As stereotypes go it would be fair to categorise music educators as Fire Starters. You teach an eleven year old kid guitar or drums hoping it will open the door to a lifelong journey into music. By the time the student is fifteen the flame will be lit and about the same time (probably sooner) he or she will identify with a subculture – anything from Death Metal to Grime, Prog Rock or Hip Hop. The fire inside rises; before long music has become a vehicle for a personal belief system.
Many students come to our schools’ music classes from airless teenage bedrooms with curtains drawn tight; darkened shrines to rock martyrs from Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain.
I have to admit at times I feel uncomfortable when students start using music as a platform to promote their new found beliefs. They model their ideas on rock heroes and attach “other stuff ” – hairstyles, language, makeup, slogans and ill-conceived philosophies and conspiracy theories. Ideas which are often half formed, lyrically morbid and often blatantly profane, musically naive and which sometimes feel downright dangerous.
Part of my moral panic is clearly because of my age. But I regard myself as open and eclectic – I’ll listen to anything once loudly to check it out. As a teacher I want to connect. I suspend my own belief system and trust that the young musician is patrolling his or her own borders when it comes to the messages promoted by subgenres of popular music.
The concept of moral panic in relation to popular music is not new. It goes back at least to the birth of jazz in the early 1900s. And the notion of challenging authority is certainly not new. Any parent who attends a parenting workshop is likely to suffer a power point presentation which includes Aristotle’s famous quote from 300 BC about youth: “They have bad manners, contempt for authority and they show disrespect to their elders. They think of nothing but themselves….they contradict their parents and are tyrants over their teachers”. So there is nothing new about kids wanting to fight the system or shock us.
Moral panic really kicked in with the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s when the press became concerned about deviant subcultures like the Mods and the Rockers. In his excellent documentary Cinema of Unease actor Sam Neil talks about how the 1950s were afraid. “It was a paranoid time in New Zealand. People were afraid of Communism, of trade unions, afraid of the Yellow Peril and Rock and Roll”. So great was the fear that one Friday evening in the mid 1950s Christchurch’s city fathers unleashed truckloads of territorial army volunteers on groups of teenagers gathered in Cathedral Square; gave them the bash to teach them a lesson.
Personally I have always loved the idea that music challenges tradition. And I would encourage a healthy cynicism of the establishment as a life skill. When the counter culture reached its zenith in the late 1960s and the music of The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Blerta carried messages of protest against war and screamed about the monotony of life under the rise of mass production and mass communication I loved rock music for the issues it raised, the flags it flew and the underground protest movements it represented. Two decades later I was energised too by the social and political messages embedded in punk and early hip hop.
The parental dissing and sniping at subcultures reached its climax with the rise of punk in the 1980s. Society was polarised by punk style – the music, safety pins through noses, Mohawks and Doc Martens.
I wish I could be positive about messages conveyed in all music genres. But I have to say that it is genuinely worrying to witness the emergence of Emo. It’s not all bad but some of the messages are insidious because they appear to promote self-loathing and self-harm. The scariest departure from early Goth culture is the Emo celebration of self-absorption and suicide – even to the point of Emos wearing tattooed wrist slashes. How lame is that?
At the recent BOP Smokefree Rockquest heats I was stunned to see local secondary school bands singing gaily about suicide – one lead singer even acted out hanging himself while he sang about how his life was “hanging by a thread”. I realise the issue of suicide should be out in the open. But this was more alarming than that.
While previous teenage cults have been dangerous the values espoused by the Emo movement are particularly vile because they use music as a vehicle for spreading a philosophy of self-destruction. It’s one thing to turn the gun on The Sytem; quite another to turn the gun on yourself….snuff music?.
The image of the isolated, tortured soul has been around since the time of poets like Byron and Shelley. But the wholesale commercialisation of this self-absorbed, self-pitying image – draped in celtic crosses, wrapped up in black capes and pseudo masochism and relocated in the suburban teenage bedrooms of the new millennium – is a scourge on our families and our schools which we would all do well to address.
The underlying messages carried by Emo culture, dispersed by txt msgs and the internet, are dangerous and contagious. And fucking morbid. Horror movies are now more popular among teenage girls than romance movies. And any brief look at TV commercials and magazine fashion layouts will confirm that unhealthy looking images of vacuous models are constantly being thrust at us.
Ironically while writing this article I stepped out to pick up a pizza from Hell’s Pizza where I was greeted by a full sized model of the Grim Reaper and a vapid, androgynous salesperson who stood behind a cash register which had RIP carved on the front. Morbidness has been normalised and is living in your suburb.
There are many good reasons to go to the CD collection and pull out the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” or Bobby Mc Ferrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy”. And many reasons to open the bedroom door, pull open the curtains and talk to your kids about what they are listening to.
Written by Liam Ryan Thursday, 30 August 2007