2011-08-18

Idealism and Art Appreciation

RR, a loyal Stationary Waves reader, asks an excellent question:

You obviously have very strong political and policy positions, as well as an encompassing belief about the function of aesthetics. Because of this are there pieces of music you find musically interesting but reject based on politics in the lyrics or are the two inseparable?

It should be a simple yes-or-no question. The answer, however, is not as straight-forward as I would like it to be. RR's question, in its essence, is whether I can appreciate art that expresses ideological concepts I oppose. The trouble is that I look at the situation from the reverse perspective: Is it possible for artists who embrace the ideals I oppose to produce art that I enjoy?

What's The Difference? Epistemology.
The difference between these two versions of the same question seems trivial, but it's not. The question as RR seems to have posed it seems to suggest a world full of great art I am prevented from enjoying on principle. This idea reflects the common viewpoint that "all art is subjective" and that "anything can be great art, because it's all a matter of opinion."

I find this view of art utterly incomprehensible. I accept the fact that some of us prefer Frank Zappa over The Beatles, and others the reverse. I accept the fact that we all have our own personal reasons for preferring Edward Van Halen to Stevie Ray Vaughan or vice-versa. This is absolutely beyond question (in fact, it is a central tenet of the Austrian economic perspective to which I adhere). 

However, once a person has developed their sense of music appreciation, it is entirely predictable what a person will and will not like. In other words, we view art through the lens of our personal perspectives and decide whether or not we like what we're hearing. We do not hear music, like or dislike it, and then reassess our position based on our subjective values.

Ever and always, our value systems are logically prior to the particular things we value. That I prefer music with complex rhythms and harmonically diverse melodies is a precondition for the fact that I prefer Frank Zappa to The Beatles. It was not my appreciation for Frank Zappa that lead me to prefer complex rhythms and harmonically diverse melodies. The value-preference comes first, the example-preference comes second.

What Do I Like in Great Music?
While less-contemplative people are forever at a loss for words about what they like in music, the opposite is true for me. I find it easy to describe exactly what things I like in music. Here, I'll break it down for you:
  • Complex Rhythms: Songs with simple, easy, and/or repetitive rhythms cannot hold my attention very long. More complex or varying rhythms speak to me on a deeper level. Why? Well, one possibility is the fact that I do not listen to music in order to "tune out," and I never just put music on in the background of my life. I listen to music to enrich my thoughts, accent the ideas in my head, and so forth. There is a certain wit in a well-constructed rhythm, and I look for that wit in the music I listen to. Music that does not have this component is, to me, like a painting in which there is absolutely no blue whatsoever - not inherently bad, but lacking in one enjoyable dimension that other paintings do not lack.
  • Harmonically Diverse Melodies: What I mean by this is that I prefer songs in which the melody does a lot of the harmonic work. If you imagine the average pop song's chorus these days, for the most part you will hear four repeating chords. The melody will be a few notes, say four to six notes in total, and these notes will repeat themselves over the first three chords; the fourth chord will feature a minor variation on the four-to-six melodic notes, and then the passage will repeat. Here, the melody is simple, intended for mass consumption, and all the "interesting bits" come from the relationship of those four notes to the chords being played in the background. This is an example of what I do not like. Much like rhythmic complexity, I find such songs to lack a certain sense of melodic wit that exists in other material. For a good example of songs with more harmonically diverse melodies, check out the music to the movie I Hate Luv Storys. In such songs, you could almost pull out the background music entirely, listen solely to the vocal melodies, and you'd be able to understand the harmonic content without even hearing it. The melodies themselves tell a large part of the harmonic "story" being told. I love this.
  • Instruments Played Well: Say what you want about guitar solos, even the simplest piece of music will sound better in the hands of a master of his/her instrument than it does in the hands of a novice. Why? Because the technique employed by people who play their instruments well is more expressive and contains more nuance than the technique of less-accomplished instrumentalists. Others may rank this criterion low, but I get impatient when I hear an instrument played poorly. Your mind may vary.
  • Unique Ideas: Even simple songs played by novices appeal to me if the musical ideas involved are rather unique. In this case, I'm not talking about Korn's use of bagpipes in heavy metal. That's just a cheap gimmick. I heard a Jack-Johnson-ish song in Starbucks the other day in which the one unique aspect of the song was that the tail end of each lyrical couplet incorporated a descending line and 2/4 rhythm that hearkened back to English folk music. It was dead simple, but I hadn't heard a song with that kind of rhythm in it since childhood. The effect was marvelous, even though the song itself was not so incredible. Sometimes one right touch is all you need to make a lackluster piece of music stick out. I love unique little ideas like this. 
Obviously, a great song will have some combination of all of the above, but any one of these attributes is enough to get me to like a piece of music. 

Lyrics: Conspicuously Missing
As you can see, I have not said anything about lyrical content. This is because, while I do enjoy good lyrics, they do not play a major role in my appreciation of a piece of music, per se.

So the first answer to RR's question is this:

Can A Song With Objectionable Lyrics Appeal To Me? Yes.
For example, I really enjoy the band Tool. They have some unique ideas, some well-played instruments, and lots of complex rhythms. Of course I would like Tool. However, they do spend a lot of time discussing and even lauding drug use in their lyrics. Is this a show-stopper for me? No, I still enjoy their music - but this is because I enjoy their music on a level entirely different from their lyrics.

So, is it possible for lyrics with objectionable content to appeal to me? Sure.

But Is It Likely? No.
I think the perfect example of a band I loathe is Rage Against the Machine. No melody, simple rhythms, poorly played instruments, and not a single unique idea. It does not surprise me at all that their lyrics are essentially communist party anthems. 

Note that my hatred for Rage Against the Machine has nothing to do with their politics.

However, I think it is philosophically predictable (and consistent) that their lyrics are leftist to the extreme. My view is that people who espouse those kinds of opinions are bound to reject complexity in music (and Tom Morello is rather famous for having supplied lengthy arguments against guitar solos in the popular press). Boring, loud, inelegant, uninteresting music is the inevitable result of an artist who rejects the complexity of the philosophy of rational individualism.

Another great example is the average white-supremacist anthem. These songs are terrible. Have you heard them? No one with such a crude outlook on life could ever hope to make anything other than crude music.

Or how about techno musicians? I can't stomach more than a few seconds of techno music before I become literally nauseous. If ever there were a sonic representation of a mindless drug-stupor, it is techno music. Par for the course. But, it's not the drugs I hate about techno, it's the mindless repetition and lack of mentally captivating ideas.

I am pretty good at predicting a musician's political orientation based solely on what I hear. The number of individualists who love the same things in music is high, while collectivists who love rich, complex music are a rare breed.

So The Real Answer Is...
I don't anticipate that collectivists, drug addicts, communists, statists, racists, or pessimists have the patience or mental commitment available to them to create the kind of music I like. Not surprisingly, I am seldom surprised. Big-thinking individuals with a commitment to artistic achievement don't always agree with everything I say, but they tend to agree with the broad themes: individuality, freedom, thoughtfulness, optimism, open-mindedness, and so forth.

Is it my philosophy that prevents me from enjoying the music of those with whom I disagree? No, it is the music. But the fact of the matter is that musicians who reject my philosophy are far less likely to produce art I can stomach. 

On the other hand, Frank Zappa - perhaps my favorite-ever musician - held beliefs nearly identical to my own. Coincidence?