George Jonas says that Western civilization has been in free-fall since the start of World War 1. The longer I live, and the more I read, the more I am inclined to agree. Destructive trends in philosophy and morality could have been stemmed, but for the fact that we went through a titanic dysgenic event: vast numbers of the brave, the manly, the right-minded and the patriotic were selected out, not once, but twice, in two World Wars. Trivial and largely gay aesthetes like the Bloomsbury Group were left to dominate thought and manners for generations to come. Read the New York Review of Books if you doubt me. Fascism triumphed because the officer class, and their social allies, the people who might have stopped violence-worshiping thugs, had been reduced to a quarter or a fifth of their pre-War strength. The obsession with the gay, the marginal, the non-white, the female, got its start in the surviving war-avoiding intellectuals of post World War 1. The overthrow of the Victorian hierarchy, whose apex was male, white, largely Protestant, and straight did not replace the social hierarchy. The new order simply inverted it. Modernism exalted the Godless, the female, the brown-skinned other, the marginal and the gay – with all the results that we see around us. That is my theory and I am sticking to it, if it explains the facts better.
Regardless of what started the decline of Western civilization, I am pleased to record an important harbinger of a turn-around which starts, as it must, with youth, and a gesture of rebellion against the prevailing ethos.
Arcade Fire, the most interesting new musical group in ages, has announced that it expects its audience to dress for its next round of concerts in formal wear or costume dress.
Periodically, western civilization goes through a massive taste change. If you look at pictures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, they are in three-cornered hats, wigs, with white stockings and breeches. Thirty years later, men are in trousers, with flowing natural hair, in top hats and tail-coats. Mozart has given way to Beethoven. The classic era has given way to the Romantic, and revolution is on the march. The agenda for the 19th century has been set by 1805.
These revolutions in society do not occur every 23 years. Indeed, they are not truly “generation” gaps. There is no such gap between my own cohort and my children and their cohort, as there was between my parents World War 2 generation and their kids in the 1960s. Indeed, “generation” gaps can occur within siblings. There are families where the children born in or just before WW2 have a “generation” gap between them and their siblings born later in the forties or fifties, who came of age in the 1960s.
For decades, since the 1960s, youth was in rebellion. Dress went from jacket and tie to jeans and T-shirt, to torn jeans, to grunge, to rap, to the adulation of black male violence in rap. Youth culture became slum culture. Indeed, the idea that there was “youth culture”, as opposed to culture in general, was an idea hatched in the 1960s. After fifty years of it, something had to change. Go through the radio stations: endless electric guitar and pseudo-rebellious teenage posturing carried out by thirty to forty-year old musicians. Nothing original or interesting is to be found in pop culture these days, insofar as it is heard on radio. Lady Gaga? Madonna redux. Rap? you are joking. Rock and roll? an obsolete art form now confined to niche radio.
Popular culture is at a dead end. Arcade Fire know this, instinctively, as artists. They are seeking, I believe, to create an atmosphere in which it will be possible for youth once again to participate in the longer term evolution of American popular music, and that means getting in touch with the work of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen. To do so, they have to change the meaning of a “rock” concert. They have to turn it back into a musical concert. Like kneeling to pray in church, dressing up for the concert is an outward bodily action intended to have an inward and spiritual effect.
I am not claiming superiority of taste here. I am one of the generation raised on the Stones, Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles. There was, in our generation that came to puberty in the 1960s, a visceral reaction against the Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, big bland band music of the 1950s. We wanted authenticity, whatever that was, and if it meant leaping like a maenad to Mick Jagger’s No Satisfaction, so be it. We loved it. I too dropped acid at the Grateful Dead/Janis Joplin/ all the talents tour at McMahon Stadium in Calgary in 1970. I regret nothing. Yet an era must come to an end. The slide into the slum, to the brutalization of taste through rap, must come to an end.
Arcade Fire’s decision to insist on better dressing at concerts is objectively reactionary, and I laud them for it. It is about time.