With the wind of popular music there comes
a resonance in the harp of the soul.
Learning from popular music…(spanning the globe, from ‘Brit Pop’ to
Chinese liuxing yinyue,
from the varieties of American popular musics to the
popular music of the Arab world). What is spoken to, here, in this place, the
place of music as it appears everywhere all around us? What is addressed? What
are the strings within us that are plucked, what chords resonate? What mimesis
is this that finds an echo deep with in us; the lyre over the chasm that sounds
emotion as it is formed? With listening broad genres begin to form. For each
string on the lyre a voice, for each a melody, a scale, a mode. With listening
and with feeling (always with feeling), types begin to emerge: broad groupings
appealing to fundamental emotional complexes, needs and situations.
Forms exemplified most particularly by the anthem, the lyric … and by
the anthem we find the genre of assertion, collective recognition, of being
(singing) together, the valorisation of belonging, the cohesiveness of the
group; or of group-being as cure…the facing of a problem together, the music of
resolution (with its inversion as alienation). An identity, like that based
upon language, space and the phantasms of recognition and desire that are built
from interaction, from inter-subjectivity, from collective being. In music we
The anthem is the survival of ritual in music. In its assertions and
appeals we both fix (in all senses of the term) and make fluctuate
our fluid sense of self in its dependency upon others normally invisible. The
music of identity chimes to the eternity of the moment.
By the grace of the lyric we experience the bitter-sweet music of loss
and mourning (albeit with a more positive sub-genre of love’s declaration)
modern day manifestation of the age-old love complaint (a universal genre if
ever there was one). The medicine of music dispensed as an acting-out of an
emotional crisis, the working through of a personal problem - an eradication of
pain through repetition. The promise is of a transformation of pain into
pleasure. Or of a problem into entertainment. Result: the beautification of sour
emotions, of loss and failure, a making better as making beautiful. As making art. Art for tears. Invoking tears, holding out the gift of transmutation, of the
passage of lead into gold, of leaden emotions into golden ones… the leaden
weights of the present into the gold of past remembrance. The lyric
incantation summons the magic of the musical inversion from negative into
positive, evil into good. These transformations function as a summary of human
creative skill, one might even argue that
overshadowing actual creativity is the potential to perform this kind of
positive inversion, which is then the basis for all subsequent creativity (song
this is a formula which is also reversible. The extent of human creativity,
gift of our lack of biological programming, also offers the opportunity to
create endless evil…in art the result is the genres we call ‘Gothic’ (and the
same name attends the genre of nightmare in popular music). Somewhat
surprisingly this a form used much by religious culture (Saints Lives in
literature as in art…Christian, Daoist and Buddhist
depictions of hell, the bleak and desperate hell of the forsaken in the
Lamentations and Tenebrae genres, as in musical
depictions of the Crucifixion (the ‘Seven Last Words’ genre)).
Through dance we disengage the spirit until it becomes an epiphenomenon
tied to the end of movement. Ritual movement, where the mind obediently keeps
time and negotiates the surface forms of etiquette, servant and follower of the
drum of the flesh, the rhythm of the body.
Typology: (music as universal salve, music as solution).
At their purest, three types: the Anthem (from the hymn, the chant, avatar
of ritual); the Lyric (genre of intimate address); and Dance (where the
movement of sound becomes the movement of the body, echo of the blood beating
in the ears, the abandonment of the self to rhythm). Usually found in combination.
intimate and visceral, three modalities, usually found overlaid, which strings
make up the lyre of the human soul.
Otherwise (somewhat reductively), sexual desire (lyric), the desire for
recognition (anthem) - both with an emphasis upon their problems and losses -
and feeling (dance) in all its modalities, from slow to fast, changing
qualitatively with quantitative speed and insistence of the beat.
images and narratives are the practice run of life and events then music (and
poetry) plays the same role for our emotions and inner experiences. The lyric
(a term tellingly shared by poetry and music) is the most obvious candidate for
inner experience, anthems perform the function of promoting identification and
collective self-assertion, making it the genre of recognition, and dance offers
desire as movement, the body before words (hence the popularity of certain
drugs with the constituency of events dedicated to this genre).
Music as redemption, cure and comprehension
(music as religion).
Music can redeem everything (anthem).
(The ‘I’ in the ‘we’… even if the object,
person of address, is some form of ‘you’ as the emphasis in upon the collective
nature of the singing subject) With participation in the choral voice all is as
if transformed. ‘As if’ telling us that the relationship is that of a performative, as when the transformation is dependent upon
our belief in such, our outlook, our mood, and not our control over the facts -
though action on these may flow from a change of mood. However, the true nature
of the focus is never just the real, the objective, nor the actual; but the
fact of our not facing it alone (that would be a reversion to the lyric, the
self abandoned). No matter the tragedy, our collective witness is sufficient to
take us beyond.
Music can cure everything (dance).
(The ‘I’ before I?
The ‘we’ before words.) Dancing is forgetting. A forgetting of the baggage of the mind. A halt finally
called to the endless parade, the unwanted return of prior embarrassments,
perpetual problems, sad images, sour words. And in return (as we turn and
stamp). An anamnesis of the body. Being
as pure rhythm. Unity as moving together.
Moving (in our own way) to the same rhythm. Temporality reduced to its most
basic units, presence traversed by rhythm (the minimal alternation of
memory/anticipation permitting the infinite unfolding of the pleasures of
repetition and variation).
Music can explain what we can not explain or find it hard to express…
music can express anything (lyric).
(‘I’ /’you’ (‘I’ /‘You’).) A more intimate genre, the most intimate imaginable.
The true realm of music and images as equivalents of feelings, as making
feelings more complex, more various, as a training for feeling, for listening…
Indeed the gamut of the relations to the other are
run: from abjection and worship to the near sacrilegious egoism of the complete
rebel. The range of nuance from the diminution of meiosis to the hysteria of
hyperbole (crossed with irony, often at the behest of the listener rather than
the singer or the song). Found in all religion and poetry (the
I /Thou relation) indeed found in the intimate collaboration that makes
up the long history of religion and the lyric.
can explore what can not be (what we have not yet, dare not, would never wish
to have) explored. Pre-eminently
in the world of emotions, closely followed by the test-running of situations -
as in all art: and as in all art, the second hand, fictional or ‘virtual’
element is all-important (whence the destructive, abject, fantastic, ‘uncanny’
or ‘Gothic’ contents of the lyric).
And combinations thereof. For the lyric formula may become an anthem
(‘though not always the opposite?)… and of course it
is all to dance to (there is everything to dance for…). As when
an intimate lyric is sung by a crowd (becoming an anthem in its emotional
content). All choruses partake of the anthem (but not always the
reprise). Material numbers and the fact of collectivity
define music as much as origin, reception and interpretation.
Popular music; witnessing, confessing,
moving; three modalities on communication?
Anthem: the ‘anthemic mode’; foremost the
element of witness. The voices of collective witness, testifying, telling it
how it is (testifying in public if consumed in public, at a public performance)
or how it ought to be... The collective voice working with
communal force, heir to the hymn, essence of the chorus - surviving in many
forms of music as the refrain. In the anthem the return of the refrain
brings with it a redoubled sense of collective being, of increased presence,
the reassurance of sound as marker of existence – of the insistence of our existence. In the lyric, the refrain may range
from the idee fixee (the
promotion of the most significant verse to the status of chorus) to a segment
of external address (as opposed to ‘talking to oneself’ in the fiction of
internal address, or as if addressing an imaginary significant other) to a
citation of the anthemic mode as a mode of witness,
reception and comment on the inner suffering exposed in the verses, in the
lyric voice proper. In the dance, we find a purely musical return, yet with
echoes of all of the above… all of the aforementioned modalities of meaning and
affect are suggested by a return ‘without words’. The musical return; the
single most powerful transition, the most significant effect in all music;
seeking out the biggest ‘bump’, the loudest entry, the most forceful colouring,
or else the starkest simplicity, permitting the sense of ‘home’, of ‘homecoming’,
to speak alone – an effect reinforced by alternation (sonata, episode, from new
key to new timbre, new sound world) or simply present in the beginning of a
repetition (variation, echo, imitation) in the insistence and pleasure of pure
Lyric: the ‘lyric mode’; mode of expressed equivalence, the outward
equivalent to inner experience. Wresting presence from absence; translating the
all-encompassing emotional presence of felt emotion into communication. Speech in place of loneliness. Sound in place of silence. The place of confession, the confession of interiority; also its
formation, its suggestion, its prompting. A verbal provocation which
conjures up a diminished version as equivalent, a diminished equivalent of the
invisible (incomparable) putative stimulus (an original therefore when related
to the ‘original’ emotion itself provoked by an exterior situation or event, an
‘original’ which may owe more to the formalism of a genre history than to
emotional history). A confession in the style of the
‘confession’. Itself a performance of the interior
confession, a soul-baring (in ‘private’ in public). Sign
of the invisible; a sublime relation. For the lyrics of beauty, the
beauties of the lyric, nearly always have their roots in the sublime. As in the
world of art (in world art) the distinction and separation of the beautiful
from the sublime is a Western philosophical (19th c) fiction, a
simplified binary, equally untrue for its own art forms as those found
elsewhere: in practice this pair are found locked in a mutually dependant
embrace, inter-twinned to varying degrees such that they are difficult to pick
apart, each with their ‘moment’. If negative in content, observation, or
judgement, then the lyric in question may be described by the term ‘Gothic’
(this is the road to the Gothic forms of expression, the path to the negative
sublime). In the negative affect of the negative lyric we are on the way to the
complaint – one of the oldest, most persistent and most popular of genres. The
lyric as vocalised inner complaint; confession of our inter-subjective nature
as of the local nature of the discomfort (whence the need to share) to which we
the audience, privileged addressee, are sole witness.
except in the most formal and ordered of genres, lies beyond all witness and
confession, a performance of the self in which the performance of self
obliterates self (even as it forms and expresses it). Whilst in appearance the
closest to traditional ritual, the individual mode of expression (free of mythic
constraint) renders this visual analogy void – only in the delirious
persistence of the eternal presence, the eternal moment of the self in rhythm
does the eternal guarantee that lies at the heart of ritual obtain.
Criteria for Classic Pop. What lasts? Or what returns (and only for
as long as it returns). Is there
something there that raises it above the genre (and not just membership of a
club of survivors) or is it just a case of being the best -or better- the best
loved, of its kind. If in literature the best of genre
fiction can ‘rise’ and become recognised as ‘art’ then is the same true of
popular music? Yet popular music does not become recognised as classical music
neither with success nor with the march of time. If certain minimal/ambient or
‘progressive/left field’ rock /jazz pieces come to be seen as part of a general
catch-all category of ‘modern music’ (or ‘new music’) then this process does
not appear to extend to Classic Pop. For unlike fiction (which becomes
transmuted into literature, occupying special shelves in bookshops and being
taught on courses) the best of popular music refuses to be elevated in this
way, preferring to belong to a pantheon of its own, with its own mode of
accession to the category of the eternally-returning, the category of those who
come to be regarded as ‘timeless’ (for as long as we remember them).
Making parallels: classical music and Classic Pop - classic emotions?
But finding parallels for classical and modern art music in popular
music, and for popular music in classical or modern art music, runs a risk to
the ‘higher’ end (thus revealing in its non-reversibility that the ‘parallel’
cultures are not valued equally from within, that the ‘lower end is seen to be
so even by its followers…). Finding emotional equivalents runs the danger of a
reduction in the status or standing of classical music if it comes to be
implicated in, what may be read as, ‘lesser’ emotions… However there would
appear to be a consequent raise in popular music by comparison (it is just a
different kind of person, or groups, version of the same emotion, a matter of
different social clothing for the same body of experience). Raising the
difficult but key issue of contention in the politics of culture: is this a
question of the production of new emotions or of the recycling of the same
emotions for different types of music? There are as many different kinds of
politics as there are solutions to this question (from left/right elitist to
left/right populist, and from anthropological equality to critical hierarchy).
Certainly, we like to believe that art music is more ‘refined’ than ‘courser’
popular music. Yet what if the emotional complexes (the emotional responses)
involved were the same? The sadness and transformation of
sadness in the lyric, the equivalent of the Lieder and the ‘slow movement’.
The assertion of the theme in the dominant of sonata form (the moment of return
in any other form, variation, twelve tone or other form of ‘row’ or pointillist
complex) the equivalent of the return of the chorus, especially after the
instrumental break, or the repetition of the first (or other verse) in the
anthem or in dance music (or even in the lyric).
we must remember that both (all) lines (kinds, types, genres, sorts) of music
are written with an audience in mind, a reception in mind, a history of
listening in mind; producing parallel genealogies of listening, parallel
reference points, parallel evolutions of emotional response, appropriation and
consumption. Those parallel emotions (product of the fabled torn halves that
together do not make a whole) may just turn out to be the same…
Is popular classical music the same, emotionally speaking, as popular
music? Is it only the more experimental kinds of music that constitute the new
or different realm of emotion once promised by art music as a cultural category
(or as the avant-garde are often found reincorporating gross and excluded
emotions/sounds into the pantheon of musical acceptability are these forms
always to be marginal, of interest to a few, footnote to the general trend)? Or
is it simply the more involved forms of art music, the complex or
(alternatively) simplified, even rebarbative, anyway
less gestural of the art musics that we find
dedicated to the creation of new emotions, new musical narratives? The issues
that attend this question are shown by the importance of the position of the
reader on these issues; how you see yourself will colour which description of
this balance you will favour…
The problem of cultural equivalents. Or is it simply the case that the
similarity of emotional response is what arrives (logically) first, which then,
however, may lead to the expansion of experience with increasing exposure and
Moreover. Is not
the grandiosity and pomp, the sheer intensity of some (of the best …and not
only the most popular) classical music, simply the guarantee of a more
exclusive-assertion-against-others, so supporting a triumphalist
and inhuman (destructive) type of emotional complex? The implicit sacrifice,
not of another, but of all others before the self, before the implied community
of the Same. Or is this just the mode of catharsis
favoured by the ‘civilised’?
number of interrogative sentences just employed indicate the delicate and
difficult nature of dealing with such a ‘subjective’ (but also class-,
community-, that is personal identity-, laden) area of human experience. Now
also an arena of cultural contention in which equality and descriptive
fair-mindedness must vie with value and some notion of improvement for our
souls. And just when the notion of ‘taste’ appears most compromised, it is
realised that it is only this that can confer value in a world dominated by
price – until this too is found to be a means of asking a yet higher price
(which we willingly pay for our new identity (which is the one that confers
Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk