Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

How rock killed the Soviet Union

A Soviet dissident tells it:

I was 18, and not entirely pop-illiterate: the “Beatli,” the “Rollingi” and the Monkees were always seeping out of friends’ tape recorders, opening up new, unknown sounds and spaces. But all that was anticipation; it was as if we were being prepared for something big, something that would make the blood curdle in our veins.
And curdle it did when Vitya pulled the new Zeppelin LP out of what at the time was a mind-blowing sleeve and put it on, and “Whole Lotta Love” rose up with a beckoning howl.
Corks formed of cloying Soviet music flew out of our ears. And a young man’s brain experienced irreversible biochemical change. It was the unforgettable lesson of freedom. It was probably on that very day that I spontaneously became a dissident.



It’s fashionable now to say that the “sovok” — the Soviet era — was undermined by the fall of oil prices in the 1980s. I’m convinced that even before that there was a mass falling of corks from the ears of the young. Young Soviet brains were cleared by Western rock music. Jimi Hendrix, with his screaming Fender Stratocaster, unknowingly probably did more to demolish the Soviet mentality than even Solzhenitsyn and his “Archipelago.”

I can believe it. We love stories like this one, in which the power of music — of rock music — changed the world for the better. But any force that powerful must be just as capable of being used for evil as for good. I recall reading Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” when it came out in paperback, in 1988, when I was an undergraduate, and scoffing at his negative judgment on rock ‘n roll. As I recall — and please correct me if I misremember — Bloom, who was a very deep thinker, connected the reckless, anti-rational, culturally destructive passions released in the 1960s to the instinctual power of rock. I remember at the time thinking this was stupid, but not because I had an intellectual answer to Bloom. To me, it simply sounded like the kvetching of an old fart. I was frustrated at the time to learn that Bloom was not some sort of right-wing Christian, but was in fact a secularist homosexual. I was living in Washington then, doing an internship, and made an idiotic remark to someone at a party that Bloom was a traitor to his class, having written a book that was being used by conservatives as ammo in the culture war. I remember my interlocutor, an older liberal, looking at me with puzzlement and pity at the crudity of my judgment.
Now, I see that I was wrong, but I don’t say that in an ideological sense. It’s not that I’ve turned on rock and roll — most of my music collection is rock — but that I see that Bloom was onto something, that rock is a far more ambiguous a phenomenon than I could possibly have grasped at 21. To the extent that rock music hastened the demise of the despicable Soviet regime, hooray. But the same energies called forth from the human spirit by rock music, and its descendants, have affected our own institutions, traditions and self-understanding.
I remember another night long ago, when I was in college, and listening to George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.” A thoughtful Christian who lived on my hall in the dorm asked me how I could listen to those lyrics and remain so unaffected by the sentiment. He wasn’t asking in a prudish way; he was a fan of classic jazz and pop, and as an appreciator of the refined longings expressed in, say, the songs of Cole Porter, he was appalled by the barbarism in the George Michael song. I didn’t have an answer for him, but he did make me reflect on how the lyrics of so many songs I dearly loved expressed sentiments I found at the time distasteful, and, as I matured, would come to find gross.
I gave up listening to George Michael and that lot years ago, not out of moral conviction, but because I was bored by it. But I still don’t have an adequate answer for that question posed to me in my dorm room decades ago.

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted March 11, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Well, yeah – rock music is Dionysian.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Don’t you think your boredom is a form of moral conviction? Surely it is a consequence of the judgment: “this music is emptier than I thought – it’s content (musical, lyrical, whatever) is ultimately unsatisfying.” Doesn’t that sound like a moral conviction in the fullest sense? True virtue consists not in overcoming one’s thirst for evil, but in being so ordered that the vicious is not really tempting.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 2:44 pm

“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul”.
– Plato

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posted March 11, 2010 at 3:03 pm

I took a course in college where one of the works we read (this was a few years after you did) was The Closing of the American Mind. While we were discussing it, one of the professors suddenly said “I hate this book. Do you know why I hate this book? Because Bloom aspires to a nation of 250 million short plump political philosophers.” I don’t know if my feelings run that strong but I had to (and continue to) admit that he was pretty much spot on about Bloom’s preferences.

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Charles Cosimano

posted March 11, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Anything that makes authority collapse and be rendered impossible is good by definition so rock music is good by definition.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm

@ Joseph: “True virtue consists not in overcoming one’s thirst for evil, but in being so ordered that the vicious is not really tempting.”
Very well said. I’m going to be pondering this one for quite a while.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Re: True virtue consists not in overcoming one’s thirst for evil, but in being so ordered that the vicious is not really tempting
But that will only happen in the Parousia. In the meantime the darkness will always be in us and always be a temptation. The greatest of saints have felt its siren call and struggled mightily, and ceaselessly, against it. Jesus has given the weapons we need, but he has not yet brought final victory.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Here are some lyrics from “I Want Your Sex”:
Sex is natural – sex is good
Not everybody does it
But everybody should
Sex is natural – sex is fun
Sex is best when it’s… One on one
One on one
This is only “barbaric” to a hopeless prude.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Thanks, Andi. Wish I could take credit for it, but I think I’ll have to pass that back to Aristotle.
Right you are, Jon. There is no perfect virtue in this life, save God’s (“One is holy, one is Lord…”), but there are certainly varying degrees of approach. Fighting temptation is surely better than giving in to it, but best of all is when we find ourselves suddenly, by the Grace of God, immune to the siren song.

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Lindsey Abelard

posted March 11, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Forget rock music, unless its “Rush”. No, it was Jim Hogan’s novel “Voyage from Yesteryear” that helped crash soviet communism.

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John Spragge

posted March 12, 2010 at 7:40 am

This strikes me as hopelessly simplistic. Asking if rock music produces moral uplift or the reverse yields as little illumination as asking if sonnets have an uplifting effect. Classical music runs the gamut from the varnished misogyny of “Cosi Fan Tutti” to the glory of the Brandenburg concertos. In the same way, rock can express lust and aggression, or it can express deep discontent with a decadent culture, as in “Satisfaction”, or, at its transcendent best in “Lovers in a dangerous time”, it can illuminate the link between eros and agape, between the longing in all of us for a physical connection with the Earth and one another on one hand, and the fire of love which drives the stars on the other.

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armchair pessimist

posted March 12, 2010 at 9:31 am

A little early to say whether the collapse of the USSR was a good or a bad thing. If it was the latter and if the culpability of rock can be shown, then no brainer.

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posted March 12, 2010 at 10:05 am

I’m a Boomer, but have always hated rock music. Simply can’t stand it. Will go to great lengths to avoid it.
However, I love jazz, “real” folk, traditional bluegrass and all forms of classical music.
I’m amazed at how rock has displaced classical as our culture’s musical lingua franca. Here’s what I mean:
—when I was a kid, TV shows used classical music as their themes and backgrounds. Examples: a portion of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring was the theme for the terrific CBS news show The Twentieth Century (that was the name, wasn’t it?). When JFK was shot, CBS news ran photos with a Chopin piano piece as background. Nearly every network nightly news program used classical music as its theme (NBC used something from Beethoven, I think).
—now, TV shows use rock music 99% of the time. In fact, I’m not sure that I can think of a single situation in which TV uses classical music as a staple.
—rock has displaced classical in most churches (guitars in, organs out).
Almost nobody seriously analyzes this phenomenon. Most simply resort to the tired “different strokes for different folks” or “new is better than old” cliches. I am glad that Rod has at least raised some of the issues. There is something here worth digging at.

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posted March 12, 2010 at 11:13 am

What I disliked about Alan Bloom’s denuciation of rock music was the very broad tar brush he used. He used the Rolling Stones as an example, and seemed to imply that all rock music is just like theirs. Which is flat out absurd. A much more sensible critique would look at individual musicians and even individual songs and weigh their moral and aesthetic value.

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posted March 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

Re: Fighting temptation is surely better than giving in to it, but best of all is when we find ourselves suddenly, by the Grace of God, immune to the siren song.
But I don’t think that possible, if by “temptation” you mean all temptation. No one is immune. Even Jesus was tempted. To be sure, we are all of us immune to this or that specific temptation– I could not imagine myself abusing children, for example. But we all have our besetting sins, and some of our saints have claimed that the closer you come to God the worse the pull in the opposite direction becomes. Recall Mother Teresa’s unending battle with despair.

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Anti Dhimm

posted March 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Whether rock music contributed to the fall of the USSR is a great topic for discussion. I’m sure it could provide endless, how-man-demons-can-dance-on-the-point-on-my-head type hours of navel-gazing entertainment.
Meanwhile, in the real, 21st century world of Now, the Rolling Stones are about as relevant as Alexander’s Ragtime Band. We have much more liberated music in the now, please do get up to speed. George Michael? Gracious, does anyone under 50 pay attention to him or Elton John? C’mon, get up from that rocking chair and dance to the New Beat.
Consider dear, sweet, liberated little Ke$ha (that is not a mistype. That is her choice in spelling her name, and we must simply always honor her choice, right? Anything else would be misogyny…). Please, all of you, especially feminists, do view the video “Tick-Tok” currently embedded in her homepage. As a bonus, also view “BlahBlahBlah” on the right hand side. This is part of the now. This is what plenty of young women listen to, ok? Put the old Melanie vinyl to one side along with that Helen Reddy record for a minute and fast forward a few decades to the now.
I’m sure Charles Cosimano will love it. A pity I cannot hope to get Franklin Evans to view it…such a strong, liberated, independent woman, he’d have no choice but to pound his desk shouting “You Go, Grrrl!”
PS: I’m informed that Ke$ha is rather popular with the “tweens” set, girls aged 10 to 12 years. There’s some support for that in TickTok, when dear, sweet, liberated Keisha trades a bicycle for a boom box from some admiring young girls. What a wonderful role model she is. How many of you enlightened ones can’t wait to show these vids to your daughters? Wait, don’t bother.
They likely have already downloaded them onto their phones…

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posted March 12, 2010 at 7:28 pm

So how long have you been such a, er, deeply concerned observer of softcore teen pron, Anti?

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Anti Dhimmi

posted March 12, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Jillian asks:
So how long have you been such a, er, deeply concerned observer of softcore teen pron, Anti?
Thanks for your, er, question Jillian. It’s like, totally, awesomely clever…you rilly, rilly thought about it I can tell. Don’t you have something else to do, like painting your toenails? TTFN, grrl.

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posted March 26, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Amazing text :)
Well, during the brazilian ditactorial government, between 1964 and 1989, we produced much more good music than before (and than today). People say it was because of the bad times, OK, but we were faced to rock as well. I bet the foreigner music motivated us.
And the same people who made the songs about freedom and peace here, made the revolution in the end of the 80s.

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download filme,download jocuri

posted November 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Might be the greatest blog yet!!!

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posted October 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm

hello ! i am a big fan of rock from all over the world.i am from argentina.i have a doubt, i recently saw in a store from my country an ep(i think)by a band from the ussr.i dont understand russian so i couldnt look for any information in the internet.the cover had drawings of the musicians playing, four musicians.had like a comic aesthetic, psychedelic we could say.have any info please?

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