Are ‘We’ Ruined?

And by "we," I mean everyone but me, of course.

If you listen to a lot of music, you may run into the problem of other people being left behind by your sophisticated taste. Take jazz. People don’t like it. They’re supposed to. That’s probably why they don’t. I of course spend my evenings alone at home, pipe in mouth, nodding along appreciatively to 45-minute sax solos. I’m sure you do the same. But people—they’re the ones who don’t like jazz. They don’t have the attention span we do.

Same with the blues. People (and again I’m referring to those less discerning than you and me) may dislike blues slightly less than they dislike jazz, but it’s still regarded by most as something that should keep to itself. Hanging out and being the bedrock of all popular music, or whatever it does to occupy itself.

As far as actually listening to the blues, though—God, what a fucking drag. There’s B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton or whoever, all of them up there hitting the same repertoire of riffs we’ve been bullied into accepting as classic.

An old crank named Martha Bayles once wrote a book called Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, arguing that the exaggerated, macho strain of the blues that caught on in the UK (and was subsequently communicated back to white America) basically wrecked our ears. The swaggering Chicago blues practiced by Willie Dixon and his Brit followers reduced the music’s emotional spectrum to a single element—male braggadocio—and made guitar playing an athletic event. This kind of blues leaves behind the cosmic detachment of Robert Johnson contemplating “leaves trembling on the trees” and the mischievous humor of Blind Willie McTell—not to mention the delicate, intricate rhythm of early acoustic blues that doesn’t beat the shit out of every single downbeat.

Martha Bayles is good at arguing. Her arguments about music would be 100 percent correct if music were about arguing. It’s not. But on this point, she may have a point. The bludgeoning power of rock and roll, springing from a tiny, emotionally stunted sliver of the blues tradition, may indeed have ruined us for the subtle pleasures of other music. Like, for example, I don’t know . . . jazz. Not you and me, of course. “Us” in the sense of everyone but us.