As you’ve no doubt figured out from the latest Google logo, Thursday was the birthday of the late Les Paul, pioneer of the electric guitar and related musical innovations. Should we be thankful for what Paul gave us? I certainly am. Roger Scruton (whom I have also always admired) might disagree. In An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton tells us that:
The electric guitar… [is] a machine, which distorts and amplifies the sound, lifting it out of the realm of human noises. If a machine could sing, it would sound like an electric guitar. Techno-music is the voice of the machine, triumphing over the human utterance and cancelling its pre-eminent claim to our attention…. However much you listen to this music, you will never hear it as you hear the human voice… You are overhearing the machine, as it discourses in the moral void. (p. 107)
If you are tempted to regard that as anything but over-the-top… well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Les Paul and Mary Ford. Just try to find a “moral void” here, or anything other than something delightfully human:
Now, I’ll grant you that Paul and Ford are a far cry from (say) Nine Inch Nails, or house music, which are no doubt the sorts of things Scruton had in mind. The point, though, is that whatever it is that is objectionable about the examples Scruton means to target, it is implausible that the electronic features per se make them so. The electronic manipulation of Mary Ford’s vocals is part of the charm of a Paul and Ford tune (here is another famous example). And are we really to believe that almost the entirety of modern popular music – in which the electric guitar features so prominently, alongside other electronic elements – is a “moral void” in which truly human sensibilities cannot be expressed? Or that the electronic and machine elements by themselves could entail this?
A machine is, after all, a human artifact, no less than a viola or an acoustic guitar. What is crucial is what is in the mind behind the instrument, not the instrument itself. Nor can it be said that the instruments and electronic techniques in question fail to add anything aesthetically distinctive and valuable to the musician’s repertoire. They are, again, a commonplace in contemporary popular music, for some of which even Scruton himself has confessed a weakness. As I noted in an earlier post on Scruton and pop music, they are crucial to the sound of a band like Steely Dan, the “smoothness” of which has an undeniable beauty. Even the most thoroughly electronic contemporary music offers us examples – consider the trip hop mood music of Portishead or Massive Attack, the Vangelis score for Blade Runner, the playful surrealism of Yello, or the sampling techniques of the Dust Brothers (here’s a Beastie Boys example of the latter that I think even a family friendly blog can link to, and a further example from Beck). One does not need to claim greatness for such music to allow that it has aesthetic interest, and in some cases real beauty.
Nor, where the stuff Scruton might reasonably object to is concerned, does pinpointing the electronic elements really seem to the point. The most extreme examples of electronic dance music seem questionable precisely because of their associations with the sensual excesses of the club scene, the complete immersion of the dancer in the bodily aspects of his or her nature to the exclusion of reason. But what do the electronic or “mechanical” aspects of the music as such have to do with that? The same moral or psychological effect on the listener could be achieved using tom-toms and other low tech instruments.
The trouble with too many conservative appeals to “human dignity” and the like in moral and aesthetic contexts is that they are woolly and subjective, and threaten to remain so when not backed by rigorous, metaphysically-grounded argumentation of a traditional, Aristotelian natural law sort. The analyst projects what are really just his own contingent and fallible intuitions and sensibilities onto “the person” or “the human” as such. He also too often forgets Terence’s dictum: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.