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.