Is pop music bad for you?

I’ve been reading Roger Scruton’s book, The Soul of the World, which philosophically takes aim at reductionist accounts of human nature – stuff like attempts to explain human action entirely in the terms of neuroscience, Darwinian evolution, etc. To oversimplify things, Scruton argues for the existence of a personalist world of intentionality and relationships, which is dependent upon biological reality but which nonetheless is conceptually distinct and requires philosophical (or theological) analysis, in addition to what the hard sciences have to contribute.

He devotes one of the more interesting chapters entirely to music, which includes this striking comparison:

The civilizations that we know have incorporated sex into extended, sometimes lifelong projects of union between people. Sex has been absorbed, as I argued, into the world of vows, rather than that of contracts, and contractual sex, like recreational sex, has been accepted only with a form of ritual condemnation. In the world in which we live, a new kind of sexual norm has emerged, in which the overreaching intentionality of the interpersonal relation is curtailed. The sexual object replaces the sexual subject, and often, as in pornography, this object is reduced to a mere body part, or – to use the vulgar expression – a tool. This instrumentalizing approach cancels the other’s reality as a subject, and, when used to arouse and satisfy some kind of sexual urge, it removes sexual pleasure entirely from the I-You relation, there being, in this case, neither an I nor a You. What is interesting, from the psychological point of view, is that the resulting experience is addictive – that is to say, it can be obtained without effort, leads automatically to the pleasure that completes it, and rapidly colonizes the brain of the one who gives way to it. (see the recently established Journal of Sex Addiction for the psychological consequences.)

Something similar has happened with music, in which the “quick fix” has driven out the sympathetic response, and in which the I-You intentionality is no longer the focus of attention. In disco music, for example, the focus is entirely on repeated rhythmical figures, often synthesized digitally and without any clear musical performance, in which musical arousal is brought to an instant narcissistic climax and thereafter repeated. There is neither melody nor harmonic progression, but merely repetition, demanding no effort of listening and divorced from any relation with the external world. Those who dance to this music do not, as a rule dance with their partners, supposing they have partners, but at them for the simple reason that there is no “with” established by the musical line. The music is machinelike, not in its sound only, but in its mode of production and in its bypassing of all interpersonal relations, to focus on the pure stimulus and the pure response. It is a music of objects, from which subjects have been excluded. (If you want an example, try Technohead, “I Wanna Be a Hippy,” and don’t miss out on the video.)

In order to put the comparison into context, much of the chapter is devoted to arguing that the same sort of intentionality which defines our relationships with each other is also present, in some fashion, in music: only it is a kind of intentionality where there are no fixed subjects (to the extent that I understand his argument; the chapter warrants a reread).

But bracketing all that, what is interesting about this isn’t that Scruton claims that contemporary pop music is inferior to classical; it’s that he deems it bad enough to be comparable to pornography, and on musicological (as opposed to lyrical) grounds.

It’s true that every aesthetic experience involves a degree of submission to it, and that opens us up to influence, whether for good or ill. You can’t completely escape moral implication in what you choose to consume.

Still, if Scruton’s analysis is correct, it seems to imply that the sort of person who appreciates classical music is potentially more able to see human relations from the philosophical/theological vantage that Scruton is defending. Your average pop junkie would be, to some extent, numbing themselves to the world of relationality. Not in the profound manner of the pornography consumer, but enough to notice some correlations.

But, based on my own anecdotal evidence, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The vast majority of classical musicians seem perfectly capable of passionately, soulfully performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion….while being tone deaf to its religious significance.

And vice versa: people who mainly consume pop should come across as more stunted in this regard. But, again, there doesn’t seem to be any noticable correlation.

To complicate things, there is a decent amount of mass produced music which invites the sort of intentional listening which Scruton praises (Talk Talk’s album, Spirit of Eden springs to mind). It’s never the majority, though. The structural features of the industry are such that the mindless stuff will always win – which strikes me as an easier critique to make.

An old Alan Jacobs quote about literature and moral formation springs to mind here (my emphasis):

It’s so strange to me that there is still anyone anywhere who think that there is any connection whatsoever between a given person’s reading preferences and his or her moral stature. There is no “civilizing function of literature”; people will only benefit morally from reading literature if they already have a strong moral formation. As Terry Eagleton wrote many years ago about the deeply cultured officers of the Third Reich, “When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” Cole mentions this uncomfortable fact, but, reluctant to draw the obvious conclusion from it, remains puzzled that the President’s political and military decisions could somehow be at odds with what Cole imagines that a reader of Derek Walcott’s poetry would be likely to do. This is misbegotten in more ways than I can even list.

The effect that any particular aesthetic experience can have on a person is dependent in large part on what kind of person they already are.

Still, the temptation to write off critiques like this as a killjoy should be avoided. It’s worth pondering these things.

The bigger question is probably this: is Scruton’s theory about music and intentionality correct?



About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is pop music bad for you?

  1. jubilare says:

    “The effect that any particular aesthetic experience can have on a person is dependent in large part on what kind of person they already are.” This is very close to what I was thinking as I read your post.

    There is agency in listening/reading/absorbing, and there is also the surrendering of such agency. In other words, how art (whether it be high or low) is consumed has a profound effect. I can’t say that “x is always x” because when x is consumed by a and b, then it becomes xa and xb, which can be very, very different from each other, and from x. 🙂

    • Josh W says:

      I think Scruton’s own response would be to say that the form of the art dictates the manner in which it is engaged. So, say, while you can have the Hammerklavier sonata playing in the background, that wouldn’t be the sort of intentional response that the sonata is soliciting.

      I’m still mulling over what I think about Scruton’s theory about music, which is really a clever attempt to reconcile its abstract and sympathetic aspects in a non neurosciencey way.

      Interestingly, Scruton is a Wagnerian, and I do recall another music critic (Something Goldman…can’t quite remember) critiqued Wagner in similar terms that Scruton critiques pop: for placing primacy on the moment of ecstasy. Exactly where you draw the lines of aesthetic decadence seems to be a pretty fraught thing (and I admit to being slightly out of my league when it comes to music, having minimal grasp of its theory).

      • jubilare says:

        Maybe, but I don’t think that the form dictates enough to make such a judgement. Form is related to depth, and some works of art and music have more depth than others, and therefore more levels at which they can be engaged, but to my surprise, sometimes mediocre works can effect me profoundly if they, well, hit me right… while works that are generally accepted as great, because they have resonated with people on many levels, sometimes leave me cold.

        So much depends on the person, and personal choice. If the argument makes any sense to me, it is because it touches on our laziness and short attention spans, the fact that we are often unwilling to engage art that takes any effort to understand. Our muscles are atrophied. But if that’s the case, then wouldn’t “pop” music be more of a symptom than a cause?

        And where does that leave the “little man’s” traditions that are the ancient predecessors to pop music? The spoken-stories, ballads, bawds, folk music?

        I know a lot less about this than you do, so it’s very possible that if I had a hat, I’d be talking through it. But this is my take. The theory is good food for thought, though.

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