I read the Victor Haug commentary from The Washington Times that Jordan Bloom noted on Thursday and found it to be problematic from the beginning, where Haug states that, “while the Internet has changed much about music, one thing that hasn’t changed is its popularity and cultural impact. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2009 the average American youth listened to music for two-and-a-half hours per day.” I’d like to see a definition of “youth” as well as “listened.” I assume that since so many young (and not so young, for that matter) people have iPods and smart phones giving them continuous access to their songs, much of that two-and-a-half hours of music is in the background.
By the second paragraph, Haug loses me completely. He states that he “conducted research on popular music over the last 65 years, counting the swear words and references to drugs, violence and sex in the top 10 songs of every year since 1946.” Now why would anybody want to do that? I could barely stand to listen to, or read the lyrics of the top ten songs for any one year much less the last six decades. I don’t doubt that pop music is more coarse today than in the 1940s, although Bloom correctly observes that suggestive lyrics aren’t a new phenomenon. Haug, however doesn’t offer a reason why this is the case.
I think that one reason why the culture has become more coarse is that the authority of the institutions regulating this sort of behavior collapsed. In the 1930s a Roman Catholic organization called the Legion of Decency arose to combat immorality in the movies. Thomas Doherty wrote about the phenomenon in the book ,Hollywood’s Censor,which was excerpted in Reason a few years ago.
The Legion was as good as its word, and it put its word into writing with a brilliant tactical device, the Legion pledge. A prayer-like pact, the Legion pledge was a contractual avowal signed by parishioners and recited in unison at Sunday masses, Knights of Columbus meetings, Ladies Sodalities gatherings, and parochial school assemblies. “I condemn absolutely those debauching motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land,” affirmed the pledger. “Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”
The campaign worked for a time and the movie industry appointed Joseph Breen to enforce a production code. I can’t see the Church or any other institution succeeding with such an effort today. Back in the 1980s, Tipper Gore, the wife of Al, became an object of derision because of a fruitless campaign against raunchy lyrics.
Of course, one may ask why institutions have little authority anymore and that’s a question too complex to be addressed in a blog post, but I can offer a partial explanation via a quote from Walker Percy , printed in his posthumous essay collection, Signposts in a Strange Land:
To state the matter as plainly as possible, I would echo a writer like Guardini who says simply that the modern world has ended, the world, the world, that is, of the past two or three hundred years, which we think of as having been informed by the optimism of the scientific revolution, rational humanism, and that Western cultural entity which until this century it has been more or less accurate to describe as Christendom. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that the optimism of this age began to crumble with the onset of the catastrophes of the twentieth century. If one had to set a date of the beginning of the end of the modern world, 1914 would be as good as any. . .