Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams

by John Holbo on September 9, 2014

I’m teaching an aesthetics seminar. We’re reading some stuff on music and Roger Scruton’s views were referenced. I’ve never read Scruton on music but I had heard about the Pet Shop Boys’ libel suit , of course. So, naturally, I had long since filed him away in the Allan Bloom remainder bin. Dude hates rock and pop. Thinks it all sounds the same. But googling, to get more of a sense for his views, I found this interview, containing this bit:

I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves. Pop music is so concentrated on the self and the performer that it’s very rare that that happens, I think. It never happens with Oasis or The Verve. It did happen much more of course with the Beatles, and in the old American songbook, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter and all that. That was a popular music which was about communication of often quite gentle feelings. So I’m not as prejudiced as I seem. I would like to be more prejudiced because it would prevent me from listening to this stuff.

I now have a more fabulous picture of Roger Scruton in my mind, foxhunting to a Hoagy Charmichael/Metallica playlist.



Alan White 09.09.14 at 4:17 am

I only have one word for Metallica covered: Apocalytica.


Corey Robin 09.09.14 at 4:39 am



PJW 09.09.14 at 5:00 am

Apocalyptica’s cover of Nothing Else Matters was perfect on the season finale of Leftovers last night.


Scott Lemieux 09.09.14 at 5:52 am

What was his take on Lulu?


godoggo 09.09.14 at 6:13 am

I think Scruton is a funny name.


The Temporary Name 09.09.14 at 6:17 am

Scruton’s gotta try some Cannibal Corpse. They preserve the OLD values.


Mike Schilling 09.09.14 at 6:19 am

Time magazine’s review of the Sergeant Pepper album begins George Martin’s new LP was out last week. Wankers.


godoggo 09.09.14 at 6:22 am

I guess somebody could do this sort of thing with “Old Rocking Chair.”


godoggo 09.09.14 at 6:30 am

For the 1st couple of seconds I actually thought somebody had.


Phil 09.09.14 at 7:11 am

That last sentence is weird. I’ve got a CD rack full of broadcasts from various regions of Planet Indie – Beirut, Beta Band, Black Grape, Peter Blegvad, Blur… I’m not prejudiced against “this stuff”, but I’ve never had the slightest difficulty not listening to Oasis (since the second album) – or Metallica, for that matter.

Also – if we’re talking about singers saying something “not just about themselves” – I’m surprised there’s no mention of folk. Has he not discovered it yet? Perhaps I should be thankful.


bill benzon 09.09.14 at 9:01 am

Slay Misty for Me.


James 09.09.14 at 10:27 am

I really like Scruton when it comes to aesthetics. I knew him personally (but slightly) at one point, and I gave him an album each by Radiohead (‘King of Limbs’) and Sufjan Stevens (‘Seven Swans’). He liked the former a lot, and though he didn’t like the latter, I found his criticism intelligent and sensitive. He had clearly listened to it with open ears. And he has also given talks in which he discussed death metal. I think he didn’t really ‘get’ the band – I forget which one – but I thought his attempt was earnest, and really admirable. And of course he talks wonderfully about classical music up to and including Schoenberg.


Assistant Professor 09.09.14 at 11:56 am

Many years ago, when I was reading Closing, I was thinking that most of his critiques of These Kids and Their Rock’n’Roll didn’t apply to metal. And then, lo and behold, early twenties me is vindicated!


Han 09.09.14 at 12:45 pm

I like Scruton on art too. Don’t always agree with him, but give him a chance. He’s not as fusty as he initial appears to be. Even used an article at the start of an aesthetics course successfully to get students to be critical of their “it’s all subjective” presuppositions. And it’s refreshing to read someone who is totally apologetic about making strong aesthetic claims. In a world where people pretend the only options are elitism or aesthetic nihilism (where for example if you don’t praise pop to the skies you’re assumed to be antipop and a fox hunter) we need more like him to carve out the third way.


Yan 09.09.14 at 12:59 pm

Also, if he likes the Beatles and Metallica, he should love Beatallica:


novakant 09.09.14 at 1:15 pm

Defending pop and rock is a bit like defending Disney and Coca Cola.


josh fischel 09.09.14 at 1:37 pm

Where’s the hat tip to King Crimson?


Frank Wilhoit 09.09.14 at 1:49 pm

Never underestimate the extreme and intrinsic difficulty of talking about music. There simply is not a sharable vocabulary, no way to gain a level of confidence that concepts (let alone terminology) mean the same thing to one person as to another. If physics and chemistry were in the position that music is in, we would still be talking about phlogiston and caloric.


Zamfir 09.09.14 at 2:00 pm

Not really? Disney and coca-cola are tightly controlled entities, with a limited line of released products. And those mostly share some resemblance to each other, due to the single coherent organization behind them. So it’s fairly meaningful to criticize or defend ‘disney’ or ‘coca cola’ as single things. That goes double for the drink coca-cola, instead of the company.

Pop and rock are nothing like that, they’re catchall terms for a wide variety of music coming from a wide range of people in different situations. Within pop or rock you’ll find entities with a similar coherence as disney or coca cola, but not the genres as a whole.

Criticism of such fuzzy phenomena is like emperor Xerxes whipping the sea, it hardly needs a defense. You ask the critic to make their criticism detailed, and voila, you can show them some non-contrived counterexample. You can see it happening to Scruton here.


Zamfir 09.09.14 at 2:01 pm

The ‘not really’ was aimed at novakant


Bruce Baugh 09.09.14 at 2:09 pm

I admit that first reaction to that Scruton quote was “Christ, what an asshole.”

My second thought was of Postmodern Jukebox:


Vance Maverick 09.09.14 at 2:11 pm

I don’t find it ridiculous that Scruton should like Metallica. (What, we old people should be barred from engaging with music that has been pre-judged by the young and cool?) I do find it annoying that he should offer such lame descriptions of what he likes in it. Making arguments about art is extremely hard, bordering on impossible, so it would be forgivable if he weren’t a professional aesthetic philosopher who takes his own opinions with high seriousness.


kent 09.09.14 at 2:27 pm

So for reasons of cultural affinity, I decided that I hate [cultural form X]. But then I had a positive experience of [example of X that is not in any meaningful way different from at least a hundred other examples of X]. So now I need to come up with some bullshit reason to separate [X] from [not-X] — a reason that is transparently false to everybody but myself, but that I will agree not to investigate any further once I figure it out. (And I absolutely will not consider re-thinking “I hate X” as a commitment that continues to define my life, just with this one exception.

Man I think I’ve had at least a dozen people say this exact same thing to me over the years. It’s always funny, both what the counterexample turns out to be, and what the reasoning is.

For my father, it was: popular music, Pink Floyd, and I can’t even remember the reason.

A friend has it: music released after 1979, Nirvana, and something about how musical talent is inversely correlated with presentableness of clothing.

A friend from an older generation: all music since about Tchaikovsky, Adele, and “I just like the way she sings.”

Another friend: all television other than PBS, “The Wire,” “That really doesn’t count as TV” (no further reasoning needed).

Adding popular music, Metallica (!!), and “they are saying something that’s not just about themselves” to the group: priceless. Thanks, John.

(Can we give the phenomenon a name?)


Shelley 09.09.14 at 2:52 pm

It may be other things, but it’s not “poetic.”


William Timberman 09.09.14 at 2:55 pm

Music is inscrutonable. Full stop.

That said, I do sometimes like to hear — or read — genuine enthusiasts going on and on about it. Infectious is the word, I guess. I’ve found a lot of stuff I love just that way, especially when my daughter was DJ-ing for a college radio station. The thirty years difference in our ages didn’t seem to matter much.


Zamfir 09.09.14 at 3:11 pm

I would me more symphatetic for Scruton, if in the same interview he didn’t continue to describe how we risk becoming as horrible as muslims. Who have, according to Scruton, lost high culture, all ability to compromise, to see the human condition as a a whole, and to abstract from the here and now.


novakant 09.09.14 at 3:13 pm

Zamfir, I was thinking more about market share:

Pop/Rock: 70%
Classical: 3%
Jazz: 2%


novakant 09.09.14 at 3:14 pm

It’s like defending blockbusters.


Bruce Baugh 09.09.14 at 3:37 pm

But “pop” and “rock” are not entities like Disney or Coca-Cola, is the thing. They include whoever’s got the studios buying most radio time at the moment, and Opeth (whose new album is another prog rock thing rather than their customary symphonic metal/death metal/prog-flavoring thing, highly recommended if you like the genre), and VNV Nation, and the stuff Belle enthuses about ;), and more, without any central management capable of acting on every element below. As fields, they’re more the FIRE sector, or STEM in education, or something.


novakant 09.09.14 at 3:55 pm

Ok, bad analogy, I’ll try again: “classical” and “jazz” are fairly distinct genres and together they have about 5% market share, which is a shame considering the level of quality the music and the performers tends to be on, so they need all the defending and promotion they can get. But maybe I’m a romantic and these genres will always be minority pursuits – I just think that (especially young) people are missing out on a whole lot of musical beauty, complexity and depth.

This is interesting:

The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10. Hahn’s No. 1 recording, after the sales spike resulting from her appearance on Conan, bolstered by blogs and press, sold 1,000 copies.


Niall McAuley 09.09.14 at 4:12 pm

It’s also odd to say old folks are barred from liking Metallica.

Metallica are old people, the band formed when Scruton was only 37.


Tyrone Slothrop 09.09.14 at 4:42 pm

Zamfir@24: I would me more symphatetic for Scruton

A Freudian slip very apposite for Scrutonizing this thread…


mud man 09.09.14 at 4:50 pm

The main satisfaction I get out of words about music is keywords for looking for something interesting on YouTube. As always one must hunt before one can gather, but things like Wussy turn up sometimes.

… and Metallica is old guys. These kids these days, they don’t know from thrash.


mud man 09.09.14 at 4:53 pm

… as Niall said.


Dean C. Rowan 09.09.14 at 4:59 pm

Long ago I read Scruton on architecture, aesthetics, and sexual desire. Then I enjoyed them. Now, I’m not so sure I would. What I am loving, though, is the appearance of Alan White (Yes’s post-Bruford drummer) and Zamfir among the comments. (I second the Cannibal Corpse rec.)

Few realize that Metallica is already a Metallica cover band. I saw them onstage at the Whisky, Sunset Blvd., with the original guitarist, Dave Mustaine. That was a show for the ages. Since then they’ve had their ups and downs, but I’ve never seen a harder working bunch of teenagers than that performance.


JakeB 09.09.14 at 5:42 pm

Well, at least he’s referencing Master of Puppets and not the Black album.


WJ 09.09.14 at 7:08 pm

Is it just me, or is Scruton channeling Adorno here? I’m serious.


Dave Heasman 09.09.14 at 7:28 pm

Alan White pre-Yes was a session drummer who played on “Instant Karma”.
I’m not sure that in Europe “classical” and “jazz” are distinct genres. The ECM label has big sellers eliding the categories.


Zamfir 09.09.14 at 7:50 pm

But maybe I’m a romantic and these genres will always be minority pursuits – I just think that (especially young) people are missing out on a whole lot of musical beauty, complexity and depth.
Probably they do – though I am hesitant to attach this to a pop-classical divide. Complex and deep hiphop is also a minority pursuit, with its fans complaining how the mass market makes the kids miss out on the good stuff. The number of people with a casual interest in music is simply larger than the number of people who want serious music with depth and stuff.

I don’t think classical or jazz are doing so bad within that smaller group? I know an avant-gardist musician who gets annoyed at the amount of attention going to yet-another-reworking of a canon nineteenth century piece. From his perspective, classical music and jazz are narrow genres with an outsized public.

Perhaps more people should take a serious interest in serious music. Then again, perhaps more people should take a less casual interest in modern sculpture, or their wardrobe, or science, or their garden, or the bible. If you’re see something, it’s easy to see why others should be as well and they are missingm If you’re not, it’s mostly quaint.


Zamfir 09.09.14 at 7:51 pm

Grrrr italics


TheSophist 09.09.14 at 8:18 pm

I saw Alan White (and the rest of Yes) just a couple of weeks ago (Geoff Downes on keyboards, Jon Davison as vocalist, and then White/Howe/Squire). The set was all of Close to the Edge, all of Fragile, then everything you’d expect as an encore.

I’d say I enjoyed that even more than I enjoyed it when I first saw them, on the 90125 tour in 83.


CJColucci 09.09.14 at 8:21 pm

Not since the disco era have I ever said that a type of music is bad. I have said that I don’t get many types of music, and have sometimes observed that the technical and skill-related barriers to entry of certain types of music are low enough to let in all sorts of talentless riff-raff that you don’t see in other more technically demanding genres.


The Temporary Name 09.09.14 at 8:30 pm

Perhaps more people should take a serious interest in serious music. Then again, perhaps more people should take a less casual interest in modern sculpture, or their wardrobe, or science, or their garden, or the bible. If you’re see something, it’s easy to see why others should be as well and they are missingm If you’re not, it’s mostly quaint.

I would like to blather here about the value of music to education, but unfortunately I don’t really know about the research and so might be just full of it.

It seems to me, though, that music is one of those things that has a set of rules and responses, and that creation within and without those rules represents a kind of learning and play that’s important in a way that bible studies can’t approach and that is harder to articulate in a lively way in the area of, say, modern sculpture.

Obviously some people are good at making anything their playground, but I am in sympathy with the idea that “serious” music is a worthy thing to run by a student’s ears (while not discounting the idea that pop artists can also serve as demonstration material as well).


J— 09.09.14 at 8:35 pm

As far as I’m aware, Postmodern Jukebox hasn’t covered Metallica–I hear the piano dude takes requests–but their clown friend Puddles has.


Dean C. Rowan 09.09.14 at 8:43 pm


Dean C. Rowan 09.09.14 at 8:49 pm

And yes (pun intended), Alan White was a member of Plastic Ono Band. I first heard him in 1975 with Yes in Long Beach, the Relayer tour, I think.

I really enjoy kent’s point above about splitting just the right strand of hair to support one’s adoration of Y in the face of one’s disdain for X. (I myself do not like X, the L.A. punk band, although I like many L.A. punk bands, by the way.) True, we often put forth bullshit reasons for distinguishing those two of the three trailing letters of the alphabet, but maybe there is something to it. Otherwise, why would Scruton care a whit about Metallica?


phenomenal cat 09.09.14 at 9:03 pm

“Well, at least he’s referencing Master of Puppets and not the Black album.” –JakeB

Seconded, with a thought experiment: does the Black album exist if the tour bus does not roll over Cliff Burton’s body?


The Temporary Name 09.09.14 at 9:08 pm

I take it that everyone knew about this but me:


Yan 09.09.14 at 9:28 pm


Weirder than championing poor, struggling pop music from those powerful classical-loving elitists is this, bravely dismissing jazz as an entire genre:

One day our long, national jazz nightmare will be over, thanks to heros like this guy.


godoggo 09.09.14 at 9:56 pm

Obviously you’re not agreeing with that article. I suppose I might take one or two of those points, even though my main musical interest is jazz, including much of the innovative stuff that’s fashionable among people who write about it. But some context is necessary, I think.


Dean C. Rowan 09.09.14 at 9:58 pm

Yeah, I always thought Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto would be better if LVB had hired Lorenz Hart to add lyrics. “Music without words…” What a goof.


The Temporary Name 09.09.14 at 10:05 pm

Improvements to the Black album come to mind.


godoggo 09.09.14 at 10:27 pm

So I had a friend who was pretty into them in the 80s, and my take then was, OK, here’s a metal band that plays fast and has a gravelly voiced vocalist like Motorhead, which was always the punk rocker’s metal band of choice, (Am I mistaken or are there actually TWO Motorhead t-shirts visible on the cover of Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers “Live At Max’s Kansas City?), plus they have a flashy guitarist and do lots of time changes like a prog band or the Adolescents or something (obviously all that has lost its novelty at this point). And I bought a used copy of And Justice For All, because I liked tthe tebly sound and lack of reverb, just like a punk record, although I doubt I’d be much inclined to listen to it now even if I owned a turntable. I still like Motorhead though.


godoggo 09.09.14 at 11:04 pm

It may not be their best work, but I think the Black Album has some really good songs on it. You do mean the Damned album, right?


James 09.09.14 at 11:54 pm

WJ @ 37: Scruton and Adorno is hilarious. In his ‘The Aesthetics of Music’ he talks about him a lot, violently disagreeing with him for dismissing an entire tradition of music. And then, in the very same chapter… he… does exactly the same thing with music contemporary to him. It’s the strangest, most unselfaware thing I’ve ever come across in a serious philosopher – and Scruton is not, on the whole, particularly unselfaware at all.


floopmeister 09.10.14 at 12:33 am

Well someone at least has attempted to take the categorisation of musical genres to its logical and absolute conclusion (1264 genres of contemporary music):

Maybe Scruton might be a fan of ‘fallen angelism”?


floopmeister 09.10.14 at 12:46 am

…and if you want to hear one interesting direction in which ‘jazz’ and/or ‘orchestral’ might be heading (almost a cross between Metallica and the Kronos Quartet):


floopmeister 09.10.14 at 1:00 am

Oh, and did someone upthread mention King Crimson?



maidhc 09.10.14 at 1:42 am

Most people who claim to be classical music fans don’t want to hear anything that predates Bach. And they’re not much for anything post-WWI except Copeland and a few others. Just look at the playlist for any classical radio station. Similarly jazz radio stations don’t play much pre-bebop. I read an interview with the manager of our local jazz station and he complained about how many listeners have very niche tastes and don’t want to be forced to listen to anything outside of their chosen category. And that’s after filtering out everything pre-1945. In his opinion they ought to consider themselves lucky that they have a jazz radio station at all, considering how small a market it is.

So even people who follow these minority genres are often missing out on a whole lot of musical beauty, complexity and depth, as novakant put it. Even if they are exploring their own area thoroughly.


js. 09.10.14 at 3:02 am

Pop music is so concentrated on the self and the performer

What does this even mean? I’ve read it five times now, and I can give no definite sense to it (in context). Is he including jazz in pop? Or is it that Parker and Coleman were not about “the self and the performer” but Gang of Four and CAN are? Because, why exactly?

Anyway, it occurred to me that he might like Eno, or least appreciate Eno’s contention that modern music is not and should not be called “music”, just as cinema is not and should not be called “theater”. And then he’d actually be listening to some good music!

(Unrelatedly, all the mentions of Cannibal Corpse reminded me that I hadn’t listened to Cannibal Ox in, umm, 10 years? …And then I remembered it’s because I don’t actually like them all that much.)


Niall McAuley 09.10.14 at 7:30 am

Here’s Metallica with Ray Davies! So old!


godoggo 09.10.14 at 7:53 am

Not to be confused with Ray Davis, although they’re apparently pronounced the same.


ZM 09.10.14 at 9:26 am

“I now have a more fabulous picture of Roger Scruton in my mind, foxhunting to a Hoagy Charmichael/Metallica playlist.”

I can give you an amusing if not fabulous picture of Percy Grainger song hunting if not fox hunting.

He travelled to the British Isles because there must not have been enough folk songs in Australia, and went song hunting in the countries there. There was an old lady who had an excellent song but she did not like to sing it in front of Percy Grainger for his song hunting. Percy Grainger was most despondent , but quickly arrived at a plan. He befriended the old lady’s beloved young granddaughter , and cunningly hid himself under the old lady’s bed one day while the young granddaughter asked the old lady if they could sit on the bed and the old lady sing to her the song. Percy Grainger thus successfully hunted the song!


Anderson 09.10.14 at 12:05 pm

“Lyric poetry is so concentrated on the self and the performer.”

Maybe Scruton should stick to paintings and architecture.


Rob 09.10.14 at 12:49 pm

I heard him at a conference on music in London, and I saw that very push-and-pull between the thoughtful conservative and the frothing reactionary. On the one hand he offered some interesting comments on aesthetic theory that included a generous discussion of a wide range of genres, but then later in the question period he basically said that Western classical music was triumphing around the world because it was objectively superior to classical Indian or Chinese music. It was a real head-scratching moment.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 09.10.14 at 2:15 pm

@ Bruce Baugh #21

Interesting cover. I have been of the opinion that Careless Whisper, despite some scruffiness in the arrangement, is a nearly perfect “pop” song; with all the good and bad that implies. If you like ’30s style covers, here is an another interesting one.


Alan White 09.10.14 at 10:46 pm

When I was an undergrad and Fragile was on everyone’s turntable, my namesake wasn’t yet on the drums (as alluded to above by DCR #35).

But from this thread now I know what it’s like to be an ordinary slob named George Clooney.

But–Apocalyptica covers Metallica like no one else. Just have to say (again).


ZM 09.11.14 at 7:54 am

“he basically said that Western classical music was triumphing around the world because it was objectively superior to classical Indian or Chinese music. It was a real head-scratching moment.”

He just had an article in The Guardian today and he did a similar sort of thing. He started out saying socialism and liberalism are very remote and abstract but conservatism cares about real people and real communities , which I don’t think is true, but I guess it is all well and good at least, but then he got around to his point:

“The result has been a cantonisation of society in the name of “multiculturalism”. And the liberal ideal of universal human rights has likewise led to a downgrading of attachment, since attachment is a form of discrimination and therefore a way of giving preference to those who already belong.

If we look at the big issues facing us today – the EU, mass immigration, the union, Islamic extremism, the environment – we will surely see that the Conservative view rightly identifies what is now at stake: namely the survival of our way of life. ”

I wonder what he thinks about the English going around impacting on other peoples’ ways of life? Even now London-folk consume more resources than could be produced in the whole of England. I would wager Scrunton is a high consumer to boot.


godoggo 09.11.14 at 8:45 am

I think there really is something about the tempered scale that has allowed for western music to progress over time in ways that non-western music (e.g. pentatonic Chinese music, or extremely non-tempered, drone-based Indian music) in their pure forms can’t That doesn’t mean that those musics don’t have valuable attributes that western music lacks, but they just seem really limited to me until they integrate western tonality somehow. I mean after a few years in Taiwan I was getting really tired of the pentatonic scale. I like Bright Sheng though.


godoggo 09.11.14 at 8:47 am

I’m saying this without having read him, nor having any interest in doing so by the way.


ZM 09.11.14 at 10:00 am

There is quite an interesting movie called The Werckmeister Harmonies about equal temperament and politics in Eastern Europe. It has one of the best movie opening scenes I have ever seen.

Speaking of Asian/Western scales – a refugee youth engagement program in the city helped kids make and record songs for YouTube – this one – Unaccompanied Child – mixes Burmese traditional music and hip hop –


Rob 09.11.14 at 4:05 pm

ZM – Yes, I saw that too. I agree about the hypocrisy of denouncing multiculti and enjoying the goods of capitalist globalization.
There is a contradiction, however, between the call for loving one’s own and the claim that Western music is somehow more objectively true, closer to a Platonic realm of being, or some such. The first is a relativistic, the second a universal claim.

Thanks for the reference to Werkmeister harmonies– fascinating

Godoggo–I feel the same way about eastern pentatonic stuff, but I never tire of simple folk songs based on 1-4-5 patterns and harmonies of fifths and thirds. I have to think that someone socialized on Chinese music would be about to express the same boredom with the source of my musical enjoyment.


Tom Slee 09.12.14 at 3:35 pm

#23 (Can we give the phenomenon a name?)

“no true bagpipe player would be on my lawn”.


BW 09.15.14 at 4:24 pm


Joseph Brenner 09.16.14 at 6:28 am

I think if you look over the Beatles material, a hell of a lot of it was about being a Beatle in one way or another.

“And here’s another clue for you all/the walrus was Paul”.

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