Field Notes
The Critique of Pure Pop

It goes without saying that philosophers rarely get into brawls with top forty musicians and parents. But Roger Scruton, Britain's outspoken conservative philosopher and critic of things cool, is anything but typical.

Late last March, Scruton found himself the object of considerable attention when the Pet Shop Boys, a venerable British techno-pop band, filed an $80,000 libel suit against him and his publisher. The specific offense? It's in the pages of Scruton's most recent book, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (Duckworth, 1998), in which the fifty-five-year-old philosopher evinces contempt for most things modern. In a chapter called "Yoofanasia," Scruton puts forth the following: "Sometimes, as with the Spice Girls or the Pet Shop Boys, serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trade mark to subsequent sound engineering."

The offending statement is less a critique of the bands in question than an extension of Scruton's ongoing efforts to explain what's wrong with modern music. In his book The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford, 1997), Scruton defines good musical taste as "the sum of those preferences that would emerge in a well-ordered soul." And what would such a soul shop for at Tower Records? Mozart and Vivaldi, apparently. "Classical harmony provides us with an archetype of human sympathy," Scruton muses. "The ability to notice a bass line, to feel the rightness of the notes and of the harmonies that erupt from them, is the ability to respond to a wider world, to value the other voice, and to situate both self and other in a moralized universe."

By this measure, most of us are in deep trouble. To Scruton, today's pop music, which bonds its listener to the performer rather than the song, is almost entirely devoid of musical merit. A tune by Nirvana's Kurt Cobain offers only a "ghostly resemblance to melody," and its harmonies swim in a "soup of amplified overtones." R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" is dismally "shapeless": "no triad is ever inverted, and nothing moves between the chords, so that all is absorbed in rhythm." And electronic dance music is even worse. The Pet Shop Boys' mechanized thumps and illusory heartbeats are an assault on his classically trained ear: "Beat is not rhythm," he explains, "but the last sad skeleton of rhythm, stripped bare of human life."

Who then, is to blame for shifting the public ear from Performance Today to K-Rock? In An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, he points his accusatory finger at "a new human type" emerging in modern cities—a.k.a. the youth of the 1990s: "Youth culture is a global force. It has its own language, its own customs, its own territory and its own self-contained economy." It also has its own music, whose sound, according to Scruton, is defined by bands like R.E.M., Prodigy, and Oasis (whom he once denounced in a lecture as "mindless oafs").

"Beat is not rhythm," says Scruton, "but the last sad skeleton of rhythm, stripped bare of human life."

These bands aren't taking Scruton to court, but they do have their defenders, even among the intelligentsia. John Sutherland, a well known Victorianist and University of London professor, argues that "there is certainly more to [R.E.M.] than meets the jaded ear of Roger Scruton." In a February issue of The London Review of Books, he went on to point out, "The notion that this group [R.E.M.], at this moment, represents the 'voice of youth' is peculiar enough...Michael Stipe [R.E.M.'s lead singer] is knocking on 40!" Indeed, skin-and-bones Stipe is looking much worse for wear than his "aesthetician critic," whose author photo consumes the entire back cover of An Intelligent Person's Guide. (Sutherland also unravels "The Sad Professor," a dirgelike track on R.E.M.'s album UP that tells the story of a boring, drunk, and miserable literature professor. "Michael Stipe is serenading me and Roger Scruton," he surmises.)

Apparently, Scruton not only dislikes "the new human type" created by youth culture, he also wants to keep this type out of his home. In an April feature story in the London Guardian, Scruton described how he will bring his son Samuel, then five months old, through his formative years, steering him as far away as possible from toxins like pop music, baseball hats, and baggy pants. "My wife Sophie and I have decided to offer Sam a genuinely deprived childhood," Scruton explains. "Sam is being educated not so as to enjoy himself, but so that other people will enjoy him." For the duration of what Scruton calls Sam's "ordeal," the boy will not watch television or play with toys or drink Coca-cola. He will, however, read Greek by age six, play the piano and viola, and attend church regularly.

The education of Samuel Scruton is not exactly a Dickensian horror, but it's not a walk in the park, either. Even Scruton acknowledges that Sam may "just become a cruel experiment in parenting." Think of John Stuart Mill, who, raised by a philosopher father with a Scruton-like strong arm, suffered a terrible breakdown at twenty. Rejecting his father's teachings, Mill found inspiration in Wordsworth, the Oasis of his day. Guardian readers predict that a troubled adulthood lies ahead for young Sam Scruton, too. Suggested one letter writer, "The Guardian should invite Mr. Scruton to provide us with a regular column on bringing up young Samuel, the proceeds to be invested to pay for therapy required in later life."

For the moment, the new father has more immediate concerns—like his pending lawsuit. The Pet Shop Boys could still drop the charges, since the financial stakes are not terribly high. Nor is it too late for Scruton to make nice and apologize: Weirdly enough, after news of the suit first broke, he told one reporter, "Actually, I quite like the Pet Shop Boys—certainly the early stuff."

Hillary Frey

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