by Andreas Saugstad
The cultural phenomenon most widespread in the world today, perhaps next after television, is popular music. Almost all places where people gather informally – buying clothes, going to a cafe or a nightclub, you will hear pop music. Song-writers such as Sting, Phil Collins, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the members of Cranberries, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and others are heard over most of the Western world, but also outside Europe and North America.
The world is becoming homogeneous, and the music you can hear in New York, you may also hear in London, in Vienna, in Rome, in Scandinavia or in Tokyo. You may go to a cafe in the intellectual centre in the British Isles – Oxford – and hear…pop music! Because of the information technology of today this music is flowing over every continent.
Pop vs. Classical
Now you might think that I despise this popular phenomenon. You might have thought that writing an article about pop music was motivated by the author’s aristocratic or snobbish attitudes, and that I wanted to criticize this phenomenon as being vulgar or simple. But that is not my intention. Popular music is for me an important source of motivation. Pop music does something to me, it creates a certain motivation within me. It is true that I also love to listen to Bach.
I recently read a biography about the philosopher Wittgenstein, while listening to Bach. And Bach’s music was so penetrating and suggestive that I had to listen to it almost constantly. My mind created an association between the culture in Vienna described in the Wittgenstein biography and the music of Bach. In order to re-experience the Stimmung of the book I had to play Bach’s Toccata in D major over and over again. When it comes to classical music, I also love Händel, and the English composers of church music Tye and Mundi.
Creativity and Pop Music
But I do not agree with those who believe that classical music is admirable or noble, while pop music in general belongs to a different category, and thus being less advanced, less cultivating than classical music. How easy is it to create high quality pop music? I have never seriously attempted to make a hit or song, to be played by a band, and I am not a composer. But I know something creative processes in general, through my work in philosophy and writing. And I know that in general creative processes are tough and very demanding. It demands full concentration, and you must have a clear idea of what you want to create. Very few people are truly creative.
Philosophers like Kant and Wittgenstein knew this, so they treasured creativity and originality. Kant claimed that originality was the first and most important property of genius. The genius is the one who produces something new that has never been created before. Wittgenstein emphasized the same. Wittgenstein grew up in Vienna, a culture which thought of originality as an important quality. In some of his posthumously published remarks, he reflects on genius and originality. Genius is that which is more than talent, and the true genius must have character and faith in his abilities. The genius must have courage in order to do something new.
Pop music is based on creativity and originality. The performance of pop music is not itself so creative, but the creativity behind writing songs is creative work. A good songwriter must have a quality which resembles what Kant and Wittgenstein were looking for. A songwriter who wants to touch his listeners and communicates something important through music, must be able to renew himself and be original. Nobody likes clichés, if a band uses the same theme over and over again their audience will become very bored.
Every band and musician is working with music within a particular culture and a musical frame of reference. To be original one does not need to transcend one’s musical frame of reference — a great challenge is to be original within the frameworks of a particular style and mode of composing. Bach, for instance, composed within the frames of a special musical style, but he was still able to renew himself over and over again. And the same goes for the Beatles, Phil Collins, Sting and Bob Dylan: within the limits of popular musical culture they have been able to renew themselves over and over again.
Making songs like “Linger,” “Perfect Day,” “Losing My Religion” is – I think – no less creative than working out a set of equations in mathematics, writing high quality poetry, or analyzing a text by Dostoyevsky. One might be tempted to say that on the contrary pop music is more demanding, because the works of these artists are touching so many people. The song-writer must in a new way find something universal, which many people can relate to.
What I like About Pop Music
So what is it that I like about popular music? Why do I sit up at night writing and listening to this kind of music? My answer to these questions will be based on my personal experiences. I can make inferences only from what is going on in my own mind. Still I will attempt at giving a general outline of what I believe much of out contemporary music is doing and why it has such an appeal. But it should be kept clear that my philosophy is based on my own subjective experiences.
Very often when I listen to a song by Sting, Cranberries, RHCP, Kevin Prosch or others, I enter into a mode of inspiration. Writers and painters often talk about “inspiration,” and a lot of my “inspiration” is induced by music. Wittgenstein said that the aim of music was to communicate feelings. I believe this is correct, but music is also a lot more. Music makes me aware of my existential problems and my overall life situation. Pop music makes me picture my life to myself in my mind. Athletes, for instance, use music to motivate themselves, and in analogy to this, I use music to focus on what I think is important, for instance writing.
Music and the Meaning of Life
Music, as I see it, is connected to the meaning of life. Music has the ability to point at that which is important. That is why pop music may help you with your motivation: whether you are an athlete, businessman, or you are just facing some hard times, music may help you.
The meaning of life is central in human life. Dostoyevsky said that the secret of living is not just to live, but to live for something. One of those who read Dostoyevsky was the atheist Nietzsche. A central aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy is that as human beings we are searching for meaning. The human mind, when contributing to the well-being of the individual, attempts to create a perspective on reality that gives meaning. Meaning, then, may be projected on to the world and we feel that life has a purpose.
But meaning is not just emphasized by Nietzsche. Christian writers, those Nietzsche attacked in his atheist philosophy, where in perfect agreement with Nietzsche concerning the fact that man is in search for meaning. Man is constantly longing for a meaning in life. One of the first to deal with this question extensively was St. Augustine. His autobiography, the Confessions, may be interpreted as Augustine’s search for meaning and the ultimate, and that Augustine claims to have found this in God. Augustine emphasized that human beings are longing for the absolute. We search for that which is the ultimate reality, that which can satisfy us more than anything else.
The same point was emphasized by the Oxford scholar and Christian thinker C.S. Lewis. Lewis developed thoughts around Augustine’s slogan desiderium sinus cordis (“longing makes the heart deep”). Lewis used the term “joy” to denote the universal human feeling of need for ultimate satisfaction. And this longing, he thought, could only be fulfilled in relationship with the divine.
Whether you believe in God or not, I think it is important to realize that we all search for the meaning of life. Every human being is “longing for that something, that thing that makes it all complete.” We long for the absolute. Pop music, I think, expresses this feeling. But it not only expresses this feeling, it points to the fact that we have this need. This is the reason why so many pop songs are about love. People have interpreted love as that which can fulfill all our deep longings.
Pop music is not itself the meaning of life, but it describes and through music induces the need to live for something. High quality pop music can make you realize that as a person you long for the absolute. If you really want to live for something, music may help you getting the right motivation.
The thoughts expressed here reflect my experience. If you ask me about the meaning of life, I will say “Yes, I believe there is a God behind it all.” I do believe that he created music to touch our deep needs for the absolute, which can be satisfied when one believes in him.