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Listening to Popular Music



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 dance.


In 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 become others.


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 writing, etc).


However 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.


Collective, 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.


If 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.


Music 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 recognition.


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.


Dance, 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).


But 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 differentiation?


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’?


The 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 value…)).






                                                                               Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk