In recent months, I have had occasion while driving to listen to tunes en route. The bluegrass station is something of a mainstay but, unfortunately, doesn’t come through with the strongest signal. Thus, while straying beyond the Beltway, I go in search of substitutes.
In these wanderings, I have often settled upon popular music stations. While the sampling has admittedly been small, I’ve begun to notice certain tendencies. As for an organizing principle, modern popular music can, for our understanding, be beneficially compared to G.K. Chesterton’s description of heresy.
Chesterton, though perhaps overly given to poetical flourishes and alliterative escapades (at times subordinating the actual argument to its literary and satirical trappings), was a man profoundly committed to the real in all its intricacy and complexity. One thing he emphasized unremittingly throughout his journalistic career was the great difficulty of compassing an issue with human reason. Our ability to theorize and speculate about the future is hamstrung by the limits of the human intellect—the smallness of our minds, and the obscurity of all the possibilities. As Aristotle argued, though matter admits of wild possibility, it is ultimately opaque to full human understanding. As such, Chesterton thought it essential to remain in a stance of openness and wonder before reality lest our prideful attempts to master the universe result in oversimplification. The mind seems to atrophy resting upon laurels only apparently won. In this tendency to oversimplification, he identifies what he thought to be one of the chief causes of heresy. He alternately describes it as a truth gone mad or a facet of reality looked at from too close a distance from which perspective the context becomes obscured. Perhaps the best summary comes in his work on William Blake:
A fad or heresy is the exaltation of something which even if true, is secondary or temporary in its nature against those things which are essential and eternal, those things which always prove themselves true in the long run. In short, it is the setting up of the mood against the mind.
It is important to note that Chesterton used this as an interpretive tool not only for things of the faith (he wrote Heretics almost twenty years before his conversion), but for the myriad heretics of modern culture who obstinately refused to acknowledge what is naturally revealed. This may be alternately understood as the preference for an ideology or pet idea over the more robust reality at stake.
With this in mind, we return to the driver’s seat. When listening to popular music one is often most struck by the euphoria-inducing dance beat. It seems that much of the music played on pop stations is composed/generated/programmed with the intent that one dance to it at a club. Frustrated in such a pursuit, I find myself relegated to fist-pumping. And yet, when one goes in search of the other elements typically associated with music (melody, harmony, lyrics, etc.), the pursuit is many times in vain. The profusion of DJ mashups testifies to the fact that it is indeed possible to cut a record having only played four chords, and the staggering amount of forced and awkward rhyme (Yes, “man” does rhyme with “man”) makes evident a clear disassociation of modern music from substantive poetry. For example, take a song popular about four years ago: Apologize by Timbaland featuring OneRepublic. In the song, the primary artist’s sole contribution are the syllables “Eh, eh, eh” repeated some two dozen times to the exact same three notes at strategic points throughout. I note the phenomenon merely to suggest that musicality is no longer the primary criterion for the production and consumption of pop music. Where then can the casual listener turn the dial for solace?
I suspect that the answer lies in part with the genre of folk music. While bluegrass may be for some too twangy or moralizing and Irish tunes simply too dolorous (How many wars and rebellions can one nation suffer?), the rich tradition of folk songs, from musical settings of the Scottish poetry of Robert Burns to Mexican mariachi-like “Cielito Lindo,” offers a genre of music at once rich, beautiful, and organic. With lyrics, melody, and rhythm that originate in the cultural roots of a people in their land, the music itself is infinitely more satisfying, sustainable, and delectable. With a variety and profundity that extend well beyond the mere presence of a pulsing bass beat, folk music is able to turn the ear and mind of the listener to a fuller appreciation of truly popular music. I suspect that, given a try, one might discover in folk music a truth in its context, the “beautiful mixture of essential and eternal, proved true in the long run.”
Image: Frederic Leighton, Music Lesson