The Fox Theatre—a grand movie palace of Detroit’s 1920’s, which is now used primarily as a venue for acts that won’t fill an arena—contained a chronologically mixed crowd in mid-March. Paul Young was in concert. Young, a slightly chubby, baby-faced British singer (he appears, to borrow a line from Elvis Costello, “teddy-bear tender and tragically hip”), uses the vocal style known as blue-eyed soul. His presence appeals to the young girls in search of someone to sigh about; his vocal talents bring him to the attention of older listeners who are mystified by the appreciation (and adulation) of bands like Poison, yet who haven’t completely succumbed to Lionel Richie, whose delivery has all the kick of chocolate milk.

Young, who had to have teenage girls peeled off of him, wound up his show with a bump-and-grind number about which he remarked, “The government would put a health warning on this.” He was referring to the Koop of condoms, not cigarettes. The operative word was “sex.” It was repeated innumerable times; it could have been used in one of those count-the-word contests that were once popular on Top 40 radio (e.g., “How many times do the Beatles say ‘yeah’ in ‘She Loves You’?”). Young’s dismal finale was aimed straight at the pubescent glands. The young women left the hall in a hormonal haze; the young men left with a few ideas on a single subject; the older listeners began to have second thoughts about Lionel Richie.

A week later, the Beastie Boys were at the Fox, supporting their then-chart-leading album, Licensed to III. The group performs rap music, originally a form limited to black street musicians. First, the street went. The group Run DMC hit the studio, and an audience who claims to find something touching in jump rope lyrics set to music that is created, in large part, by rotating a record back and forth on a turntable, made Run DMC a success. Second, the race restriction fell. Enter the Beastie Boys.

While Run DMC raps about subjects like bipedalism (“Walk This Way” and “My Adidas”), the Beastie Boys take a more metaphysical approach, as in “You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right to Party.”

The marketing people at MTV—the same, no doubt, who devised the Bon Jovi Hedonism Weekend—created a contest in which the winner would be “kidnapped” by the Beastie Boys. The lucky individual would be taken “bound and gagged” to spring break at Daytona Beach. I wonder how it would play in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Spin magazine, the editor, design director, and publisher of which is Bob Guccione Jr., son of Penthouse, was on the stands with its second anniversary issue. The cover shows singer Madonna appearing as a cross between a motorcycle moll and a semi-innocent clutching a sweater. The headline for the article she illustrates is “Sex as a Weapon.” The article is written by Tama Janowitz, who compares rock and movie stars to the mythical goddesses and gods. “On the one hand, we worship and admire these people, they are the objects of our fantasies; and on the other hand, we are secretly angry at them and long to be them.”

If Janowitz is right. Madonna “is not merely selling sex—she is representing power.” Power for Madonna, Paul Young, and others like them is based on commercial sensuality. The quasi-divine status of Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, neo-punk bands, and that whole flock of leather-wearing rockers (who are erroneously claimed to be the servants of Satan: let’s face it, the Prince of Darkness would have better taste—he’s supposed to be a gentleman) is derived from their willingness to be offensive.

I wonder if rock has ever promulgated ethics that would be acceptable in any world this side of Blade Runner. Robert Pattison, in The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism (Oxford University Press; 1987), heatedly argues that rock, the roots of which he says are Romanticism and pantheism, “the pervasive music of contemporary vulgarity,” is a form that has always resisted any strictures. It has typically defined itself by myths that put it outside the status quo, even if it is a part of it. There has always been, for example, a close identification between rock and blues performers—at least so far as rock critics and performers are concerned. To the rock performer, “the blues artist should be an outlaw, living on the fringes of society, hovering on the borders of madness, preferably a gambler, probably a drunk, certainly a sex fiend.” In other words, the blues musician is very much the person that the rock musician fancies him or herself to be. (Musically, there is a distinct difference between blues and rock, since the former treats the vicissitudes of life with detachment and irony while the latter takes itself oh so seriously.)

The rocker wants to be authentic, a person living on the edge, even though in order to reach a position of public fame he must be packaged like any other consumer product. There is a willing suspension of reality by both the performers and the fans as they lust after this authenticity. Says Pattison, “In myth, all rockers are lower class.” Bruce Springsteen usually wears clothes that most of us would have long ago turned into washrags. Even the Boss’s duds for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony had a certain aura of chintziness. Yet anything better would compromise his earthiness.

Pattison might argue that rockers have always been rebels without causes, but there are several examples that indicate that once upon a time, certain normative behaviors were recognized, even by the young. But now, as the rock musicians have become more powerful, they have also become fascistic. While they break rules, they immediately decree their own, seemingly incontrovertible, laws. It’s the righteousness of anarchy.

Two illustrations: One of the biggest areas of change is in attitude toward rudimentary regulations, such as the Fourth Commandment. In 1964, the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” told of a young lady who disobeyed her father; she went cruising the hamburger stand when she was supposed to be studying at the library. Punishment was meted out to the girl. Note well that the “Fun, Fun, Fun” is not what she had had but what the singer anticipates “now that daddy took the T-Bird away.”

Now by way of comparison we can jump ahead to Madonna’s recent hit “Poppa, Don’t Preach,” in which the young lady has gone out and got herself pregnant. (Obviously she didn’t listen to Diana Ross and the Supremes doing “Love Child.”) The point is, the pregnant young lady, while admitting “I’m in trouble deep,” tells her father in no uncertain terms that she is keeping the baby. From an ethical standpoint her decision is laudable, but her admission of what in another time would be called “guilt” is actually presented as a challenge.

And what about work? With record list prices at $9.99 and above, prestressed clothing at a premium, and the criminally high prices of bad habits, making a few bucks should be of material interest to rock fans. Work received more attention in the past. It was virtually impossible for any teenager to miss the Silhouettes’ message in their proto-rap classic, “Get a Job” (1958)—teen work has never been unequivocally celebrated. After all, the basic thrust of rock music is having a good time. But work was once seen as a necessary evil and accepted, as in Eddie Cochran’s 1957 hit, “Summertime Blues” (resurrected during the psychedelic era by Blue Cheer, and a few years later by what was once Britain’s working-class band. The Who). As “Summertime Blues” explains the facts of life: “My mama and poppa told me son, / You’ve got to earn some money / If you wanna use the car to go driving next Sunday.” Note the quaint idea that one would wait until the weekend to go for a pleasure drive. Today, Sammy Hagar, present lead singer of Van Halen, screams that he can’t “drive 55,” and he doesn’t mean that he’s promoting a highway bill.

Work remained an acceptable thing to do even in the 70’s. The Average White Band had “work to do.” (The background vocal repeated “work . . . work.”) Compare that to the background “we’re talking about money, money” in the recent hit single by Simply Red, “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention),” which laments the tragic fate of someone unable to get a loan or a government handout. But the song that describes the present antiwork sentiment best is Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day”: “I Don’t want to work / I want to bang on the drum all day.”

If there is anything disturbing about all this, it’s not that the performers are getting increasingly raucous. That in itself is insignificant. What is hard to stomach, however, is the multimillion dollar industry that celebrates parasitism. During the so-called revolutionary period of the 60’s, some people expressed concern about record companies releasing albums such as Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, which is essentially a call to arms against the establishment (of which Starship, the current manifestation of the Airplane, is now a commercial cog). There was little danger from such infantile political grandstanding. Today, many of those who spent their teen years listening to that music are making their mark on Wall Street and elsewhere: They are squeezing everything they can—and then some—out of the System.

But the music on the current airwaves—which no one gets upset about unless they discover some grotesque sexual image (e.g., the chainsaw codpiece illustrated on the cover of an album by Wasp, a group that was virtually unheard of until the Parents’ Music Resource Center started worrying about it)—is actually more distorting than anything that has come before. It is not so much the music of infantile rebellion—which was bad enough—as it is the anthem of mindless, joyless, effortless titillation. You can reform a rebel and make a man of him; I’m not sure what can be done with the vermin whose vibrissae throb to the music of the Beastie Boys.