The history of popular religions can be compared to the natural history of species. Sometimes a new species arrives in an environment, and a fierce battle ensues with the native species. They may also interbreed, as the first homo sapiens interbred with earlier species of humans. The same thing happens with religions and cults: a new cult goes viral among a population, and the defenders of the old cult attack it, but then often some sort of compromise or interbreeding takes place.
With this in mind, I want to examine the love-hate battle between two cults in the last 60 years: the cult of nationalism, and the cult of rock and roll.
First we need to look at the role of music in the cult of nationalism. During the Enlightenment, rationalist philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and and the Baron de Montesquieu challenged the supernatural authority of monarchs and the Church, and instead put forward a social contract model of the state, in which people join together in a state through rational self-interest and the desire for safety and profit. Music played no role in these philosophers’ understanding of politics.
To Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first philosopher of Romanticism, the rationalist account of politics seemed an incredibly tepid and unheroic vision of community. Rousseau put forward an alternative vision of the state, in which citizens would be magically fused together through their heroic and self-sacrificing passions. The passionate cult of Christianity would be replaced by the passionate cult of the nation. He tentatively imagined that music could play a role in this, by shaping the public consciousness and rousing patriotic sentiments.
In 1789, the year after Rousseau’s death, the French Revolution seemed to offer a practical example of this sort of passionate politics, with the French populace joined together in a common sense of Romantic nationalism, symbolised by their Roman salutes. And that Romantic nationalism was in part fostered by a ditty composed by a young army engineer called Roger de Lisle, called La Marseillaise.
At the same time, in Prussia, the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder was researching the folk myths of various cultures, and suggesting that folk stories and ballads helped to create the volksgeist or genius of a nation. This idea elevated the artist and composer to the exalted position of national spirit-channeler. “A poet”, he wrote in 1767, “is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.” Over the next 150 years, many composers would take up Herder’s challenge, and try to create national folk epics for their nations, such as Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (1847), Sibelius’ Finlandia (1899), Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1875), Mussogorsky’s Boris Godunov (1873) and, above all, the Ring-Cycle of Richard Wagner (1869).
Such pieces were unofficial national anthems, though national governments also started to create official anthems, to be played and sung when large crowds were gathered together, at the theatre, at sport, even for large dinners (in the City of London, the national anthem is still sung at the end of big dinners), and especially to be sung during war-time. Such anthems, repeated over and over, would help to inspire patriotic passions and forge a national identity, just as the repetition of Christian psalms and hymns helped to forge a Christian identity.
But nationalist songs, rather than glorifying God, would glorify the nation’s leader or the nation itself. They would define the national identity and defend it against foreign invasions – in this famous scene from Casablanca, for example, a group of German soldiers singing their anthem is drowned out by the crowd singing La Marseillaise. Note how La Marseillaise also defends the tribe’s women from the risk of breeding with the alien species – the woman being chatted up by the Nazis resists their advances once she starts singing the anthem.
The new cult
After World War II, a new cult emerged to challenge the cult of nationalism: rock and roll. It took rhythms that had emerged from African-American jazz, gospel and blues, and the emotional expressiveness and intensity connected with those musics, and electrified it, making it louder, and spreading it further through record-players, radio and TV. The impact on young people was intense and somatic: the first rock and roll concert, organised by radio DJ Alan Freed in 1952, turned into a riot. The mass hysteria shown by teenage female audiences at shows by teen idols like Elvis Presley or Ricky Nelson struck some disapproving adults as close to the emotional excesses of fascism.
Rock and roll often challenged nationalism, at least in its militaristic and jingoistic incarnation. The most obvious example is the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, released on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, which got to number one despite being banned from airplay. In that song, the punk subcult declared its independence from the ubiquitous nationalist propaganda. Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, with the Stars and Stripes on the cover, was a dark reflection of an America torn apart by race riots, and African-Americans’ desire to escape somewhere else – to Africa, or one’s drugged-out inner space.
Sometimes, rock and roll involved a contestation over what the nation stood for, like Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Our Land’, which was written in response to Irving Berlin’s jingoistic ‘God Save America’, and which later became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. Likewise, when Jimi Hendrix played the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock, he wasn’t necessarily ridiculing America, but rather declaring (as he later explained) ‘we’re all Americans’, even hippies opposed to the Vietnam War. Sometimes rock and roll expressed a simple celebration of national pride, as in Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA or the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA, or local pride as in Tupac’s California Love or Lily Allen’s LDN.
A band’s devoted following could be a sort of mini-nation, with its own flags, symbols, anthems and heroes – and thus a rival to the cult of the nation. Two examples from the 1970s would be the cult of Ziggy Stardust, the tour for which ended with the national anthem clearly played ironically, or the cult of Queen, who also played the national anthem at their tours, not for the glorification of the monarch, but of themselves and their fans. If you watch Queen perform at Live Aid – to my mind one of the best live rock performances – you see the audience waving banners saying ‘Queen Works’ and putting their hands up in the Roman salute to Freddie Mercury as he sings ‘We Are The Champions’. It is a rival to the nation-cult, and a much less toxic one than militaristic nationalism.
The new cult is absorbed into the old
The guardians of the nation-state responded, initially, with deep alarm. Critics of rock and roll often used the language of infection and invasion – the invasion of the white nation’s psyche by alien rhythms from the African jungle. Racist critics were also often terrified by the prospect of interbreeding or ‘miscegenation’ – in the old cult, the ‘nation’ was often defined racially, while in the new cult, all the races seemed to mingle together. In 1956, Nat King Cole was attacked on stage in Alabama by a group of white supremacists who claimed he slept with his white teenage fans. What particularly worried the Establishment was the cultural power wielded by rock and roll stars. Through radio, they seemed to have a direct line straight into the psyche of the nation’s youth, and thus exerted far more power and influence than monarchs or politicians. Presidents came and went, while Elvis remained the King.
Politicians, the press and the church tried to protect the nation’s youth initially by going after radio DJs like Alan Freed, the pioneer of rock and roll (and inventor of the term) who was driven to an early grave by political campaigns against him. Then they went after the musicians themselves, for sex offences (Chuck Berry), for drug offences (Keith Richards), for tax offences (James Brown), for weapon offences (Lil Wayne). In the 1980s, churches and ethical campaigners went after pop for its Satanic influences and its obscenity. In the 1990s, the British government went after rave music by passing the Criminal Justice Bill, outlawing any outdoor parties playing repetitive beats. But rock and roll always managed to escape, like Dionysus escaping the prison of King Pentheus.
The smarter members of the Establishment, however, recognised that the new cult could be a new form of power for the nation-state, as shown by a reception for the Beatles held at the British Embassy in Washington on their first, epoch-making visit to the US in 1964. ‘Come now and do your stuff’, a young embassy official told John Lennon on that occasion. ‘I’m not going back through that crowd – I want a drink!’ Lennon replied. ‘Oh yes you are’, said the official. And he did. The Beatles and later British bands like Bowie, the Stones and Led Zeppelin did more to forge a ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK than any post-war politician. Capitalism, unlike communism, managed to absorb rock and roll, and turn it into a commodity like any other. A new generation arose of LSD-popping rock and roll entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.
By the 1990s, the cult of rock and roll had become successfully absorbed into the cult of the nation-state, just as Christianity eventually became the official cult of the Roman Empire. Tony Blair strummed an electric guitar for the cameras and welcomed Oasis to Number 10. Bill Clinton played sax during his campaign and helped to make a 1997 documentary for VH-1 called Bill Clinton: rock and roll president (he even named his daughter after the Joni Mitchell song Chelsea Morning). Now, at major national events like the Super-Bowl, the Olympics opening ceremony or the funeral of Princess Diana, we don’t play Elgar or Haydn or Aaron Copeland, we play Elton John, Paul McCartney or Underworld. While the Queen’s silver jubilee may have been a battle between patriotism and punk, by her diamond jubilee thirty years later, rock was all-conquering, and the Queen was forced to attend a rock concert. Supposedly it was in her honour, but really, the honour was all rock’s.
Of course, once the cult of rock has become the official religion of the establishment, some might say the cult has lost something, just as Christianity lost something when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. It is no longer the music of poor outsiders. It is the music of the rich and powerful. What strange new cult is bubbling to birth in the underground?
In other news:
Here is a new podcast I did for Aeon Magazine, all about empathy, featuring interviews with Roman Krznaric, Maria Konnikova and Tobias Jones. Check it out, it’s good – and if you like it, please share it etc.
Here’s something I wrote on Stoicism for the Guardian this week.
My boss at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Thomas Dixon, presented a cultural history of weeping on Radio 3 this week, which you can listen to here.
Next Tuesday I am starting to teach a free six-week evening course in practical philosophy at Queen Mary in London, which is open to the public. Details here .
On Wednesday next week at the School of Life, I’m interviewing the philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy can help us through illness. Still a few tickets left, here.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s new book on Scientology has been dropped by its publisher in the UK for fear of legal battles, but it’s out in the US. Here’s a podcast interview with him.
Here’s Ross Andersen writing in the Atlantic about those crazy Oxford bioethicists’ latest claim: that we have a moral obligation to take ‘love drugs’.
A programme from Wales whereby GPs prescribe self-help books is being rolled out in England. Pity the government has closed thousands of libraries.
I’m doing the Alpha course at the moment, and enjoying it (although I don’t feel massively changed). Here is Jon Ronson’s excellent article about it, including the dreaded ‘Alpha weekend’ where everyone starts speaking in tongues (I’m going on it in two weeks…).
That’s all for this week. Here, after a week of crappy weather, are some springboks pronking.
See you next week,