There is a problem with popular music; it is our disconnection to the ear. Arguably, today, we do anything but listen. We debate, talk, depict, advertise and consume. These actions reject the essence and experience of music as something heard or felt.
On the contrary, we rarely feel music. Instead of it being resonate with our personal and deepest experiences, we have modified music to project something very specific, such as a lifestyle or better yet, an alternative reality.
When Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), he had a deep personal relationship with the composer Richard Wagner to whom he owes his love of music. For Nietzsche, music was the zenith of all art forms. He used the example of Greek Tragedy to explain the two-sided process of art. One is the Apollonian (from the Greek god Apollo) which deals with appearances, reason and consciousness. The other is the Dionysian (from the Greek god Dionysus) which breaks free from the norm and chains of culture to produce within the individual a state of frenzy and ecstasy.
Nietzsche believed that the essence of Greek tragedy was the Greek chorus in which we enter the Dionysian world. When the chorus came on, the gulf between actors and audience dissipates and the phantoms of culture were forgotten. In the Dionysian mind-state, we are able to comprehend the true nature of existence, to allow expression from the deepest part of the human will, and to forget about the self.
It is hard to overlook the fact that Nietzsche’s interpretation of music conflicts deeply with our view of it today. Music, historically, was essentially a faceless form of art, and unlike painting or poetry, which Nietzsche referred to as plastic arts, music is most genuine because it does not try to copy or represent the world. Its function is primordial and lies beneath apparent reality.
Now I find that we have modified its essence by mutating it into a face and form. Our objectification of music goes back to my point about the projection of a lifestyle. Everywhere I go, advertisements stuck on billboards scream at me to listen to this new band, to go to this event, to support this artist. Promoting music through the use of images seems to me, at its core, completely redundant. Lack of sound means lack of the Dionysian frenzy. What we get instead is judgement. Judgement is the preliminary activity we all do before choosing what or what not to listen to.
A lot of artists and musicians these days do more than just produce music. They are performers and exhibitionists. Even worse is that they claim something: If you do this, dress like me, consume the products I consume, behave like me, and listen to my music, then you will be just like me and part of my world. All advertising works like this. Music, like everything else, is an industrialised consumer product – this is nothing new.
Far from being the dismissal of self that it once was, music now tends to confront us with constructed appearances and possible worlds, between who we are and who we’d like to, or should be. I may go so far as to say that music now copies, and is becoming the plastic art Nietzsche referred to by which appearance plays a vital role. But it doesn’t just copy the world, when people make music, they also copy others. They believe, perhaps subconsciously, that if they are to make a type of sound, a certain lifestyle would come with it.
If, according to Nietzsche, music is the purest form of art, then he would change his mind today, because the transition from music as sound, to music as performance, is obvious. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think music is completely dead, for there are still some great and original sounds being produced. It’s just the repeated exposure to the same thing that I find fault with. There is a lack of progression in terms of sound because the fact that attending a gig is, for many, more important than being in the presence of music. ‘Listening’ requires little to no effort with hardly any concentration. When I go to a gig, the absence of ear focus is alarming, from both musicians and audience alike, because it’s more about the performance. I leave feeling cheated and so aware of the feeling of dislocation and isolation from those around me. This absence is the same when you go into a store and about a couple of songs play, but you hear none of them because they serve as background noise to aid the activity of shopping.
But let’s not fret. There are, of course, always exceptions. Get yourself down to one of those events where you’re in a basement and it’s so dark you catch only glimpses of reality. Music is all there is with no focus on anything else. Occurrences like these are where you forget the self. In these moments, Nietzsche would tell us, music is a union with others and nature in which each and every one of us embodies the Dionysian spirit. We can compare the ecstasy of the Greek chorus to drug induced clubbers as an example of individual effacement. However, this comparison still presents complications of its own, because the appreciation of music is created under the influence of something else.
If, what we have now, puts focus on the impact of performance, rather than the impact of sound, then the best way to truly appreciate music is to simply close your eyes and listen. Eyes are a distraction into the feeling of music. When you next go to a gig, think to yourself: ‘What am I going for, the performance or the sound?’