The New Yorker is still gating for subscribers Adam Gopnik’s review essay covering both Terry Teachout’s bio of Duke Ellington, and the first installment of Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles biography. But Gopnik makes a point that might be fun to debate.
He begins the essay by quoting the historian John Lukacs saying (of the 1920s and 1930s) that America and England were more or less immune to fascism because our peoples loved jazz. This, in contrast to the Marxist critic Theodor Adorno, who believed jazz’s rhythms made fascism go down easier. After discussing Ellington and the Beatles, Gopnik writes:
Inevitably, the left-wing claim that jazz was an ally of fascism was mirrored, in our time, by the right-wing claim (which Lukacs sadly endorses) that rock and roll was an antirational music of implicitly totalitarian emotion, a music that culminates, as Allan Bloom wrote, in “a pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents.” In fact, few jazz fans didn’t hate Nazis, and it was rock-and-roll fans, we now know, who made the various and velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe. Why did jazz songs immunize listeners against fascism, as rock provided an alternative to the gray oppressions of Stalinist official culture? Because they are demonstrations of the actual force of freedom, rather than mere rhetoric in its favor. If you want to know what a fully empowered human being sounds like, listen to [Ellington’s tenor sax player] Ben Webster play “Cotton Tail”; if you want to feel the liberty of youth, listen to “I Saw her Standing There.” (And if you need to be reminded that being fully empowered isn’t the same as being a happy man, or that liberty of youth is not always gentle, read Teachout on the reasons that Webster was called “the Brute,” or Lewisohn on the teen-age John’s treatment of his girlfriends.) Most people would rather swing than march, and would rather rock than live a regimented life. That was a very big lesson of the sad century just past. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. It can’t.
Is it true that peoples who love jazz and rock do not love fascism or communism? What’s your case? Is it also true that peoples who love jazz and rock cannot, more or less, sustain a life of self-discipline? Thoughts?