2015-10-05

Musical Existential Crisis - Part One


Ask anyone the following question, and you're sure to get an obvious answer: Who is the more brilliant musician: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Tove Lo? I'd say Mozart, wouldn't you?

There is a follow-up question, however, that is much more difficult to answer: Why is Mozart a better musician than Tove Lo? To answer that question, you'll need a fully functional system of aesthetics. If you don't have one, you're part of the problem.

Oops, I just implied another follow-up question: What is "the problem?" The answer to that is...

The World's Aesthetic Existential Crisis

An existential crisis occurs when a person ends up questioning the very foundation of his or her being. When one has an existential crisis, one is forced to analyze the purpose of one's life, the significance of one's actions and thoughts, the ultimate value of things that once appeared priceless. 

Suppose, for example, a person were an avid distance runner, running north of 100 miles per week, going on weekly runs of 30 miles or more, in the mountains, making running a spiritual experience for himself. He sure did dedicate a lot of his time - and much of his personal identity - to being a runner. Suppose one day that person became a type 1 diabetic and could no longer run like he used to, through no fault of his own, and thus a major part of his identity basically disappeared overnight. (Clearly a hypothetical example, right?) He might have to think long and hard about what else in his life has the kind of value that provides him with a sense of self and a sense of purpose. That would require some analysis. That would be an existential crisis.

The general pattern of an existential crisis is that one has an identity, or else one is so preoccupied by life that one never has to examine what one's identity and existence are all about; then, one day, something cataclysmic happens, forcing one out of an old identity, or out of the comfort zone of the preoccupation, and forcing one into a process of establishing that identity. Failure to establish a new identity results in either nihilism - the ultimate conclusion of which is self-destruction - or a psychic vacuum in which nothing really means anything anymore. The latter state is kind of like nihilism, except that instead of a viable conclusion, it leaves one with the paralysis of helplessness.

So, my contention is that society is currently having one of these existential crises with regard to music, and we are failing to establish an identity for what we think music is. We're failing, and some of us are turning to a kind of "musical nihilism," while the others have become musically helpless.

The solution to a personal existential crisis is the establishment of a robust working philosophy and a strong personal ethic. The solution to an artistic existential crisis is the establishment of a working theory of that branch of philosophy that deals with art: Aesthetics.

A Note On Subjectivity

I believe the root cause of this musical existential crisis is all you people who keep saying "music is all subjective." Really? So then Tove Lo is every bit as brilliant as Mozart.

And here is the point where most people are forced to shrug and say, "Yeah, I guess so. Because it's subjective, so I guess the only thing separating Tove Lo from Mozart is personal taste. To some, Tove Lo might be as good as Mozart."

Poof! Nihilism.

Now, look, there are many differences between Tove Lo and Mozart. For one thing, Mozart didn't need help writing his material. For another thing, Mozart was a child prodigy. For another thing, writing a symphony for a full orchestra is a lot harder than writing a pop song. For another thing, Mozart's music involves some of the most mature and accomplished use of compositional ideas the world has ever seen. And so on, and so forth. If ultimately what we're saying here is that the only real difference in musical value between the two of them is personal taste, is pure subjectivity, then we are effectively making the case that nothing about writing music matters at all.

You could, for example, place a dollop of mayonnaise on top of a vinyl disc and put it on a turn table, just to see what happens. You could call whatever comes out of the speaker "music," and if someone decided it was all they ever wanted to hear, well, that's pretty much Mozart for that one mayonnaise guy.

Meanwhile, she who slaves over every note, chord, cadence and beat for years, in a grand symphony the likes of which has never before been written is basically no better than a dollop of mayonnaise on a vinyl disc. Because, hey, I don't really like classical music.

Here you have a couple of options: 

(1) You can admit that, okay, some music is a lot more artistic than other kinds, and those things that make music "artistic" are part of some underlying idea you, personally, have about the value of music. You can begrudgingly admit that you possess a theory of aesthetics that works for you, and that theory of aesthetics forces you to conclude that Mozart is a lot more brilliant than Tove Lo, even though you'd rather listen to the latter than the former. You can realize that this sense of aesthetics, however implicit and however subjective it may be to you, somehow leads you to conclusions that are fairly widely held and uncontroversial, such as "Edward Van Halen is a master guitar player" and "Yo Yo Ma is fun to listen to, even if classical music isn't really my thing" and "Tove Lo might have a hit song, but that doesn't mean I'll remember it four years from now, and it doesn't mean she's as good as Mozart."

...or...

(2) You can double down. You can say, no, music is entirely subjective. It really is true that the only reason we don't call a dollop of mayonnaise music is because no one has actually published that song yet. You can say, Sorry, Ryan, but I would seriously rather hear a dollop of mayonnaise than Mozart because I really hate classical music and I'd rather be doing anything else than listening to it. 

Why People Double Down

I think a lot about this. 

I think, for some people, clinging to the notion of "absolute subjectivity" enables them to think of themselves as being more open-minded. The problem with that is that it forces them to be close-minded about everything related to an artistic endeavor. If, for example, these folks hear a Shostakovich symphony, its beauty will almost certainly be lost on them (because no one in the "it's all subjective" camp actually knows anything about music composition, but that's a tale for another blog post); if you try to explain some of the technical details of the composition, they'll say, "Just because it's complex doesn't mean it's good." And that, my friends, is the secret motive revealed: They're scared. They're frightened of having to analyze the technical details of a composition that doesn't immediately move them, and they're frightened that their favorite song won't pass muster on that level. Even if it's not fear - if instead it's something else, like patience or time or effort - their minds must remain closed to the prospect of a technical analysis, otherwise their belief that "it's all subjective" crumbles.

You can say, "But people who like technical music are just as close-minded!" Maybe so, but they're not the ones insisting that all music is subjective.

I think a few people out there have a genuine interest in the musical possibilities of a dollop of mayonnaise. They want to hear what it sounds like - what everything sounds like - in order to push the limits of musical expression. Some of these folks fall into the "it's all subjective" camp. But they're wrong for a different reason: A dollop of mayonnaise might be musically interesting, but only in reference to traditional music. This was the same for, say, Arnold Schoenberg, who created music that was radically different from anything that had ever been made before it. He wanted to test the limits, yes, but sitting in the background of the listener's mind during a Schoenberg composition is all the artistic biases that come with hundreds if not thousands of years of Western musical innovation. That's precisely what makes Schoenberg's music innovative, that implicit reference to what we're "used to." 

Tove Lo doesn't have that kind of a reference. Tove Lo is just writing synth pop. It might even be good by synth pop standards, but again... STANDARDS. Once you start applying standards, you're forced to admit that you're working with a system of aesthetics.