Is pop music bad for your soul?
Today I'm going to a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London, on music and well-being. It's one of the best things about being a sort-of-academic - you get to hang out for a day with experts in a field. Today, that includes Roger Scruton, who is the British philosopher I most respect, although I have a love-hate relationship with his work.
What I love about Scruton's writing is that he talks about the importance of beauty, transcendence and the soul, in a way that is sorely lacking in our culture, and especially in humanities academia. Scruton has a deep Platonic sense of the role of beauty in educating our emotions and taking us beyond our little egos. He's written wonderfully on Wagner, especially, and how art transforms sexual desire.
We don't talk about beauty and transcendence enough. In the humanities, we either replace Beauty with Theory, and end up obscuring the art beneath our own pretentious neologisms. Or we talk in mealy-mouthed terms about the economic impact of the arts, or its community impact, or its health impact - all of which are important, don't get me wrong, but they miss the real magic of the arts, which is its ability to take us beyond ourselves and into the mystery of being. It's the spiritual impact of the arts that is really significant, though very hard to measure.
However, what I don't like about Scruton's wiring is that he's so utterly dismissive and contemptuous of pop music. Here he is in his new book, The Soul of the World:
In disco music, the focus is entirely on repeated rhythmical figures, often synthesized digitally and without any clear musical performance, in which musical arousal is brought to an instant narcissistic climax and thereafter repeated. There is neither melody nor harmonic progression but merely repetition...If you want an example, try Technohead, 'I want to be a hippy'.
Now first of all, that song is not disco, it's really bad house. Disco was a music in the 70s and early 80s. Get it right Roger! Secondly, to sum up the entire history of dance music by such an extremely dire example of it would be like summing up Wagner by only referring to his anti-semitism. It's a Straw Man argument - using an extreme example to dismiss a whole category. Or here Roger is talking about Nirvana, REM, the Prodigy and Oasis in his book Modern Culture:
In the music of such groups the words and sounds lyricise the transgressive conduct of which fathers and mothers used to disapprove, in the days when disapproval was permitted.
Really? What transgressive conduct do Nirvana, REM and Oasis lyricise? Making love, having fun, feeling sad, feeling good - is this so transgressive? What in REM is nearly as transgressive as anything in Wagner's Tristran, Strauss' Salome or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring?Oasis, Scruton goes on, are 'trapped in a culture of near total inarticulateness', which he exemplifies by their lines:
Damn my education, I can't find the words to say About the things caught in my mind.
Again, no one would hold up Noel Gallagher as any kind of exemplary lyricist, as opposed to say Bob Dylan or David Bowie or Jarvis Cocker, or Morrissey, or Ray Davies. Gallagher is indeed pretty inarticulate, perhaps there's even something sweet about his attempt to express emotions and his endless 'maybes' - but what he is very good at is creating catchy and occasionally moving songs. There's also a lot of really bad poetry around from the 18th and 19th century - the good stuff is rare, nothing unusual about that. So focus on the good stuff rather than the ephemera.
When he dismisses a century of pop music as totally mechanical, totally soulless, totally without merit, Scruton slips from being a careful philosopher to being basically a Telegraph polemicist, smiling to himself as he imagines the offence his non-PC remarks will cause. There's a nasty snobbery to it, a sneering at the masses with their bestial pleasures, which perhaps he feels he can allow himself as he himself rose from the working class.
This sneering at the masses and at pop music goes back to Theodore Adorno by way of Allan Bloom, who like Scruton was a Platonist (he believes the arts have a crucial role to play in educating our emotions and forming our souls). Like Scruton, he thought pop music has basically deformed the soul of western culture since the 1950s. He similarly found a mass appeal by dismissing mass culture in unconsidered generalizations designed to appeal to the prejudices of angry newspaper readers. Take this, from his bestseller The Closing of the American Mind:
I believe [pop music] ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education...Rock music provides premature ecstasy...[If young people listen to it too much] it is as if the colour has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end...Their energy has been sapped and they do not expect their life's activity to produce anything but a living'.
Yes, pop music makes zombies of us all! This description reminds me of how the Church used to talk about masturbation, warning it would turn people into hollow-eyed empty shells.
Some pop is better than others...
I am a poster-boy for the Zombie generation. I grew up singing in a choir, then was lured away by indie and hip-hop in the 1990s. Then I discovered LSD and ecstasy, got into dance music, and before I knew it I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a couple of bad trips. I was a creature from Bloom's worst nightmare - the colour drained from my cheeks, my eyes lifeless, expecting no more great things from the remaining decades of my life. Burnt out by 21.
However, I got out of this pit by discovering the great philosophy and culture which Bloom and Scruton think is the heart of liberal education - particularly Plato, the Stoics, Aristotle and others. Pop music hadn't somehow made me spiritually incapable of engaging in that great conversation. And judging by the popularity of Greek philosophy today with ordinary punters, other people's souls are still capable of enjoying philosophy.
And I also still love pop music. I still love dance music, even if I don't take E anymore. I am slowly discovering classical music, beginning with the comfortingly repetitive beats of Ravel, Stravinsky and Philip Glass, before slowly making my way back to Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart. But I still love pop music. I love the folk of Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes and Boniver, I love the hip-hop of Public Enemy or Kanye West, I love the electronica of Orbital or Bjork, I love the rock music of the Pixies, David Bowie, or the Flaming Lips, I love the yearning of Arcade Fire or Kate Bush, the melancholy of Otis Redding and the Smiths. I love the ecstasy and transcendence of it, the sexual vitality of it, the release of it, and above all the beat of it.
Pop music emerged from the popular traditions of folk, blues and gospel, it spilled out of the Pentecostal and Baptist churches of America, and the Methodist churches of England, Wales and Ireland, and gave ordinary people a window to ecstasy, and a release from the daily grind of work. Anyone who thinks pop music is a hymn to the machine has never listened to Bruce Springsteen. It is a rage against the machine, a desire for freedom, for release, for dignity, for a connection to something bigger than your tiny corner of the factory.
Scruton argued in Modern Culture that high culture became a substitute for religion. Well, only for the tuxedoed few, sitting rigidly in their chairs at Glyndebourne and Bayreuth. Even then, it's not much of a substitute - where is the community, where is the coming together except in the pure idealism of the music? Where is the caritas, and the connection with the common man which Jesus preached?
For ordinary people, pop music was our equivalent of Jacob's Ladder. It was our way to climb up and see beyond our lives, to connect with the deeper and darker emotions which the shiny world of capitalism did not allow us to express during the week. Our way to express our loneliness and longing for togetherness, our way to express our hope for a better world. Pop music, not classical music, kept spirituality alive in the dry decades of the 20th century, and (to quote Dylan) it 'got repaid with scorn'.
And yes, there was a lot of sex in it too, and a fair amount of swagger and booty-shaking. But I imagine there has always been a lot of sex in popular culture, if Chaucer's poetry is anything to go by.
Popular folk music has, down the centuries, always been about dancing, It has been music to dance to. As classical music took itself ever more seriously, the dancing stopped, and even energetic toe-tapping would be frowned upon at Bayreuth. But Plato understood the power of dance, as a way of releasing pent-up emotion and getting people into ecstatic trance states. That's why he legislated for communal dancing (done naked) in his Laws. Dance music helps us shake it out, work it loose, lose our minds, free our souls.
Let me put it as baldly as I can: pop music kept spirituality alive in western culture, when high culture had retreated into arid intellectualism. It tended the flame. And we have African-American music, culture and religion to thank for that, - although African-American culture was itself shaped by Jewish and Christian culture - and rhythm and blues was then shaped in new ways by white artists.
Yet guardians of high culture like Scruton despise precisely the aspects of pop culture that it got from African-American culture - its beat, its syncopation, its emotional honesty, its sexual candidness.
The war between mysticism and commercialism
Having said all that, Scruton is not entirely off the mark that pop music has always had a tendency to commercialism. Debbie Harry said in 1979 that there is a war within rock and roll between mysticism and commercialism. At the moment, the commercial industry is winning that war. The music of the biggest stars at the moment - Rihanna, Pitbull, David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Justin Bieber or that death-vamp Lana Del Rey - reminds me of the line from 1984, about a boot stamping on a face for eternity. It's so brutal, so materialist, so joylessly hedonistic. It sounds lost. There is no transcendence in it, no mysticism.
Perhaps the problem is that pop music was expected to shoulder an enormous spiritual weight from the 1950s onwards. Pop musicians became the unexpected legislators of the world, and they were just teenagers. Look at Bob Dylan in his London interviews in 1965, being constantly asked what his message is. He looks utterly freaked out by the spiritual expectations thrust upon him.
Pop music was always 'spilt religion', as Hulme described Romanticism. And a lot of the young musicians got lost in the spiritual and libidinal energy that their fans directed at them. The medium became the message. The artist - who should be a vessel for transcendence - became the God. That led to a few decades of Nietzschean rock posturing, with David Bowie in particular exploring the 'rock star as God' archetype, before various artists died or went mad, and Kanye West ended up screaming 'I am a God, hurry up with my damn croissants'.
The deification of rock stars was not good either for the rock stars or the music. If pop music is going to return to health, we need to stop expecting it to be our religion, because that puts too much expectation on the rock stars. Let God be God, and let artists be vessels for the Spirit, rather than trying to be gods themselves.
Let them be broken and vulnerable, rather than trying to be 100 foot colossi. Because it's in their brokenness and vulnerability that the Spirit comes into them and radiates out to us. 'There is a crack in everything', sang Leonard Cohen. 'That's how the light gets in'.
Another problem, finally, is that pop music has become the background beat to everything - blaring out in shops, in cafes, from other people's headphones and our own too. There is a danger that it does indeed become the beat of consumer capitalism, the anaesthetic we use to drown out our weariness and pain. Is it possible that, to create a space for new talents to emerge, we need to rediscover silence?
Anyway, I am going to try and convince Scruton of the joy of pop. Come on Roger, you gotta lose yourself to find yourself!