Politics & Policy

Conservative Rock Songs, Deconstructed

A topic more suited to boozy dorm-room discussions has been subjected to serious academic consideration.

If you seek proof that liberal-arts scholarship is mostly a stinking heap of rubbish, behold the Journal of Popular Culture. Here are three recent examples of articles that have appeared in its dispensable pages:

‐ “Queer Dress and Biased Eyes: The Japanese Doll on the Western Toyshelf,” by Judy Shoaf (February 2010);

‐ “SpongeBob SquarePants: Pop Culture Tsunami or More?” by Jonah Lee Rice (December 2009); and

‐ “There’s Genderqueers on the Starboard Bow’: The Pregnant Male in Star Trek,” by Stephen Kerry (August 2009).

Yet the ultimate testimony to the journal’s shining irrelevance appears in its current issue:

‐ “Rockin’ the Right-Wing Blogosphere: John J. Miller’s Conservative Song Lists and Popular Culture after 9/11,” by Michael T. Spencer.

Yes, it’s about me.

I guess I should be flattered. Spencer, who is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Michigan State University, thinks that my three-page article from a four-year-old issue of National Review is worth a 22-page response in an academic publication. And it isn’t just any old 22-page response. It’s a 22-page response that accuses me of “investing meaning in rock music through a dialectical process of negotiated use.”

This guy has my number. That’s exactly how I pitched the story to my editor.

Here’s a little background. Many moons ago, I came up with the idea of publishing a list of great rock songs, such as “Taxman” by the Beatles, whose lyrics express right-of-center sentiments. I asked NRO readers to submit nominations. The result was my article: a ranked list of 50 conservative rock songs, published in the June 5, 2006, issue of NR. On the interwebs, we posted the original article plus a sequel.

I knew the article would generate interest and controversy. It wound up going as close to “viral” as anything I’ve ever written. It’s not my best article, my most important article, my most influential article, or my favorite article, but it’s probably my most talked-about article. The New York Times covered it. Stephen Colbert joked about it. Even Pete Townshend had something to say.

Unfortunately, Spencer doesn’t add much to the conversation. Here’s one of his major points, a profound insight that he has uncovered through his scholarly investigation: “The motivation in constructing such a list is fervently political.”

Thanks, Captain Obvious! Perhaps at some point in the not-too-distant future, a college or university will smile upon this contribution to the sum of human knowledge and grant tenure.

At least this claim of Spencer’s is correct. The list of conservative rock songs really did have a political motivation. His other notions are textbook examples of moonbattery. Did you know that post-9/11 America — the one that elected a black president — has suffered “a resurgence of racism”?

Ho-hum. When does class end?

Spencer describes my article as yearning for “a Gingrichian return to the so-called stability of the previous era: the 1950s.” This statement is bizarre on several levels. For starters, it’s hard to square with the actual contents of the list, which has only two songs from the 1950s (“I Fought the Law” and “Wake Up Little Susie”). That’s a whopping 4 percent of the total, as Prof. Archimedes Derbyshire is preparing to demonstrate in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications. If the list were really trying to transport us back to the 1950s, it would have had more Pat Boone and less Sex Pistols.

Then there’s this business about “a Gingrichian return.” A Ph.D. candidate in American studies who wants to drop such words as “Gingrichian” perhaps should try to gain a passing familiarity with the collected utterances of Newt Gingrich. Much can be said of them, but if the word “Gingrichian” means anything, it suggests a future-shocky optimism about markets and technology — not a stern-faced call for going back to the Old Ways of Doing Things.

In Spencer’s hands, of course, “Gingrichian” isn’t a descriptive adjective as much as an in-group putdown. Good liberals are supposed to recoil from it. When they hear it whispered in the faculty lounges of Michigan State University, liberal-arts professors lead their grad-school lackeys in a 1984-style Two Minutes Hate. At least that’s what sources tell me.

I could go on ad nauseam, in the spirit of a 22-page response to a three-page magazine article, but enough is enough.

Allow me a final point, gentle reader. Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has written persuasively on the problem of a professoriate that produces too many dissertations, books, essays, reviews, and 22-page journal articles. In just one broad field, languages and literature, the number of academic publications has exploded. They’ve gone from about 13,000 in the good old Gingrichian 1950s to 72,000 in the Spencerian now.

This creates a terrible conundrum for young academics. In a quest to say something new amid so much scholarly babbling, they’ve burrowed into to niche topics and proposed outlandish theories. Their need for original content is so desperate that one of them now has resorted to my list of conservative rock songs — a subject more suited to boozy dorm-room discussions than serious academic consideration.

Dude, we’re talking about the lyrics of Metallica songs.

Students pay a price for this. It may be fun to debate rock songs, but the boom in academic publishing also correlates with boredom in the lecture halls. As Bauerlein shows, college students are increasingly disconnected from the intellectual lives of their professors. They spend less time on homework, less time with their professors outside the classroom, and so on. These are the sad consequences of an academic class that values jargon, hyperspecialization, and the phony cerebralization of pop culture.

If you don’t like my list of conservative rock songs, that’s fine with me. But next time, just make your own playlist.

John J. Miller is NR’s national correspondent. His personal website is HeyMiller.com.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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