Rhythm and Noise

Milo Miles reviews Theodore Gracyk's book "Rhythm and Noise: The Aesthetics of Rock".

Published June 28, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the earliest rock books was an overlong joke called "The Aesthetics of Rock," by Richard Meltzer, which satirized the pompous nitpicking of university intellectuals as well as the very idea that a book of art philosophy could be written about a music with words as simple as "Surfin' Bird" and sounds as basic as "Louie Louie." Whether rock old-timers like it or not, pop culture has come full circle -- there's now a serious, smart and fascinating study of the aesthetics of what author Theodore Gracyk, who teaches philosophy at Moorhead State University, wryly calls rhythm and noise.

Other academic studies of rock dot bookstore shelves, but nearly all are trivial, or unreadable, or, as Gracyk is quick to point out, written by hostile, ill-informed outsiders determined to discredit the music. Gracyk is thoroughly knowledgeable from the start -- if you discount the first chapter, that is, which is an abstruse discussion of how rock is legitimately embodied by records only. Rock mavens should skip directly to the second half of "Rhythm and Noise," where Gracyk does a smashing job of taking on rock haters and dreamers. Choice targets include Allan Bloom (rhythm ignoramus who fears rock is a form of aural sex), Theodore Adorno (culturally blinkered snob who damns popular music for not living up to irrelevant standards) and Camille Paglia (pop dabbler who shoehorns rock into Romanticism and suggests that musicians stop touring and study art in universities). For those who kept listening despite the pronouncements of such public intellectuals, Gracyk makes a welcome ally.

Another astute tactic is his refusal to define rock in the first half of the book. First, because enough counter-examples can be offered by now to shatter even the broadest categories. Second, and most importantly, Gracyk argues that rock's association with technology and mass media -- how people use the music -- is its essence. Despite a host of logical arguments to the contrary, performers and consumers still hear rock as the unfettered sound of authentic emotion. This canny reminder that this is so should be cherished, and read, by rockers everywhere.

By Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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