Yesterday afternoon, I was doing the usual errands around town, Gwendolyn's Bose stereo cranked up to a reasonable level but no higher, with this disc in the slot. The fifth track was Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," a song thirty years old which up to this point had never impressed me as anything more than a comparatively-bouncy manifestation of Joel's New York state of mind. The grocery-buying process, however, evidently drained most of my usual thought patterns, leaving me actually listening to the words, and Jesus, what is this guy trying to say?
They showed you a statue, told you to pray
Not that I have any special experience seducing Catholic girls, indeed any girls at all, but I'm not sure which is more terrible: the idea that someone would lay down a line like this to poor "Virginia" (ha!), or the idea that she might actually buy into it. It wasn't, as some said upon its release, anti-Catholic Joel was quoted as saying that it was "pro-lust" instead but it definitely doesn't sit well with my particular package of values.
And here's the kicker: while I wouldn't endorse any of the sentiments therein, I still like the song, at least well enough to keep it on that compilation disc and to keep from setting my copy of the LP on fire in protest. Nor is this the only song from my ill-spent youth (I was twenty-four in 1977) that expresses ideas I would never, ever espouse yet which I still enjoy and which I probably could, but almost certainly wouldn't, sing at Karaoke Night.
An exemplar of this particular phenomenon is the late John Lennon's "Imagine," a simplistic rehash of Sixties leftist tropes wrapped in a perfectly lovely piano tune. It doesn't bother me in the least that the official motto of Liverpool's John Lennon Airport is "Above us only sky," a line from "Imagine," nor do I assume that it's a declaration of atheism by the airport's owners, the Peel Group: it's simply a line from a song.
But here's where things get complicated. I'm well into my fifties, a decade during which I don't feel compelled to give much of a damn about anything; it causes me neither grief nor cognitive dissonance to appreciate lyrics with which I disagree. Could I have maintained this same stance half a life earlier? Or would I, having had far less real-life experience, have been more susceptible to their presumed subversive appeal?
And this, in turn, leads to another question. It is a seldom-questioned truism among social conservatives today that the hip-hop culture is a Bad Thing. La Shawn Barber writes:
Admittedly, music that young people like tends to be somewhat subversive to begin with, but gangsta rap broke the mold. It was dangerously subversive…and nasty. One of its defining elements is the nihilistic, gotta-get-mine-don't-care-if-I-die, fu**-you, murder-you fixation on instant gratification and thuggis