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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Illustrations by John MattosPlato was deeply suspicious of music for much the same reason Nietzsche celebrated it: in its direct appeal to the emotions, music seems to reach behind our rational faculties. "When a man abandons himself to music," Plato declared in the Republic, "he begins to melt and liquefy." Nietzsche wanted to end inhibition. He denounced Richard Wagner for committing a "crime against what is highest and holiest" by composing such moralistic, anti-emotional operas as Tristan und Isolde (1859) and Parsifal (1882).

Both Plato and Nietzsche would have been surprised by how undangerous America's indulgence in music has proved to be. Why music hasn't melted us down into Nietzsche's unconstrained beasts is hard to say. Rock-and-roll certainly sounds as though it has this goal. But even as we recognize that music claims to unleash emotion at its most primitive, we also understand that it never will. "The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises," Adorno wrote. "All it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu."

Perhaps this perpetual unfulfillment is what has made sophisticated musical ironists of us all. Certainly Americans are given little credit by their cultural detractors for how knowledgeable they are about the breadth of music. You can see this breadth in Web sites that offer complete discographies of every diva ever recorded, or in the game by which oldies-radio-station listeners can link the countrified 1970s Flying Burrito Brothers to the British Invasion pop harmonies of the 1960s Hollies by tracing the band members through the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

You can see it even more clearly in the expectation that Americans will appreciate the "Hallelujah Chorus" in TV ads for Baskin-Robbins ice cream and Bayer cat and dog flea treatment, will prefer elevators with piped-in snatches of middlebrow classics like "Flight of the Bumblebee" and the William Tell Overture, and will be pleased that shopping malls provide them with musical clues to decorum and the appropriate emotional attitude.

Music's traditional defense against overelaboration has itself created a new kind of overelaboration. In all previous ages of music a new musical form succeeded by replacing its predecessors. But now each new form joins its predecessors in our endlessly expanding library of music. This is what Adorno missed when he claimed, in "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening" (1938), that Western pop songs make us "forcibly retarded," because they're so shallow and because we're compelled to hear the same ones over and over again. It's what the long-haired classical-music lovers and the culture warriors overlook, and what the nostalgic bemoaners of popular music's decline fail to grasp. We live in the most elaborate age of music in the history of the world. Ours is an extraordinary kind of musical sophistication that can never be rejected without creating yet more sophistication, shallower but wider, and yet another musical form to know.

Thus Paul Simon can swing from African music to Cajun to Chicano without penalty and get top billing on a concert tour with Bob Dylan after having spent the early portion of his career being dismissed by pop sophisticates as the poor man's Dylan. Cher, like one of those bottom-weighted inflatable dolls that won't stay down, bobs from folk rocker in a shag vest to family-hour TV minstrel to slinky torch singer to chart-topping techno-rocker at age fifty-three, with the success last year of her single "Believe." In the soundtracking of modern America neither musical sophistication nor musical rebellion can make anything go away. Not even Cher.

Ideas, Yes. Ultimate Purpose, No

NEARLY every art seems to have diminished in the second half of the twentieth century. Dance, painting, fiction -- it's not that we lack talent, interest, or financing for them; it's that we seem to lack sufficient reason to employ them. The last thing a shared world view does before it dies is to provide a target for revolt. The lengths to which artists go nowadays to make sure someone notices their revolt may be the best measure of how nearly complete is the decay of our old-fashioned, ultimately classical and Judeo-Christian sense of unified purpose. The handful of notorious works in recent years -- Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi -- mostly prove how desperate artists are to feel like rebels. And the relatively mild reaction to them proves how hopeless this aim is. We have come a long way from Dublin's brawling outrage at John Synge's comic The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and from New York's nativist response to the British actor William Macready's appearance as Macbeth in 1849, which left twenty-two dead outside the Astor Place Theater while a mob howled, "Burn the damned den of the aristocracy."

From the archives:

"Express Yourself: It's Later Than You Think," by Brad Holland (July, 1996)
If you're confused about Postmodernism, that may mean you understand it.

Yet music has survived the decay of a public metaphysics -- a shared belief in the coherent relations among God and nature and human culture -- because, more than any other art, music produces its effect without demanding a philosophical frame. To appeal to and create an emotion, a piece of music needs to make no particular gesture toward its purpose.

The late-nineteenth-century proponents of art for art's sake were after this when they proclaimed, as the Victorian Walter Pater put it, that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." Susanne Langer was aiming for the same thing when she demanded "expressiveness, not expression" in her book Philosophy in a New Key (1942), which for a time was the most widely discussed philosophy text in America. In the 1920s Ernst Cassirer attempted, in his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, to define an aesthetics for a modernist, post-Kantian age that lacked confidence in metaphysical goals. Langer's brilliance twenty years later lay in recognizing that Cassirer's analysis applied most of all -- perhaps only -- to music. "In music," she argued, taking the situation of her own day as art's universal condition, "we have an unconsummated symbol, a significant form without conventional significance." It exists "probably below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking," and thus "no assignment of meaning ... is permanent beyond the sound that passes."

Indeed, no matter how serious and elaborate, a musical composition cannot create its own metaphysical frame entirely from within the music. Even those who appreciate music in all its forms must recognize that music is not a rational art and cannot express an actual idea. I once knew an aspiring music reviewer -- in some ways as intelligent a man as I've ever met -- who couldn't stop himself from writing things like "the sunshiney arc of the symphony's second movement" and "the darkling power of the adagio appassionato." (Music critics hate to use an English phrase when there's a perfectly good Italian one.) He knew he wouldn't stomach anything similar in a review of poetry or fiction. But what was he to do? He felt it all so deeply, and there just didn't seem to be a vocabulary for what he felt. "Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us?" Thomas Carlyle asked in one of his nineteenth-century lectures on heroes and hero worship. Music is "a kind of inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the Infinite."

That, of course, is the problem. There aren't any words for it, because there really isn't any it: no intellectual content, no idea in the melody. Even in, say, Vivaldi's Four Seasons -- in, that is, a deliberate effort to make music express something rational -- the ideas it takes forty-five minutes to convey amount to little more than winter is cold and summer hot, in spring things grow and in fall they don't.

There is, anyway, something artificial and incidental about forcing ideas into music. Handel's Messiah, by a long mile the most-often-performed piece of classical music in America, is full of small examples of this effort to slip in some extra rationality, the score drawing little explanatory pictures of the libretto. God has made the "rough places plain," Handel's tenor informs the audience -- and the word "rough" he trills roughly, and the word "plain" he holds plain. "All we like sheep have gone astray," the chorus sings from Isaiah 53 -- and the singing voices go astray, every one to his own way. It comes across as stupendous. It sounds superb. And considered purely as an idea, it's on a par with what might occur to a child asked to illustrate with crayons an uplifting text from a second-grade reader.

Plenty of genuine ideas exist in music, of course; they're just not what we mean by "ideas" in any nonmusical sense. They express musical techniques and music's root mathematical structure, and exactly what they have to do with what we experience while listening is something no one has ever satisfactorily explained. The fascinating elegance of music's mathematical technicalities made a Pulitzer Prize-winner of Douglas Hofstadter's book on formal recursion, Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979), and a best-selling album of Switched-On Bach (1968), with its synthesized fugues so absurdly accelerated that nothing survived except the underlying geometry of the music.

But these are ideas like the ideas in chess or math. They don't mean anything, and have no purpose in and of themselves. It's no accident that child prodigies -- with the skill of adults and the experience of children -- appear in music, chess, and math but never in poetry or philosophy. One pretentiously highbrow class of music criticism -- George Bernard Shaw said he could teach a poodle to write it in two hours -- involves nothing more than explaining music's underlying technicality.

What we experience in music is something else. Music stands, at last, as "evocative" -- a word whose only other use is in advertisements for expensive perfume. Music is chess drenched with perfume.

The Futility of Musical Poetry

I HAVE a cousin who is a musician, a keyboardist who played in Faith No More, a band that found some real success in the early 1990s. In its start-up days in San Francisco, while the musicians warmed up the audience for a concert headliner or pounded away above the hubbub at a club date, they would sometimes perform a version of the theme song for Nestlé's candy bars: "Chocolate dreams you can't resist, N-E-S-T-L-E-S." It was funny how marvelous they could make that absurd advertising jingle sound. But when you think about it for a moment, the comedy and irony begin to seem much too easy. Where, in fact, does one find any profundity in song?

The problem begins with the general failure of lyrics, the incapacity of sung words to introduce and maintain in music the ideas the music itself lacks. "Nothing is capable of being well set to music that is not nonsense," gibed the eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison. The most famous poem set to music undoubtedly remains Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (1785), which -- Freude! Freude! -- Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony made sound as though God himself were speaking, but which as poetry ranks somewhere between Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime" and William Ernest Henley's "I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul."

Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is perfectly serviceable parlor verse, but "profound" is not exactly the word for it: "He who has a noble wife, / Let him join our mighty song of rejoicing!" And it doesn't magically become profound when sung by massed choirs backed with roaring timpani and trilling violins. It only sounds that way. What Schiller becomes in Beethoven's hands is not wise but only sensible. We grow confused and imagine that we must be having a deep thought because we feel it so deeply.

You can see the failure of musical poetry even in the short span of rock's dominance. The Canadian poet Leonard Cohen turned to music in the late 1960s after listening to Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono and realizing that an imperfect voice need not be a hindrance to pop success. If Cohen wrote a higher class of lyrics than some other rock-era composers (the song "Suzanne," the lines "God is alive, / Magic is afoot"), it was at the price of writing a lower class of poetry. The Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed studied as an undergraduate with the complex and serious poet Delmore Schwartz, but that didn't stop Reed from making an early recording (as Andy Warhol told the story) by tuning all the strings of his electric guitar to the same note and banging away at it, screaming "Do the Ostrich" over and over again until the studio technicians came in and made him stop.

And the quality of musical verse falls off rapidly from Schiller and Cohen and Reed. Most opera lyrics are second-rate poesy, most musical-theater songs are worse, and most popular tunes are worse yet. Can anyone ever actually have sat down and read Stephen Foster's lyrics without the music? It's interesting to imagine what Edgar Allan Poe, a contemporary critic scribbling devastating newspaper reviews for a pittance, would have said if Foster had published as straight poetry lines like "Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea, / Mermaids are chaunting the wild lorelie; / Over the streamlet vapors are borne, / Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn." Poe wrote in 1849, "There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit, but the case of song-writing is, I think, one of the few."

Today's critics are equally skeptical about the profundity of lyrics. The columnist Dave Barry, for instance, has succeeded in making the inanity of 1970s pop lyrics a staple of American humor. From Carl Douglas's "Everybody was Kung Fu fighting. / Those cats were fast as lightning" to Neil Diamond's "I am, I said, to no one there, / And no one heard at all, not even the chair," you can hear, across America, offhand ridicule of the music of the 1970s. Even the brief disco revival in the 1990s was kept afloat with mockery, mostly involving the impossibility of doing anything but howl at lines like "MacArthur Park is melting in the rain. / I don't think that I can take it / 'Cause it took so long to bake it / And I'll never have that recipe again."

The interesting thing is not that millions of Americans can laugh at the bad lyrics they know but that millions of Americans know the bad lyrics. Old pop tunes are our major source of shared knowledge. Not everybody knows literature or politics, but everybody can sing along with "A Hard Day's Night." Not even the heavily recycled 1950s and 1960s television series, movies, and sports heroes of the aging Baby Boomers are anywhere near as recognizable among younger generations.

When E. D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), he unwittingly exposed the strangeness of our modern predicament. Attacking contemporary education for trying to teach techniques without content, Hirsch told an anecdote about his father's writing in a business letter the tag "There is a tide" with the reasonable expectation that the recipient would catch the reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Hirsch was right that it is hard to imagine a pair of businessmen corresponding this way anymore, just as he was right that such shared tags help to communicate complex thoughts in efficient ways. But he was wrong when he concluded his book with 5,000 references (subsequently expanded in a cottage industry of dictionaries and encyclopedias) that were useful for average Americans to know. What was odd about Cultural Literacy is odd about all recent collections of quotations. To look through any of them -- the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, the latest edition of Bartlett's -- is to realize that they are not tools for pinning down what we already know vaguely, the kind of thing John Bartlett thought he was providing in his 1855 Familiar Quotations. They are instead unfamiliar quotations -- useful crib sheets, curiosities of literature, and after-dinner speakers' handbooks filled with lines their users don't know and are not in the least expected to know.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

J. Bottum is the books and arts editor of target="outlink">The Weekly Standard and the poetry editor of First Things. His work has appeared in National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary.

Illustrations by John Mattos.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; The Soundtracking of America - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 56-70.