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Come Softly, Darling, Hear What I Say:
Listening in a State of Distraction—A Tribute to the Work of Walter Benjamin, Elvis Presley, and Robert Christgau
All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the dog.
Outside of a dog, a man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog, it's very dark.
My mother groan'd! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
—William Blake, "Infant Sorrow" [End Page 199]
I wanna be your dog.
The year 1955 marks the emergence of rock 'n' roll from the shadows into the bright lights. 1 It is also the year that the rules of music changed. To steal and change a line from Mallarmé: On a touché a la musique (They have tampered with music). The manner in which music was produced and how it was received changed drastically in ways we still hardly recognize, partly because this is recent history and partly because the changes are still being resisted.
We need an overall understanding of the change in order to properly mark it. I think Walter Benjamin's ideas about the way art gets transmogrified in the modern era provides the basis for that understanding. Benjamin was the first to acknowledge that the machine fundamentally changed the arts. The machine has been thrust into the heart of the process, so finally we have a chance to get rid of the high-mindedness about the arts that has always poisoned reflection about art. 2 One might have imagined that the changes that follow from the new possibilities for producing and receiving art would have hit the oldest arts—for example, music—first; but that is not what happened. These fresh possibilities first became apparent in new arts like photography and film, and then percolated into the other arts. But this mutation of the arts has also led many to raise the same questions about music as it was transformed that they asked about photography and film. Are these practices art? If they are art, aren't they bad art? No art can emerge or be revamped without an army of militant traditionalists rising up to say that our very humanity is threatened if we just let these new and unsavory practices thrive. And the traditionalists are right: It is our very humanity that [End Page 200] is at stake in the coaxing of these new arts to life. All true art and all true criticism occur in the mode of crisis.
Robert Christgau has written that most of us who are old enough to have been listening to radio in 1955—therefore old enough to undergo a revolution in our aesthetic preferences—cherish the idea that a great schism took place that year. Indeed, the shift was epochal. 3 Music underwent the transformation that had been inaugurated with photography in the nineteenth century and with movies in the early years of the twentieth. The big question, then, is whether the coming of these new arts "had not changed the entire question of art," to borrow from Benjamin. Because music existed before rock 'n' roll did, when rock emerged to alter music, many wanted to deny that it was either music or art. Disdain seemed reasonable, but it was not.
All the popular arts are part of a general effort to establish new equilibriums between humans and their tools and their world. The doubts persist for the high-minded, whose godfather is aesthetic theoretician Theodor Adorno, who railed against the ravages of "regressive hearing." But rather than take that tack, it seems more productive to wonder why music and the arts underwent such a massive sea change in 1955. Moviemaking transformed the history of art because in moviemaking the undeniable centrality of the machine, the camera, in the production of...