Chris Baker on Jon Stewart on Alex Ross
In the 60s and 70s, rock ‘n roll emerged as America’s youth’s answer to “the man.” The anti-establishment movement proved music could defy social boundaries and cultural norms. But no such rebellion comes without first an enduring period of oppression (or in music’s case, suppression). And in the 40s and 50s, amid post-war, isolationist, McCarthy-ist hysteria, big government was all the rage.
In his book, “The Rest Is Noise,” Alex Ross describes American musical oppression in Germany following WWII. As part of a denazification effort, an Allied cultural organization monitored and regulated cultural offerings in the defeated dictatorship. Composers and other artists with Nazi affiliations watched as occupying forces tarnished their reputations at home and American critics scoured their works abroad. America censored and controlled the music available to the German population, ensuring American pop and jazz made its way onto German airwaves. The Allies sought to displace totalitarian, socialist sentiments with government-controlled musical offerings. Because there’s nothing more American than government-regulated social freedom.
Most notable among censored composers with Richard Strauss, whose works were condemned by the American government. In a document titled “Music Control Instruction No. 1,” an Allied consortium writes, “German musical life must be influenced by positive rather than negative means, i.e., by encouraging the music which we think beneficial and crowding out that which we think dangerous.” Strauss was one of only three composers deemed “dangerous.” He died just weeks before the censoring organization was disbanded in 1948.
This afternoon, I have the opportunity to view a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and partake in a discussion with his team of writers. As a critic of government as well as an American of Jewish descent, I can’t help but wonder what Stewart’s opinion would be on such initiatives (assuming raunchy political satire of his variety was around in post-WWII America). While I’m sure there’s no love lost for a Nazi sympathizer, I can’t help but hope that reason (and anti-government sentiment) would prevail.
While it pales in comparison to more widespread imperialism and ethnocentrism, the Allies’ practices were, nonetheless, oppressive. Advocates, I’m sure, would preach necessity and wouldn’t be unjustified. In fact, the Allies’ cultural initiatives were critical to the successful restoration of Germany. But the censorship of music by Strauss and other German artists should not go unnoticed.
The practice is nothing new. America has known for centuries that the most effective way to subdue an enemy is to permeate its culture. We provided American schools for Native Americans, we drop democracy bombs on the Middle East on a daily basis and we’ve got a McDonald’s and Coca-Cola on street corners from here to Beijing. We established a democratic regime in Germany following the war, but it was our democracy, not theirs.
While Ross and Stewart may serve in somewhat unrelated roles, they are both, ultimately, critics and more important, they are both highly critical. Ross’s book analyzes music in the 20th century, but does so from a sociopolitical viewpoint. Jon Stewart analyzes politics and the media, and everything he does takes a sociopolitical viewpoint.
My recommendation: have him on your show, Jon. Just don’t forget to thank me for the suggestion.