Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nonsense and art

I've been half-thinking of writing something about the nonsensicality of heavy metal lyrics. For instance,
And I say, "Ooh ooh, I'm a robot man."
Why do you say the "ooh" part of that? There's some vague kind of story that the song implies, but no one would listen to the song for the sake of that story. The point of the lyrics is pretty much just to say "robot man." It's like Motörhead singing "It's a bomber" or Girlschool getting right to the point and having the one word chorus: "Demolition." It's also very much like my son when he was little smashing two toy cars together and shouting "Powers!" A movie version of this sort of thing would be all explosions. It doesn't make any sense but it appeals to something very primitive in (some of) us.    

And then I read a review of a book about Picasso that got me thinking. What can we make of this?
He observes that most of Picasso’s paintings employ what he calls a “room space”, self-contained, intimate and able to provide a setting for the expression of powerful feelings. He considers this room space to be a basic premiss of how Picasso treats beauty and subjectivity – what Clark calls the artist’s “truth-condition”. Such a space, he feels, is integral to the artist’s world view. It is not merely a medium or a vehicle, such as a grammatical or structural device, but a “semantics”, the creation of a new kind of reality.
Although some of this may seem self-evident,...
The review, by Jack Flam, goes on to criticize T. J. Clark for bringing Wittgenstein and Nietzsche into the attempt to appreciate Picasso's work. I can imagine that Clark's discussion of Wittgenstein helps little. But what about Flam's account of Clark above? How is a "room space" (Clark's expression) different from either a room or a space? How can such a space be a premise or a truth-condition? I think this just means that it is something like a presupposition or fundamental element. But then how can it be a semantics? And in what sense is a semantics the creation of a new kind of reality? Picasso has a new vision of reality--that's about all I can wring out of this, and we knew that already. The rest, as far as I can tell, is an attempt to sound clever by using philosophical vocabulary. Which is what Flam criticizes Clark for doing. Maybe they are all at it.

Heavy metal is a kind of nonsense, but it's honest nonsense. The best of it has no pretensions whatsoever (although there is something a bit Häagen-Dazs about the umlaut in Motörhead). The nonsense that comes from trying to sound smart is a different matter. Saying nothing because you aren't trying to say anything is better than saying nothing because you have nothing to say but either think you do or else want to appear as if you do. But I suppose everyone agrees with that, and I might have missed something (or a lot) in what Flam says about Clark.


  1. aw, come on. 'nonsense'? it seems pretty easy to read the 'eeeeooowwee ouuuuuwe' in the context of the lyrics. especially with the production put on the chorus.

    (do you think that when ozzy interjects, 'aw right now', he's speaking nonsense?)

    1. It's not all nonsense, true. But I think some of it aspires to be pure noise or pure id. I don't think that's a bad thing, and I don't mean it as a criticism.

      "Aw right now" seems a lot like "la la la," which certainly might be called nonsense. Maybe it's a kind of punctuation, but it isn't meant to say anything in the way that, say, "Smoke on the Water" is meant to tell a story.

      Perhaps I need to find a new word. I don't want to be a logical positivist, but I also don't want to say that everything has meaning. There's an important difference between "ooo ooo" and "I'm a robot man," even if they have important similarities too. As long as we can capture both I don't really care what words we use.

    2. i think the fact that there is a dramatic aspect to performance (which opens up onto the possibility of adopting, or at least momentarily stepping into, something like a persona) is broad enough to make anything like this meaningful. (think of the differences between 'la la la' and the 'woo woos' in 'sympathy for the devil' (which get repeated - alluded to! so much meaningfulness! - in yo la tengo's 'paul is dead') and, say, tom araya's intermittent snarling in slayer. where there are significant differences, there is semi-articulate significance!)

      but since this kind of thing dips into the neighborhood of 'effect' and 'point', it can be hard to choose between talk about meaning and talk about 'pure noise'.

      if 'saying anything' is the criterion, then i'm not sure why i would have to accept it if it rules 'la la la' as nonsense. isn't there a certain kind of sense in it? as compared to, say, doo-bee-doo-bee-doos. bow-chicka-bowmp-bowmps. tra-la-las.

    3. There are relevant differences, yes. If we think of meaning as use then all these sounds (not all sounds, but all the ones we're talking about here) have meaning. But I still want to have some way to mark the (to my mind) important difference between 'woo woo' and 'please allow me to introduce myself'. The intention in each case is different in kind. And in the case of 'woo woo' it seems reasonable to say that the intention is just to make a satisfying kind of noise. Of course that's not true when it gets quoted by Yo La Tengo or the Happy Mondays, but it's true of the original. But maybe 'nonsense' isn't the right word for this kind of sound.

      I do think that a lot of Scorpions' lyrics are nonsense, or perhaps bullshit in Frankfurt's sense of the word. And if what you care about is sounding good rather than saying anything in particular then this makes what you say a bit like 'woo woo'. But since it isn't exactly the same it might be worth using different words to label them.

  2. Girlschool getting right to the point and having the one word chorus: "Demolition." It's also very much like my son when he was little smashing two toy cars together and shouting "Powers!"

    A friend once had a dream in which I took him and his then girlfriend by helicopter from a woodland to a town, apparently their home town. They then took their leave of me and went into a public library, but I was there as well, telling them that I had read a novel that consisted of only one word. This was Pankkiryöstö ("Bank Robbery") which, my friend added, was shouted out in the novel by a bank robber. Asked how he could know this, considering that the book really comprised just the one word pankkiryöstö, my friend was totally at a loss.

    Then again, I myself often have dreams in which I just know various things that are supposed to be true, and generally known, in the world of the dream – the way followers of a soap are supposed to know things from earlier episodes. Maybe this can be extended to knowledge within the dream itself, not just within the world of the dream.

    As far as lyrical statements of "pure noise or pure id" go, my favourite was made by The Rock-A-Teens (of Richmond, VA).

    1. I've never heard the original of that song before! Thanks.

      Yes, dreams seem to be able to contain all kinds of implicit knowledge or background. And of course songs exist against a certain background, in a certain context, that some people would say gives them meaning. There is something to this, but I still want to distinguish between "making a statement" (e.g. a football player committing a hard foul early in a game, Miley Cyrus demonstrating that she is no longer a child, maybe Bob Dylan going electric, etc.) and literally making a statement. Maybe the two exist on a continuum, but it's not as if there are no differences at all.