Friday, June 29, 2012

The songs that saved your life

Whenever three things come together in anything like the same orbit I smell a blog post. This essay by Mark Edmundson ("Can Music Save Your Life?") strikes me as being totally wrong. The other two things are my daughter's starting to get into music (albeit a song that seems calculated to appeal to girls with low self-esteem: "You don't know you're beautiful--that's what makes you beautiful") and my listening to the part of the album that actually downloaded when I bought the new Saint Etienne album on iTunes. The Saint Etienne album is a celebration of music (which sounds horrendous, I know) and begins with a song featuring a lot of spoken word (also highly dubious in prospect) about getting into music as a teenager and this going along with parties, boys, and first kisses. But the point isn't about the kisses, it's about the music: reading the music press, memorizing the charts, getting excited about going to see bands. It is connected somehow with the other stuff though. (I think this is why I am moved by my daughter's liking a song so much that she plays it all the time. Although it's also the only song she's got on her phone.) It makes sense for singer Sarah Cracknell to ask: “when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?" The answer, surely, is No. Not because music was ever a substitute for having a family, but because other things, such as families, become more important as you grow  up. And so, hopefully, you need music less. 

This seems to be a pretty well recognized phenomenon. Jim Morrison memorably claimed that "music is your only friend," and The Smiths compared music to a life-preserver:
The passing of time
Leaves empty lives
Waiting to be filled
I'm here with the cause
I'm holding the torch
In the corner of your room
Can you hear me?
And when you're dancing and laughing
And finally living
Hear my voice in your head
And think of me kindly
But isn't the idea of music as something that stops you from drowning, that saves your life, an exaggeration? Isn't Edmundson right? Well, yes, if you take the claim (which is not only made by Morrissey) literally. But no one means it literally, except in the sense that music can help get you through a difficult time. In some cases that might mean preventing suicide--there are plenty of songs urging you not to kill yourself--but more often the idea is of music as therapy, not emergency surgery.

Edmundson asks:
Who hasn't at least once had the feeling of being remade through music? Who is there who doesn't date a new phase in life to hearing this or that symphony or song? I heard it—we say—and everything changed.
The answer to his first two questions is: Me (and you too, I would bet). "I heard it--we say--and everything changed." No, we don't.

He also says this:
Music makes life melodious—assuming that the music has a melody. But life is often jarring. Pop music suggests, by its easy, pleasurable repetitions, that life makes sense. We can pretend, for the duration of a song, that there is harmony in our lives.
Instead of pop music he recommends Beethoven and Coltrane. I don't know jazz, but I have no objection to Beethoven. Still, there is something shocking about this idea of pop music. You would have to define pop music very narrowly (no blues, no punk, no heavy metal, nothing alternative, no rap, etc.) to get it to consist of easy, pleasurable repetitions suggesting that life makes sense. Even The Beatles would be out, at least in their later years. So this is really a caricature of pop music.

He goes on:
The philosopher Allan Bloom didn't much care for the effect that music had on his students. He believed that they used music to counterfeit experience, in particular to fabricate joy. He said that music—rock music especially—reproduced in listeners the feelings of triumph that come from completing a great work of art or doing a heroic deed or making a conceptual breakthrough in science or philosophy—or even finding the true love of one's life. Students, Bloom said, found in rock music a way to fabricate those emotions, and then they often took the logical next step and asked themselves, implicitly, Why bother going further? Why should one actually do the deed and put in all the work leading up to it, when one can have the reward simply by putting on some music or showing up at a concert?  
He cites no evidence, and it seems to me highly implausible that anyone has ever foregone a genuine achievement because music acted as a kind of experience machine that made the effort not appear worthwhile. Would anyone claim that the vicarious experiences offered by literature have this effect? Music is rarely triumphant, and when it is it tends to be motivational rather than demotivational (although I have no evidence to offer either). "We are the Champions" might be a good song to play in a gym. I doubt everyone would stop working out and just listen before going home.

Of his students he asks: "Does music save their lives? No, it preserves them, much as it did mine." But a life-saver and a life-preserver are much the same, aren't they? And music does not only help stop you from getting too bored, as Edmundson recognizes some of the time. 

Perhaps his essay is not worth responding to, and I won't go on much longer, but there's also this:

The Music Geek listens only to the best music. He does it all day long, sitting in his Herman Miller Aeron chair, with his Bose headphones on; he wears pads on his eyes; his face is drawn in sublime concentration.
This person does not exist. Edmundson also says that we should create music, if only for ourselves, not just consume it. But he's writing like someone being paid by the word or fulfilling some contractual obligation, not like someone who has something to say, so I can't be bothered to formulate a response.

I don't agree with Alva No
ë either when he says that the best musical artists play with identities but don't inhabit them. Authenticity is not bullshit, as Noë almost says. Here's one thing he actually does say:
The greatest rock artists play with identities, they don't inhabit them. Think of the way the Rolling Stones moved from blues to country and western, from funk and disco to psychedelia. We find equally soft boundaries and playful identities in the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Bob Marley.
Bob Marley playing with identities? I missed that. And what about the fact that the Rolling Stones moved from really, really good to notoriously bad? Bruce Springsteen's identity might be bogus (I've read that it is a brand), but not all identity is like that. The songs that let you know, not that life makes sense, but that someone else feels the same way you do are hard to fake. And they can become an important part of your identity, not something to play with, and not something to sneer at when you're older and Marc Bolan is no longer so important.


  1. "One should thus always ask when exaggerated dogmatic claims are made: What is actually true in this. Or again: In what case is that actually true." (Culture and Value, 1931)

    There are a few points on which I feel like putting in a good word for Edmundson's essay:

    1) Growing up, I haven't come to need music less. I don't have a family, and part of the reason is precisely that it would never come to mean as much to me as a number of other things, which include music. This vantage point on the matter may be quantitatively rare, but I know it exists, because I represent it myself.

    2) I do sometimes "date a new phase in life to hearing this or that [...] song", but only retrospectively. I have also sometimes felt immediately upon first hearing that a new song will become part of the periodisation in my autobiographical memory, but these feelings have on the other hand proved to be unfounded.

    3) "Easy, pleasurable repetitions suggesting that life makes sense" can also be afforded by art whose intended message is not that life makes sense. The pleasure of repetition in art is sometimes so intense that it can eclipse artistic messages which themselves contradict the view that life makes sense.

    Here in Finland there is a repellently bad war movie that is regrettably so popular that it has come to be shown on TV every Independence Day (6 December), and has even produced spin-offs such as a trivia quiz book, a postage stamp, and so on. What is worse, the movie is based on a very deep and philosophical, world-class war novel, which is admittedly itself very popular, but which has nevertheless come to be somewhat eclipsed by the movie adaptation. Just a couple of weeks ago I was lamenting this state of affairs (which I discuss briefly in my forthcoming book) to a friend, who is also a fan of the book but not the movie. He hit the nail on the head by saying that the movie is "Teletubbies for adults". It is at least supposedly about the horrors of war - most of the good guys are killed before the end, many of them in the most horrible ways - but the narrative content has long ago become secondary to the pleasure of merely watching the movie once more, having watched it already so many times that one can repeat all the lines by heart.

    So just like the Teletubbies cheer and demand "Again! Again!" the fans of this movie watch it again and again, although they know every shot and every camera angle and every line inside out. They use it to "fabricate joy", to use Edmundson's wonderful paraphrase of Bloom. The joy of themselves watching - which disgustingly masquerades as the joy of living in an independent country thanks to the war depicted in the movie.

    (I was reminded here of Georg Lukács's The Destruction of Reason, whose Leninist critique of Wittgenstein is wooden and absurd, but whose summary of Schopenhauer's philosophy is immortal: "a modern luxury hotel on the brink of the abyss, nothingness and futility. And the daily sight of the abyss, between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art, can only enhance one's pleasure in this elegant comfort.")

    Edmundson's essay might be Geschwätz, as Wittgenstein might have called it in German, or "gas", which he used as an English equivalent. But I think there is a small kernel of truth in it nevertheless.

  2. Edmundson's essay might be Geschwätz, as Wittgenstein might have called it in German, or "gas", which he used as an English equivalent. But I think there is a small kernel of truth in it nevertheless.

    Yes, there is probably more than one kernel of truth in it. The main thing that struck me about it was the smell of gas though. Or rather, the dismissal of popular music as if it were something that couldn't have much meaning, as if the only relationship one could have to it were something like the Teletubbies relation that you describe so well.

    That kind of repetitive viewing is a complete mystery to me. I always think of the Teletubbies' "Again! Again!" when I read Chesterton on the sun rising every day. (As I remember it, he thinks of God as having something like this kind of enthusiasm for the world and its workings, and this is why, according to him, induction works.) But I have never been one of the seemingly very many people who like to watch the same movies and television series over and over again. Wittgenstein is supposed to have read The Brothers Karamazov over and over again, and I would respect that kind of dedication to a really good book or film, but I just don't see the appeal of watching something of lesser quality till you can repeat every line. Maybe this is fabricating joy. It's just alien to me.

    Thanks also for the Lukács quotation. That's great.

  3. Coltrane. You must purchase A Love Supreme immediately.

  4. I'm not a big jazz fan*, but I'll look into it (honest). Thanks for the tip.

  5. Here's the thing: I have disliked jazz for as long as I can remember, but then a musician friend SWORE to me that A Love Supreme would change my life--and it did. Also, a thought about the Stones and bands who (allegedly) go into the crapper: Fans (and critics) often create false narratives based on this sort of logic: Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street are the greatest Stones albums. Therefore, the less a Stones album resembles these, the worse it must be--which is to say that artists automatically get penalized for experimenting with different genres. A great example of this is Neil Young's brilliant synthesizer album Trans; when it was released in 1982, everyone savaged it simply because it didn't sound how a Neil Young album is supposed to sound. Critics are just now catching up to it.

  6. I will try to listen to A Love Supreme and like it. If I succeed my life will have changed.

    As for the Stones, I've never really listened to any of their albums as a whole. I've only owned various greatest hits albums, which is a bit strange now that I think of it. Anyway, I do like their early stuff and I don't like any of the later stuff that I've heard. Maybe if I could listen without prejudice, as George Michael would say, it would be different. I take your point, but I think some bands really do go into the crapper.

  7. I didn't mean to deny that some bands go into the crapper!

  8. No, I didn't think you did. Glad we agree!