed aside, it is perhaps not surprising that we were left with an expressive tendency toward inarticulate rebellion, sexual primacy and youthful disaffection.

But this would be only in the early years of rock and roll, when the rise in prominence of the above-named figures represented a serious threat to the state of American conservatism. When rock and roll's bastard child, rock music, emerged in the early 1960s with such towering figures as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, the relationship between rock music and the modernist ideology would become fragmented and confused. Elvis had demonstrated massive commercial appeal in a form which its detractors viewed as passing youthful fancy. Thus, in the years to follow, the forms used to render some of the evolutionary moments in music expression would be co-opted to meet the very commercial conceits which they were authored to reject. And of course, with figures such as the Beatles, their incredible musical ingenuity and simultaneously monumental commercial success would only further complicate the notion that truly free expression and commercialism must naturally remain separate from one another. The concept of pop music as reflected in this discussion invokes the dilemma of postmodernism.

Indeed, it is the common misconception that that which qualifies as popular culture is somehow separate and categorically distinct from cultural content that is sociologically, politically or artistically pertinent. This is to say that it would be difficult for most to accept some sweeping categorical context in which Britney Spears and Bob Dylan exist on the same continuum. Such a conception arises inherently from the critical process which is implied by modernism. This critical process will cause us to recognize one example of music as qualifying for positive artistic and intellectual regard (Dylan) while the same perspective will cause us to perceive the prurient, sophomoric or melodramatic (Spears) as functioning in a far less role of mere entertainment or recreation. This division casts a difficult shadow on our understanding of popular culture, a beast of a thousand stripes and yet beset by unending attempts at straightjacketing by mass media. By casting across this division aspects of popular music in two distinct categories, reflecting either their apparent concurrence with or their declared dissent against hegemonic economic, political and social forces, it is possible to more clearly understand the flux of rock music as a force of modernism and also as its frequent victim. This also causes us to explore the distinctly modernist assumption that concurrence with hegemony bears an inversely proportional relationship with artistic merit.

One reason for this latter assumption is the conception that by its inherently formulaic nature and its empty channeling of the status quo, popular culture such as boy band music, reality television or the special effects destruction film will lack any meaning that can be interpreted as political or purposeful in nature. From a scholastic perspective, "pop in the broadest sense was the context in which a notion of the postmodernism first took shape. . . And the most significant trends with postmodernism have challenged modernism's relentless hostility to mass culture." (McRobbie, 14) This is to say that there is an inherent tendency in academic discourse on culture to dismiss popular culture for reasons of critical baseness. In a sense, though, our research points to the idea that even this manner of making popular culture output bears some implications in the political realm. This is to say that in the decided absence of meaning relating to what one might consider pressing political or social considerations, there is a distinct meaning to be observed. In order to explore this idea further "we shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual; a photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean something." (Storey, 110) This ending clause is a curious one within the context of our conversation. Regarding rock music,… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Modernism and Modern Music.  (2009, May 11).  Retrieved September 18, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Modernism and Modern Music."  11 May 2009.  Web.  18 September 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Modernism and Modern Music."  May 11, 2009.  Accessed September 18, 2021.