What's Really the Matter With Pop Music?

 
 

Popular music shapes us and our culture, but not only through its lyrics.

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Critics of popular music have pointed to its often violent, misogynistic, or sexually explicit lyrics in explaining why we should worry about what plays on our iPods. Defenders of pop music have countered this charge by pointing out that many listeners pay little or no attention to the lyrics, and when they do, they don’t take them seriously. As I argued in the first installment of this article, however, it is time this limited debate reckons with the voices of Plato and Aristotle, who claimed that people generally and the young especially are influenced most powerfully not by the words of a song but by the music itself—the rhythm, harmony and tune. For these ancients, the music itself, not the lyric, causes the stirrings of passion in the soul that show themselves in the movements of the body. Such experiences, repeated often during one’s formative years, leave a lasting mark. And the immoderation such music fosters, Plato and Aristotle remind us, can be harmful, whether or not the words of the songs are objectionable.

Both sides of today’s debate might be inclined to dismiss such concerns as silly. The intemperance of some pop music, they say, is enjoyed only in the mind of the listener and is not translated into action. Music, they point out, cannot force the will to certain actions. How often, after all, does a person run out and commit a crime after listening to a song? But this is no more than setting up and knocking down a straw man. The contention made by Aristotle and Plato is not that music can, in so simple a fashion, cause people to act a certain way. Rather, they contend that music moves the passions, and that this power, exerted repeatedly over time on people who are immature and impressionable, can produce a certain disposition under which it will be either easier or more difficult for reason to see, and for the will to choose, what is right.

Even if such music causes nothing more than a passionate reverie in the mind of the listener, the classical teaching still urges us to avoid it. This point is brought to light by the ancients’ general emphasis on human flourishing above and beyond mere social order, and more specifically by their account of the highest happiness, which results from the activity of the human mind in leisure. As Aristotle teaches, leisure is the purpose of life. For most of us work is merely the means to the goods we enjoy in the time we can be free from work. Leisure is, in contrast, the time when we are free to enjoy the things that we choose for their own sake. In sum, leisure is what most people cherish most and is where they expect to find their happiness.

For Plato and Aristotle, however, the crucial question is whether the things we enjoy in our leisure are truly worthy of us as rational beings and whether they are conducive to the happiness proper to such beings. So we must ask whether the excessive passion of some pop music, and its consequent hostility to reason, may incapacitate the young for the kind of leisure that is at once more reasoned and truly fulfilling.

We may be tempted to think that this critique places these classical voices in the same camp as today’s critics of popular music. However, the classical account provides the basis for a much more penetrating criticism of this music than its opponents today have advanced. This must give us pause, for it suggests that the basis of the classical teaching’s criticism of obscene pop differs from that of these contemporary critics. And that in turn suggests that Plato and Aristotle would find fault with pop’s critics as well as with its defenders.

For the ancients, then, conservatives are correct to take music so seriously, but they do not take it seriously enough. Put another way, in their attempt to take music seriously, the conservative critics of pop music do not aim high enough. They oppose music that fosters vice, but that limited aim does not do justice to the full flourishing of human nature or to the key role that the right kind of musical culture can play in fostering that flourishing. By failing to aim higher, modern conservatives ignore, and therefore do nothing to correct, the very social conditions that foster soul- and culture-deforming popular music. To understand this failing more fully, we need to develop the likely Platonic and Aristotelian diagnosis of modern popular music, modern culture and politics, and their effects on the human soul.

From the standpoint of the ancients, life under contemporary, secular liberalism—with its emphasis on material prosperity, its privatization of morality and hence its indifference to the highest human possibilities—must prove, in the end, to be less than fully satisfying. They argued that such a society addresses itself only to the brute in man, and thus the soul soon begins to hunger for nourishment that it cannot provide. Confronted with the prospect of life in such a society, the young react as the young Glaucon reacts, in Book II of the Republic, to what he calls the “city of sows,” a city dedicated exclusively to the needs of the body. There must be more to life than this, they think. But since they have no accurate sense of what that “more” is, they turn to the most obvious thing: overindulgence of the pleasures of the body. Bored with liberal modernity’s sober and cautious pursuit of pleasure, they turn instead to the careless and even reckless enjoyment of excessive pleasure, as well as to the music that celebrates such a life. Hence the essential correctness of Allan Bloom’s assertion, in his The Closing of the American Mind, that a certain kind of rock—at least the most daring rock of his time—is primarily about infantile sex pursued to extremes.

This is not, however, the last stage of the youthful soul’s, or of pop music’s, progress under conditions of contemporary secular, liberal culture. Sexual overindulgence proves in the end no more responsive to our most human desires than the timid bourgeois pleasure-seeking from which the soul recoiled in the first place. Once again the young seek for more, but once again, in the absence of the musical education of the ancients, they have no idea where to look. They have exhausted the body as a source of fulfillment, but they know nothing of reason. Thus they turn from bodily appetite to the far more interesting and dangerous regions of what the Republic calls the spirited part of the soul, the seat of anger and self-assertion. The satisfactions of spiritedness, at least in their coarser forms, are easily accessible. They require no refining education of the soul through orderly and graceful music. Certain spirited pleasures can be added to the indulgence of the body, and this solution appears, at least initially, responsive to the longing of the soul for more than the dominant culture has to offer. After all, that sexual excess alone is not fully satisfying need not mean that it is to be dispensed with, only supplemented.

Hence the emergence of a new, more disturbing popular music, one that adds violence to sex and is dually obscene for its celebration of both unrestrained physical gratification and the joys of uncontrolled spirited self-assertion. Indeed, the apparent summit of the new rock and rap’s perverse genius is not merely to add spiritedness to sex but actually to combine the two: intercourse itself is presented not only as a source of physical pleasure but also as an occasion for self-assertion, as a handy means of gratifying the body with the aid of another while simultaneously asserting one’s self by degrading that other.

On this classical diagnosis our sexually and violently obscene popular music appears as an increasingly unwholesome but nonetheless understandable reaction on the part of the young to the moral and spiritual poverty of liberal modernity. According to this account, though, pop music’s critics, while correctly perceiving that something of the utmost political importance is taking place in the realm of popular music, have incorrectly understood how to respond. Their critique of pop music takes the form of a call to decency and law-abidingness, rather than to virtue or excellence of character and mind. Such a strategy will be limited in its effectiveness because it does nothing to reform the cultural and moral emptiness that provoked the emergence of vicious popular music in the first place.

In contrast, the ancients would prescribe a serious attempt, including the educational use of the right kind of music, to encourage our pursuit of the highest goods attainable by man, reason’s enjoyment of moral nobility and theoretical truth. This, of course, is a daunting prospect in light of the discipline it imposes on the desires, which are powerful and inclined to resist such a project. We look with sympathy on the modern temptation—which influences liberals and conservatives alike—to dispense with the pursuit of excellence and instead to erect society on a basis apparently more reliable because more agreeable to desire: the promotion only of peace and prosperity, the conditions of comfortable self-preservation.

Yet, the classical argument indicates that such a society cannot in the long run reliably attain even the humble goal it sets for itself: instead it eventually gives rise to irrational and unruly passions that deform the soul and threaten the society itself. Thus it seems necessary to strive for the highest things identified by the ancients, from which striving a decent public order may emerge as a byproduct. To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, civilization can only be preserved by people who care about things higher than civilization. The ancients teach us that music is essential to fostering our love of those things, and hence to the preservation of civilization.

Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics and, most recently, of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press). This article is the second in a two-part series. The first can be found here.

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