SONGS from the oratorio Axion Esti


With the Star's Lamp - Με το λύχνο του άστρου


The art of the song and the redemption of pop music

II - With the Star's Lamp - Με το λύχνο του άστρου



"I create means I am free - I become free. The message of art is a message of freedom."

Having passed through several generations of different styles of popular music –  from the earliest days of the songbooks of Tin Pan Alley to Bee-Bop and Rock ‘n’ Roll to contemporary mostly electronic-based industry music – we see with every successive development an increase in shock and brutish aesthetics.  From early crooners through to rock and punk, metal, death metal, rap, hip-hop, gangster rap, there is an increasing dependence on the image and the inevitable icons that are propped up as colossal cultural figures.  And of the lyrical content? It has reached a point that popular songs listened to by youth throughout the world consist merely of the repetition of a single expletive.  The names of the many singers and the bands are of no importance, for one cannot criticize directly with any positive results.  Each generation has its own favourites, and the music that one hears during their years of development is so tied up with identity that to speak negatively of a singer or popular music figure is to enter an argument of no resolve.  To insult the music a person likes is to insult that person. So we must speak apophatically about the music that has been popularized through the industry.  Apophatically: not criticizing what it is, but what it is not. 

The paradox is that each generation has felt a rebelliousness in the new music of their generation that pours through their radios, stereos or smartphones - to the dismay of their elders.  But after so many successive generations, we can see that this feeling of rebelliousness has always actually been conformity. With each generation, what the industry produces is more extreme, visceral and shocking.  But for the discerning ear, though the style is shocking, the music is actually very simplistic and conservative, breaking no boundaries.  The fundamental characteristic of popular music is standardization.  The music has become more simplistic. Interestingly, the frequencies of pop music through modern production techniques has come to resemble that of white noise. And of the lyrics, words fail to describe the vapidity of content and the complete lack of craft. 

Theodore Adorno, in his highly influential essay On Popular Music, proposes that all popular music is created in order to distract and create an ambivalent, automaton-like behaviour, stripping away all individuality:

“Listening to popular music is manipulated not only by its promoters but, as it were by the inherent nature of this music itself, into a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society.”

There is a plethora of works that discuss social engineering and behaviour manipulation through the mass media, but that is not the point I wish to emphasize. With the pseudo-individualization that takes place within popular music forms in order to disguise its highly conventional standardization, the emphasis has increasingly been placed on the personality of individuals and on the image and behaviour as opposed to the art itself.  We are offered puffed-up and propagandized illusions of the so-called ‘talented’ icons, but in reality, the cultural icons that have been offered to us – and particularly in our greatest times of need – have been some of the greatest cultural failures and disappointments.  Searching the annals of Western popular music, I can hardly think of one positive role model.  It is all a puffed-up illusion.

The illusion of choice provided by the careful differentiation of ‘styles’ of music portends towards an ‘individuality’ and ‘freedom’ with which the listener aligns to the style of his choice and builds his identity around this choice – in other words, pseudo-individualization.  So we have the rocker, the hip-hopper, etc. Even less so now, as stylistic identity has been eliminated by the assimilation of all music by technology, even the choice has been automatized by the machine.  With the advent of streaming technology, the machine even makes the choice for us.  To push a button and listen to sounds emitted on a poor quality speaker is enough to give the feeling of freedom of choice. Adorno states;

“The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment, which does not demand attention either.

People want to have fun.  A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously.  The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire.”

There can be little that is more embarrassing than the adult listener of pop music. Bound up with the feelings of nostalgia, the strumming of a chord of an old song is nothing but the listener’s own personal conformity to that ‘cheap commercial entertainment’, which has always been cultural trash. And now with the prevailing focus on drugs, sex, and the sheer vacuity of the texts, this music is poison – to an extent unimagined even by Adorno himself.

Over the course of the development of the ‘culture’ industry, the masses have discriminated less and less, allowing commercialization to take complete hold over entertainment and to sell their ‘cultural commodities’ with complete abandon, leaving us with the feeling that we’re getting what we want and that we enjoy what we’re getting.

The void for which people turn to pop music and entertainment is to escape the boredom of their daily labours.  It is a stimulation into a senseless state of distraction, but in order for it not to become boring, the stimulation must be increased.  And if we go back to the earliest days of modern popular entertainment in the age of mechanical reproduction, we feel we have passed from an age of innocent song to the most visceral carnality of spread-legged women with demonic countenance singing of the functions of their bodies.  The stimulant must become more intense and ever-more extreme. The music produces a void of effortless sensation.

So where can we go from here?  Is it possible to find redemption for popular music within the confines of this industry? Should discerning people only look to Art-Music, so called ernste Musik, to find relief and inspiration? What about the basic structures of the song – can they be kept?

Theodorakis, who has produced an incredible body of beautiful popular music that empowered his nation and the entire and world, points us in the right direction:

“To achieve this, composers of pop-music ought to do what we did. That is, they should collaborate with the great poets and writers of their countries, so that they could marry their musical sensibility, which is full of life, with the poetic visions and the messages of the living poetry of our era. In this way, they would avoid resolutely the threatening danger of repetition and superfluity. The elevated poetic content would reinforce their musical creation and compel it to develop into more complex forms, always speaking face to face with the broad masses of world youth.”

Poetry is the highest elevation of language; through poetic contemplation we can be brought to the absolute heights of our human ability. Our lives can be transformed. Our worldviews can be changed forever by the insights that can be gained from the empowered use of language. It is the poetic content of the song that should be its central and integral core. 

The answer is not to fundamentally to reinvent the song.  The redemption of pop music can be found in THE WORD.

The next instalment of this series will be about poetry and the word.