Non-Mature: Jerry Lee Lewis, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1957)

For David Moore

In Allan Bloom’s notorious Closing of the American Mind [1] there’s a discussion of rock music which many (dare I say) of us would have quickly dismissed because of Bloom’s lack of discrimination between better and worse rock, his failure to distinguish lyrical from purely musical issues, and his ignorance of rock’s sources (notably the blues) and the musical meaning rock draws from these sources.  Notwithstanding his limitations as a critic, Bloom does, I think, get to the heart of rock-as-such in the way he focuses his complaint on the issue of maturity.  To give him the best possible basis for his case we can grant him, as a rock prototype, something extremely silly, unruly, and irresponsible, like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in Jerry Lee Lewis’s hit version of 1957.  Bloom’s not into shakin’.

“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”

Siding with Plato, Bloom claims that music of any kind is a “barbarous expression of the soul . . . the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror” (71).  Music is therefore crucial in the civilizing process:  it can be used either to tame the soul’s raw passions or to inflame them so they can overthrow reason.  Bloom thinks the goal of all civilization must be to make human life into a coherent unity, harmonizing our passions with our reason.  (I wonder:  Would love still be love if it were domesticated by reason?  Would we be fully human without fully passionate passions?  But let’s press on.)  From this point of view rock is a great offender because it brings elemental sexual desire to the fore:

. . . not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.  It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing (73).

Rock interferes with maturation.  It expresses and amplifies sexuality before there is any thought of marriage or family, splitting apart what civilization needs to be united.  There’s also something “cheap” about the instant expressiveness of the loud sound and hard beat.

Rock music provides premature ecstasy . . . It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors . . . Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits (80).

I think:   Ah!  So might a dignified professor complain about people laughing at him when he slips and falls on his bottom—“without exercise of the faculties” everyone immediately finds him funny, their guffaws a form of “premature ecstasy,” not a civilizing experience.  Well, tough on him.  We realize that pratfalls manifest part of real life, our common hazard of looking dumb.

Youthfulness or non-maturity also belongs to our reality, and part of its essence is to see adulthood itself as a joke, comically stiff in its civilized seriousness.  Indeed, to be a teenager is to be a joke on adulthood:  one is adult in one’s basic capabilities without holding a position in the network of adult responsibilities.  One is still unmated and unrooted.

The blue notes, shouts, and other rough features of the blues along with the “ragging” of ragtime and jazz have prepared a musical language of shakiness to express passion, pain, and wit as they refuse to fit into a harmonious life fabric.  Rock takes over some of this vocabulary to express the unrootedness of non-maturity.[2]  Unfortunately, Bloom is so intently mature that he doesn’t get the fundamental joke in being non-mature, and his own capacity to step outside maturity remains untapped, so far as his criticism goes.[3]

Maturity is indeed an inescapable concern for us.  Woe unto us if we lose sight of our civilized ideal.  But the cries of rock music are, after all, a way of being related to that ideal, playing with it without losing it.  Bloom is right that music mediates between reason and the wild part of the soul, but the transaction works both ways.  After reading Plato’s Republic, let Jerry Lee sing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and after listening to Jerry Lee, go back to Plato to think about how and with whom you ought to be shakin’. [4]

This post is derived from an essay written for the Millsaps College philosophy journal Fred Johnson in 1988, shortly after Bloom’s book came out.

[1] New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1987.

[2] Rock has also exploited the parallel between the condition of youth and the condition of being a pilgrim.  U2 made this point by performing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” together with a Harlem church choir.

[3] Robert Pattison’s argument in The Triumph of Vulgarity depends on the same excessive seriousness, tying rock “vulgarity” to Romantic pantheism and taking rock warnings against growing old at face value—as though anyone could, like, do that.  The Triumph of Vulgarity.  Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism (New York:  Oxford U., 1987), Chap. 4.

[4] And to preserve my argument, try not to think of Jerry Lee as a corrupt older man manipulating the young female object of his appeal.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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