- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2007

What do Jann Wenner and Pope Benedict XVI have in common? They’re both guardians of a canon. Mirroring the current pontiff’s former role as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer, Mr. Wenner has taken it on himself to protect the legacy of rock music from heretical pretenders.

Mr. Wenner, according to Monkee vocalist Peter Tork, has been a “vicious” opponent of honoring the band with entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution over which the Rolling Stone magazine chief holds considerable sway.

Evidently, despite the Monkees’ evolution in the late ‘60s from prefabricated TV stars to semirespectable performers and writers, Mr. Wenner continues to dismiss the group as a contemptible novelty.

How odd that a guy who once trumpeted the revolutionary potential of rock music is today at the top of a hierarchy that, in some ways, is just as static and immovable as the Holy See.

Rock may never “die” in the way post-disco doomsayers predicted it might.

And yet, the culture that attaches to it — from fattened boomer mandarins such as Mr. Wenner on down to the busy young bloggers who pluck unknown indie pearls from the virtual seven seas of the Web — seems intent on strangling it with mythology and anti-commercial purity.

In a weird inversion of the late philosopher Allan Bloom’s observation that rock music was the “ultimate leveler of intellectual snobbism,” self-styled serious rock fans today are, in fact, the ultimate snobs.

Take the recent flare-up over a line of cheap merchandise bearing the image of the late grunge hero Kurt Cobain, including lunchboxes, wallets and a key chain that’s also a handy liquor flask.

The indie-rock critical clearinghouse Pitchfork Media found these gimcracks “unsettling.” RollingStone.com said they were an example of “tasteless exploitation.” A blogger at the Web site Rock-n-Roll Forever said Mr. Cobain’s “soul has been bled dry.”

Knowing, as I do now, that someone may be carrying a baloney sandwich inside a box that’s emblazoned with a still photograph of Nirvana’s legendary appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged,” will I ever be able to view the performance in the same way again?

Um, yes.

The wounded sensibilities occasioned by the profanation of Cobain’s legacy is a lot like that which appears to overcome many rock fans whenever they hear one of their favorite songs in a television commercial.

Ever since Nike committed, back in 1987, the sacrilege of selling sneakers to the sound of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” such fans admit to becoming slavering, helpless fools.

Poor things, they can’t bear the audiovisual mash-up and claim, frequently, to be unable to banish the mental image of, say, a Cadillac at the sound of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”

It’s not just a question of sullied memories; it’s almost as though the master recordings themselves have been contaminated.

It seems to me that if one wants rock music to be treated like art that’s worthy of grown-ups, you should be capable of acting like a grown-up yourself.

Even this reasonable demand, though, is fraught with the potential for preposterous overreach.

Peruse the philosophy shelves at your local bookstore, and you’ll notice they’re peppered with volumes in a series from the Open Court publishing house called “Popular Culture and Philosophy,” which treats everything from the Beatles to Woody Allen movies to the animated TV show “South Park.”

In fairness, it’s not necessarily crazy to find expressions of profundity in the words of Grateful Dead lyricists Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, both of whom are rather accomplished poets.

It is, however, a stretch to find, as one essayist does, a “synthesis of Apollonian structure and Dionysian impulse” in the zonked-out revelry of the band’s fans.

Here’s a philosophy prof mulling over the tune “Fixing a Hole” in “The Beatles and Philosophy”: “What kind of hole needs fixing, what is the ‘rain’ that gets in, and how does it prevent the mind from wandering where it will go?”

Scholarly meditation or marijuana haze? You decide.

It becomes clear, after a short while, that the books are a sort of closed-loop system for eggheads who already are deeply invested in the idea that their popular diversions are more philosophically significant than they actually are — or were ever meant to be.

As Michael Baur, the philosophy professor at Fordham University who edited “The Beatles and Philosophy,” cautions, the Fab Four almost certainly never “intended to be philosophical”; indeed, it’s doubtful “the content of their work is overtly philosophical in any obvious sense.”

Yet the navel-gazing temptation is too great.

And the alternative — that rock music is a popular art form that consciously rejected and, indeed, trampled the formalism that preceded it — is just too deflating.

Mr. Baur’s philosophical Beatles foray notes how John Lennon overcame the bitterness he felt toward the pseudo gurus Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and “primal scream” therapist Arthur Janov. “They’re human, and I’m only thinking what a dummy I was, you know?” Mr. Lennon said.

Today there’s Jann Wenner, keeping the Monkees, those childish “daydream believers,” out in the Cleveland cold; Nirvana-heads who indignantly thunder at lunchboxes; and Clash fans who seethe at Jaguar ads.

They’re simply applying the sacred rock dogma that mags like Rolling Stone have espoused for years.

I’m thinking what dummies they are.

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