I was intrigued by the promotional material that accompanied the first edition of The Philosophers’ Magazine through the post. A handbill that sought to entice potential readers by espousing authentic yet accessible philosophy in contrast to an inferior form of pop philosophy represented by the thoughts of Ted Nugent, rock singer.
To be fair, Ted, not normally considered a reticent and self-effacing man, has never claimed to have any intellectual pedigree. The one time leader of the Amboy Dukes, whose only hit record during the late sixties, Journey To the Centre of Your Mind, expressed less a precocious interest in phenomenology, and more a sense of juvenile dementia brought on by the fashionable narcotic abandonment of the times. Nevertheless, the ferocious empiricism explicit in the quote attributed to him – “I don’t really think about deep things. If you can take a bite out of it, its real.” – read like a refutation of Idealism reminiscent of Dr. Johnson’s spat with Bishop Berkeley.
Why should we be surprised by the unintentional profundity of the remark? For pop music has always aspired to philosophical respectability. One calls to mind Sam Phillips, record producer and owner of Sun Studios Memphis, the Bethlehem of Rock’n’Roll, declaring that Charlie Feathers, a contemporary of the young Elvis and still recording today, was the “Only abstract thinker to come out of Rockabilly music.” He was working on six different versions of Roll Over Beethoven simultaneously. However, his reflections were purely formal. His preoccupation was with the conventions and limitations of the genre.
The same could be said of the mysterious Oblique Strategies of pop’s original egghead and serial collaborator, Brian Eno. Devised with artist Peter Schmidt these strategies were a set of oracle cards which predicated the lines of development in the musical composition. This pop aesthetics is an inevitable consequence of the self awareness that comes with the maturity of the medium. It is only when pop music has “something to say” about states of affairs in the world that it becomes truly embarrassing to listen to. From protest songs to charity singles, the list of pop crimes is too numerous to be included here because very few are innocent. But singled out for special condemnation must be the concept album, that uniquely pretentious artefact of the early seventies which could draw on any subject to tenuously link a bagatelle of songs.
In this company Ted Nugent is a pillar of wisdom because his observation, as an example of fortuitous ontology, not only throws into relief pop’s tendency to take itself too seriously, but also serves to demonstrate that the distinction between appearance and reality is cardinal to defining what is and is not philosophy. Indeed, it is the very same contrariety that Plato drew upon when differentiating dialectics from sophism. It could be said that philosophy as a discipline begins with, and receives its impetuous from, the disparity between an intuitive sense that, how things appear to be is not necessarily how they really are.
Pop musicians, too, are often characterised as sharing the philosopher’s critical attitude toward accepted wisdom of the day. However, by doing this they follow the precedent not of political thinkers like Plato, but rather those romantic artists of the mid-nineteenth century whose conception of Bohemia was first and foremost a privileged position on the metaphorical outskirts of current moral practice sustained by economic independence. This enabled the malcontent to pass judgement on society without getting embroiled in its everyday worries and concerns. Of course one could argue that the financial autonomy and tax exile status of the pop star are the proper credentials for social commentary. For it is only through detachment that contemplation is possible.
However, the pop music industry, with its Knights and Dames, is far more conservative than its audience and thus its frequent declarations on behalf of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised often seem disingenuous. This is mainly due to the ideology implicit in pop’s commodity form. The message of the music is always compromised by the medium through which it is experienced and consumed. Pop’s primary colours are novelty, spontaneity and spectacle. These qualities are not derived from the immediate demands of the musical material itself, but rather they are imposed from without by the necessity of the disposable form of the infinitely reproducible product. Although records may seem superficially different, all are marketed and sold in the same ruthless manner. Everything is dispensable except the excessive profit margin. One only has to think of the bewildering turn-over of black artists, due to the lack of long term investment in their careers, to realise that this leisure industry is capitalism in its most extreme form.
Hence, any philosophical reflection evident in the words of the song is reduced to the rank of a “gimmick”, a way of establishing brand identity in a volatile market. All content is mere appearance, gesture without substance. There is no reality to be differentiated from the superficial.
No doubt an objection could be raised against this cantankerous position. Sartre in the novel Nausea makes a virtue of the paradoxical relation of commodity form and musical content. Listening to a recording of a black woman singing a Blues, the narrator finds, through his reflections on time, necessity and chance, that music experienced through the agency of the “sapphire needle” is uncannily enhanced; “If I love that beautiful voice, it is above all because… it is the event which so many notes have prepared so far in advance, dying so that it might be born. How strange it is, how moving, that this hardness should be so fragile. Nothing can interrupt it but anything can break it.” The music becomes ethereal and a means of transcendence; “It filled the room with its metallic transparency, crushing our wretched time against the walls. I am in the music.”
It may be the case that the music that emerged from the church and folk traditions of the persecuted retains an ability to elevate the listener simply because these pioneers could never be entirely assimilated into a commodity culture. It is the incongruity between the anonymity of the manufactured product and the intimacy of the human voice that asserts the indestructibility of the human spirit in a nihilistic age. Something real endures despite.
But maybe I am demanding too much. Maybe the authenticity I seek is merely a consequence of a conventional way of thinking about philosophy and its relation to the world. Martin Heidegger believed that Plato was missing the point entirely when he sought Being beyond ordinary devalued sense perception. Following Nietzsche he refused to give credence to a metaphysical duality of appearance and reality. Plato’s desire for transcendental answers obscured the true nature of existence. From this perspective the only genuine philosophical question is “Why are there essents rather than nothing?”
If this is so, then one can have no serious objections to a medium that flaunts its lack of significance. It would seem churlish to criticise pop for not aspiring to greater profundity when its objective is to distract us from proper philosophical inquiry. Yet who in the history of popular music has asked the questions that Heidegger asks? Very few. Possibly Hank Williams. From Mount Olive, Alabama, he recorded Lost Highway in the late forties, its very title demonstrating an intuitive grasp of the meaning of the work of art as described in Heidegger’s essay of the same period, What Are Poets For? In Heidegger’s thinking art is one of the pathways by which Being is encountered. Being’s significance is historical. It is the ground and destiny of a people -“The unity of men, gods, earth and sky.” In the ‘destitute time” of the modern age the people have turned away from Being and are heading unwittingly towards the abyss. For only traces remain of the original pathway. It is the purpose of the poet to sense these “tracks of the old gods” and to sing a song of lamentation. The poet sings in the hope of turning the people around, back towards a possible reconciliation with Being.
For Hank Williams the Lost Highway marks not only the singer’s disorientation in a disenchanted world – “I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost” – but also the quest for an authentic way back to an intimacy with Being. In this case Being is the destiny of the American people, whose turning away towards the abyss is symbolised by the infidelity of a loved one. This is simultaneously revealed (pathway) and concealed (turning away) in the language of mythologise Old West. Only traces remain of what once was and “With a deck of cards and a jug of wine” the singer laments his destitution. The “Road of sin” is a metaphor for his fallen state and “Sorrow bound” he is cast out of society. As a moral outlaw his “Rambling” nomadic life becomes archetypical of the destiny of the American people in such nihilistic times.
In the final verse Hank addresses the “Boys” warns them of his fate – “Take my advice or you’ll curse the day, you started rolling down the lost highway. “Or as Heidegger would have it, “Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the god’s tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning. ” Hank Williams died before he was thirty. Sensing his nemesis he penned that most sublime of epitaphs – “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive” – and took his place among the seraphim of country music heaven.