Monday, October 13, 2008

Heroism in Music: Rock versus Pop=Sacrificial Heroes

Now that I've posted on specific songs, I wanted to take a look at the genres that spawned these songs, and the ideas that shaped them.

I've noticed, in the broadest sense, a tendency in rock and pop music lyrics on the treatment of heroism. (Here, we are not dealing so much with the actual music, but with the lyrics and culture. Neither genre is that simple to define, and especially so with pop music, which is not a MUSIC genre at all, but a marketing campaign.) Rock music, being rebellious in nature, has more sympathy towards "antiheroes," while pop music is about celebrating heroes. (Of course, rock music was once truly rebellious, but it's hard to take such rebellion seriously when you're sponsored by Duff Beer.) But anyway...taking this generalization, the heroes of rock are those of the "anti-establishment, while the heroes of popular music are, as they say, "safe as milk." And yet, they both share one thing: both are ultimately celebratory of the sacrificial. Why do I say that?

From a strictly lyrical view, songs tend to mirror trends in literature and culture. The predominant schools for a long time were Romanticism and Naturalism. Romanticism in art, as opposed to philosophy, was about choice, volition, values. It was a break from Classicism, which was strict and formal. The early Romantics, such as Beethoven in music, rejected the strictness and opted for more expression, more rule-breaking, in a search for individual authenticity. So this led to Romanticism, which implied choice and individual values. But if they accepted Romanticism in art, they also combined this with a "Byronic" view of existence. As Ayn Rand explains it in THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO:

There are Romanticists whose basic premise, in effect, is that man possesses volition in regard to consciousness, but not to existence, i.e., in regard to his own character and choice of values, but not in regard to the possibility of achieving his goals in the physical world...

She wrote that the main characteristic of the Byronic romanticists is "an overwhelming sense of tragedy, the sense of a 'malevolent universe.'" Naming poets as the chief exponents, namely Lord Byron, she claimed they promoted a prevailing belief among many that "man must lead a heroic life and fight for his values even though he is doomed to defeat by a malevolent fate over which he has no control." Probably the greatest example of this in art is the Ring of the Nebelung cycle by Richard Wagner, which told of "the Twilight of the Gods."

She further explained that because of this dichotomy, Romanticism was "doomed," giving way to a nihilistic view of things. This was partly reflected in the Dionysian spirit of the Romantics, whose own fates often mirrored that of the fabled dismembered god of wine. Such was the fate of rock musicians who adopted the guise of Romantic rebels, most notably Jim Morrison, who took the Dionysian rock poet to its "illogical" conclusion. (Rock, of course, is not about reason and logic, the hallmark of Apollo, antithesis to the Bacchanal.) This is also reflected in the progression of the summer of love, Woodstock, to the murder at Altamont (and ominously paralleled decades later between Woodstock '94 and Woodstock '99.)

But it all spelled out one thing: sacrifice. In this case, the rebel rejects society and its conventions, but sacrifices this world as tragic for the afterlife, or nihilism in general. And because heroes became to be seen as something "not real," or not possible, many rock lyricists, like poets and artists before them, gave up Romanticism in favor of Naturalism, which says that heroes are rare, or non-essential, because they are rare... and rockers started to sing of heroes as either "ordinary people," statistical averages, or mocked them, or some other variation. Cynicism trumped optimism, and rock, once again, became rebellious, but against values in general. If you ever wanted to trace Elvis to Slipknot, there you go...

So if that's the case in rock music, surely pop music is the way to go. Why, they even had a school of new wave called the New Romantics! So why am I ragging on pop music and heroes? Pop music is popular music. It must be popular for a reason, right? 20 million Elvis fans can't be wrong. (And that's the irony of the King: it's hard to keep that rebel pose when you're the King...). But pop music is well-written, well-crafted, catchy, tuneful...(debatable, yes, but often true.) Well, yes, pop music is often those things, but it's also "defanged," in order to be palatable to as many people as possible, often resulting in something bland, beige, homogeneous. And so, heroes of pop are those deemed "suitable for mass consumption."

If rock is the tragic continuation of the Dionysian, then pop music is often the Apollonian counterpart. Sunny, optimistic, joyful. There is a suggestion of Romanticism, of values, that things can be better, from The Beatles to Howard Jones to the theme song of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY...and when it's good, it's very, very good. But when it's bad...

What makes rock music seem more "authentic" while pop is written off as fluffy bubblebum shlock? Again, Rand explains that the philosophical flaws in the culture could not mix with Romanticism successfully. She considered popular literature to be an elementary offspring of Romanticism:

Popular literature is fiction that does not deal with abstract problems; it takes moral principles as the given, accepting certain generalized, common-sense ideas and values at its base.

Popular music does the same thing; it does not raise questions, it proceeds to take the culture's premises and runs with them, celebrating what it celebrates (of course it does, that's why it's popular.) So even if a song celebrates a hero, if that culture's definition of hero is flawed, that celebration will be flawed. Rand's celebration of Victor Hugo the artist, for example, contrasted with her view of Victor Hugo, the socialist. Or consider the lyrics to the song "I'll Walk With God,"where the performer sings of "leaning" and "prayer" and "humble pleas" to "the Lord." The music soars towards a triumphant end, suggesting an "otherwordly" flight from this one, to a world where "there is no death, tho' eyes grow dim." This music is heroic, but the lyrics suggest prostrating oneself before a "higher being" and achieving in the afterlife.

In that regard, rock lyrics, in their best rebellious sense, can be said to have more value than a pop song. Why? As Rand explains:
There are several reasons why Naturalism outlasted Romanticism, even if not for long. Chief among them is the fact that Naturalism’s standards are much less demanding. A third rate Naturalist may still have some perceptive observations to offer; a third-rate Romanticist has nothing.
When Rock musicians became "Naturalists," they still had to use some independent thought; the fact of being a rebel (outside of the "poser" rebels, who are more often than not just as conformist as those in the mainstream) requires the courage to dissent. But pop music, like the "slick magazine" fiction of WWII, or hack genre fiction, simply relies on cliche and cardboard stock characters. So pop music, too, rely on cliches, both lyrically AND musically: the predictable slow start, the slow build on cue, soaring strings in the climax, the predictable shallowness. Everything is controlled and planned to "tug the heartstrings."

If it were just a matter of artistic taste, we could simply write it off as shlock. But it's not so simple as that.

There is an idea in psychological studies of music that musical appreciation is a dual between tension and resolution. There are melodies that fall within our listening expectations, and melodies that defy them. What makes music popular, as opposed to the lyrics, is how well the composer plays with our expectations. Many hit pop songs have a formula, but not all pop songs with that formula are hits. That's because once a formula is established, it's no longer novel, and we come to accept that formula. (The best melodies are usually the ones that continue to defy our expectations even after repeated listenings.) And that's why rock, once it's no longer truly rebellious, is nothing but pop at that point. And what is popular via a formula can be replicated, and used to control the population.

So combine that with the beliefs of the culture. For example, the Nazis appropriated the music of Wagner, and utilized "heroic realism" (and banned jazz music in the process.) Rand wrote of the Russian National, with its socialistic lyrics combined with a soaring triumph of music. This effect relies on a common accepted musical vocabulary in order to manipulate the masses. Music that is idiosyncratic and individualistic simply will not do. And like rock music, but for different reason, the Romanticism in pop music gives way to a new formalism, a new Classicism if you will, which relies less on "what could be," but what is.

In the case of our culture, we have a predominantly Judeo-Christian ethic of sacrifice as being heroic. So this is where rock and pop music converges. Rock music, with it's Byronic, tragic view, calls for the hero to fight, knowing that he will lose. The pop music hero is called to heroically sacrifice himself for the greater good. Rock music does so with minor chords, pop music with major chords. One promises doom, the other triumph. But when self-sacrifice is the price, it is not the hero who triumphs, but those who rely on the hero.

And no epic ballad is worth the sacrifice of a real hero for the sake of sacrifice. What we need is a "bringer of balance" between the Apollonian and Dionysian, an integration of reason and emotion, in order to bring about a culture of non-sacrifice. And then we will have ballads not of sacrificial heroes, but heroes as achievers who exist in the here-and-now as role models for life, not the afterlife.


Landon Erp said...

It can be said that many people (myself included) tend to focus on the essay "Bootleg Romanticism" and there's something I get from it that I don't hear many people reiterating.

A lot of people take from that essay "I knew I was getting something better from that bad art than what everyone else said I would, now I don't feel so bad about it" and they leave it at that. The key point is that this is acceptable because it is the best available.

What I want to see is people genuinely taking this message to heart and creating things that traveled so far in the right dirrection that the flaws (and there are flaws) in the old romantics would seem unacceptable.

I'm past the point of accepting the best that happens to have been created at this point warts and all. I want something new and something better, nostalgia is anathema to this.

This goes for about any form of art but I felt this idea needed expressed.


Joe Maurone said...

A better synopsis I couldn't have asked for.