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Sex Mania in the Land . . .

I read the Victor Haug commentary [1] from The Washington Times that Jordan Bloom noted [2] 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 [3], 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 [4] arose to combat immorality in the movies. Thomas Doherty wrote about the phenomenon in the book ,Hollywood’s Censor [5],which was excerpted in Reason [6] 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 [7] 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 [8], 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 [9] , printed in his posthumous essay collection, Signposts in a Strange Land [10]:

 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. . .

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#1 Comment By Johnny F. Ive On April 23, 2012 @ 7:33 am

Popular music after hippies has been guided by corporate hipsters according to Frank Zappa. The artists they support become wealthy. These artist continue to write about how they want to kill themselves, kill other people, poor relationships with people, hedonism, and how much life sucks for rich spoiled adult children as themselves. The target audience does not have enough experience in life to completely understand what is being sold to them, including the fact that what is sold to them is a rehash of something made between the 60-90s (or in case of the 60-70s the 30-60s). They buy an album with one or two catchy songs on it. Then grow bored with it and have to get a new one. The question I have is why do they market vulgarity to children? Is it because they are the most vulnerable? Unhappy adult children make good consumers?

There is a study somewhere that found out that people will force themselves to like what they are told is popular for their cohort. People learned to like low quality products. It is funny when they look at the music of other generations and appraise the quality of the music more accurately. Then came the new variable called the internet. I wonder how the internet will affect things if it is left open?

#2 Comment By Kirt Higdon On April 23, 2012 @ 8:36 am

The rather colorful wording of the Legion pledge quoted above was composed in 1933 and in the following year toned down to the following.

“I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.”

No more reference to debauching and sex mania. The 1934 version was maintained for decades, then replaced by a still more toned down version and then dropped altogether.

#3 Comment By James Pagan On April 23, 2012 @ 9:30 am

Condemnation by the killjoys at the National Legion of Decency (and its successor, the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures) practically guaranteed an entertaining time for moviegoers. Just look at some of the classic pictures the defenders of decency found so objectionable: Ecstasy, Queen Christina, The Scarlet Empress, Black Narcissus, Rififi, Some Like It Hot, Breathless, Psycho, Spartacus, A Cold Wind in August, Jules and Jim, 8 1/2, From Russia With Love, A Fistful of Dollars, Blowup, Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, The Wicker Man, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dawn of the Dead, and so on. What a film festival they’d make!

#4 Comment By TomB On April 23, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

Walker Percy wrote:

“If one had to set a date of the beginning of the end of the modern world, 1914 would be as good as any. . .”

Of course the changing—and thus clashing—views of sex are just one small aspect of it, but it’s interesting to note that George Kennan, writing late in the last century, also said that when he tried to trace back the source of so much of that century’s upheavals and cataclysms and social disruptions and etc. that while he could not explain it precisely, he too kept seeing so much of it as somehow having its birth pangs in World War I.

Maybe it formed some sort of a test of whether … God was indeed dead and religion was therefore a false authority, and then after seeming to establish that via the evidence in the trenches its endlessness simultaneously destroyed the idea that secular human authority—even if democratically founded— could be trusted to not to be monumentally stupid and incompetent and bloody and corrupt too.

Just sort of … wiped out any agreed-upon source in the West of ethics and morality and competence and authority.

#5 Comment By Sean On April 25, 2012 @ 8:15 am

Johnny F. Ive:

Popular music after hippies has been guided by corporate hipsters according to Frank Zappa.

True enough, but the punk ethos (DIY, indie labels, you know the drill…) has penetrated, and been co-opted to an extent by, the dominant culture. So mixed in with all the manufactured misery is authentic misery and, even better, sarcasm.

Of course, punk is nihilistic, and doesn’t provide (or offer) a solution to the death of the modern world. If anything, it documents it and dances on its grave. But it does give an individual a certain level of autonomy regarding their relationship to Leviathan.

As to the decency killjoys, I turned 11 the year the parental advisory stickers first appeared. These proved to be a valuable guide to my young, inquisitive ears. I wouldn’t be who I am had it not been for the sticker (and the cover art) on Appetite for Destruction, which I bought (perhaps shoplifted) based on those two factors alone. So on some level, I’m thankful for the killjoys. When kept in check, they make it easier for the rest of us to find the good stuff.