As many of our readers probably remember, I was dialed out of politics in 2020. I was focused on aesthetics, culture and history. Specifically, I wanted to trace the root causes of America’s cultural degeneration to their source. How did my generation come to live in a culture of omnipresent filth?
“Pop stars are not babysitters. Pop music is not wholesome entertainment. If you play mainstream music expecting to have your values reaffirmed, you will — inevitably, eventually — be disappointed. Pop stars (at least the good ones) push against the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable, sometimes in the noble interest of challenging the prevailing social mores, sometimes just for the devilish thrill of crossing lines, and sometimes because they just can’t help it. These people aren’t, like politicians or superheroes, paragons of justice or hometown pride. Their job is to reflect on their lives and sing about what they have learned. Sometimes those reflections align with our own experiences, and we connect with the music on a visceral level; you could argue that the best stars working in any era have a sense for what’s culturally prescient that keeps them in the conversation. The blend of aspiration and passive aggression at play in the catalog of Drake feels like a uniquely postmillennial commentary on social-media era narcissism in the same way that the loss of innocence recalled in the best early Britney Spears singles seems inextricably tethered to the late ’90s, when we all became incrementally more online and judged by more onlookers’ standards.
It takes more than visibility and cultural savvy to be a role model, though. We hand that title away too freely. We expect too much. We believe the world should accommodate our thinking. We fight fiercely against perceived threats to the median wholesome values and traditions we’re raised with. This is the story of the Beatles in 1966, when John Lennon voiced frustrations with religion and declared his band “more popular than Jesus,” sparking bans, bonfires, and protests that seemed to quell the British quartet’s interest in performing live, and it’s the story of the Rolling Stones in 1968, when “Sympathy for the Devil” drew devious insinuations. (“There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer,” Keith Richards told Rolling Stonein 1971, recalling the controversy.) It’s the story of Loretta Lynn in 1975, when she released “The Pill,” a song about a wife who’s driven by her husband’s cheating to start taking birth control, and country radio stations banned the single, seeking to curtail the success of what would ultimately become one of the singer’s biggest hits. It’s the story of Senate hearings about explicit lyrics in 1985, of Pepsi pulling an ad starring Madonna in 1989 after the singer’s “Like a Prayer” met outrage for its mix of sensual scenes and Catholic iconography, of 1990 obscenity trials over 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be and complaints from George H.W. Bush about Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” in 1992, of backlash for the sexual liberation of Britney Spears’s “Oops!… I Did It Again” in 1999, of Janet Jackson being shunned after a wardrobe malfunction in 2004, of blowback over Lady Gaga’s Luhrmann-esque “Judas” video in 2011. It’s the story again this spring as conservatives lash out at risqué performances from Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and Lil Nas X. Times change, but the message is consistent: You have a responsibility to make art that is appropriate for young eyes. It’s naïve.
The fuss about Megan and Cardi’s “WAP” was a greatest-hits album of scare-mongering about rap music and pearl clutching about female sexuality so canned and dated that you couldn’t help but laugh at the people trying to sell it. Ben Shapiro’s reading of the lyrics to the song was instant meme gold, much like Charlton Heston’s recitations of the lyrics to “Cop Killer” in 1992. These performances both suppose that the artist is always using words literally, misunderstanding rap fundamentally as a form rich with embellishment that asks listeners to suspend their disbelief for the more extravagant and ridiculous lines as much as we are expected to believe it when it speaks to the artists’ passions and struggles. No one who heard “WAP” thinks Cardi B really likes uvula play. The point is upending power dynamics and countering the male gaze. The least interesting approach to processing deliberately transgressive art is to rate it on how well it dispenses or upholds traditional values, judging it for its success or failure to meet purposes it clearly doesn’t aspire to. It is a narcissistic framework that seats the listener at the center of the universe and values outside stimuli on how comfortable they make us, rather than on their own merits and traditions. (The question with “WAP” isn’t whether or not it should be played on the radio during the daytime or whether it’s even appropriate for late primetime, as renewed complaints around the performance of the song at this year’s Grammys seemed to suppose American children would be tuned in after 10 p.m. to see it on television. It’s how sharp the bars are and how tall it stands in the pantheon of twerk jams it evokes with its Baltimore club sample.) …”
For a long time, I associated cultural degeneration with progressive liberalism because the two are clearly so joined at the hip today, but there was something about this theory that bugged me. The original “progressives” in America were nothing like this. Quite the opposite.
In the 19th century, American liberalism had been about political rights and economics. By today’s standards, we had a government that was almost nonexistent and an economy that was virtually unregulated. And yet, we had a Victorian culture which was far more cohesive than our own. There was a 19th century “mainstream” which existed before our 20th century “mainstream.” Previously, Americans had a fairly cohesive national identity even in spite of sectional divisions, a common culture, history, religion and morality, but this was lost over the course of the 20th century.
In the early 20th century, American liberalism took a sharp turn toward cultural liberalism. American liberalism came to be about cultural liberation and cultural egalitarianism or the emancipation of individuals from their own “backward” traditional cultures. It became elitist, anti-populist and anti-traditional. It began to celebrate novelties and the breaking of cultural boundaries, not to create new or better works of art, but for the thrill of doing so. The self-expression of the artist was romanticized and was elevated above the interests of society and was detached from and set in opposition to social norms. Aesthetics was elevated above ethics. Traditional morality and religion began to crumble in the wake of this. The freedom of the sovereign individual to pursue any degenerate lifestyle was held to be more important than the common good. This is a very 20th century way of approaching the world. Americans certainly didn’t think this way in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries because this is the sensibility of the European avant-garde and is ultimately foreign to this country.
Gradually, it dawned on me that this isn’t liberalism. Not really.
This is modernist liberalism which was imported from Western Europe in the 1910s and 1920s. It isn’t an ideology. It is an aesthetic or sensibility like Romanticism which was dominant in the early 19th century. As modernism infected the American liberal intelligentsia in the 1920s, it began to open the rift that led to our interminable culture war. Modernist elites are always starting new battles like “trans” which is the ultimate example of the modernist romanticization of the interior self as the “true self.”
“Hi, just call me … “Elliot Page”
I have no doubt that some people will point out that secular leftwing college-educated Jews are vastly overrepresented among the forces driving America’s cultural degeneration and Weimar Germany’s degeneration. There is also a lot of truth to this because this whole enterprise was jumpstarted by Greenwich Village in New York City but it is also a much more complicated story.
In my research, I discovered that Jews were also some of the harshest critics of modernism and that the roots of the phenomena can be traced back to Charles Baudelaire and other artists in mid-19th century France. Max Nordau, who wrote the amazing book Degeneration in 1892 which viciously critiqued degenerate art, was in fact an Orthodox Jew who was one of the co-founders of the Zionist movement with Theodor Herzl. Nordau predicted the likes of Madonna, Cardi B and Lil Nas X.
Adolf Hitler had a point when he condemned Cultural Bolshevism. It wasn’t just Hitler though who hated modernism on aesthetic grounds. Daniel Bell and many others have criticized its subversive nature and highlighted how it has been embraced by capitalists to further their own ends.