Monday, October 4, 2010

A Theory of Music: "Aujourd'hui ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d'être dit, on le chante"

This little quip is commonly incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, and often equally mistranslated as "Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung." But it's certainly worthy of Voltaire, and it's a quotation that has adorned my Facebook wall for years. I feel that is so much more true today than when I first put it up, and therefore, so much more relevant than when Volaire didn't pen it. I want to use this observation as an entry point to tackle an issue that has bothered me for some time: Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga). Then I hope to use her as a springboard to talk about a broader issue with music.

For the longest, I didn't want to dignify her with criticism. I thought that public interest would drift away and the nuisance would be silenced. Not so. She has not only grown in popularity, but in acclaim. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I'd like to say why I strongly dislike Ms. Germanotta.

1—She is a poor lyricist.

Where to begin? It's not just that her lyrics lack anything like poetic convention. It is true that they follow no meter, no rhyme scheme, no devices that mark even the most free-verse of poems. She makes no use of aliteration outside the irritating convention of repeating Ps (p-p-p-p-poker face, pa-pa-paparazzi). Now, I love it when Regina Spektor does this because I can feel a genuine love and fascination for pure sound in her voice and in her music. With Ms. Germanotta's music, however, it is a dead pulsation—a smashing of the unimaginative head against the proverbial wall. And when she does deal in words instead of just repeated plosives, it is all the more lacking. Aside from not being poetic, her lyrics are not sensical. I will supply you with direct quotations, and don't worry, there's no context to take these out of:

You know that I love you boy.
Hot like Mexico, rejoice.
At this point I gotta choose,
nothing to lose. 

[The website I pulled this from actually spelled it loose.]

I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it's free

Now, I don't think you necessarily have to make sense to write good lyrics or poetry. I honestly don't. Look at this bit from
The Wasteland

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images….

I'm convinced that doesn't mean a blessed thing. It's total nonsense. But does it sound cool or what? Ms. Germanotta's work is utterly devoid of any of that verbal flare. And I don't hold everyone I meet up the standard of T.S. Eliot, but if you make words and music your profession.... But let's just hold her up to a songwriter's standard. Let's look at Paul Simon, specifically "Graceland."

There is a girl in New York City,
Who calls herself the human trampoline,
And sometimes when I'm falling, flying,
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Whoa! So this is what she means.
She means we're bouncing into Graceland,
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you're blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow.

Here are some lines that give insight into something beyond "disco sticks" or "vertical sticks" or "bluffin' muffins" or genitalia in general. It's a clever and quirky phrasing of that exposed feeling we all get after we've lost love. Speaking of love, real love, "true" love—a perusal of Ms. Germanotta's lyrics makes me wonder if she has ever loved. Is there blood that flows through her heart, or is her core only concerned with the circulation of hormones? No one can accuse her music of leaving out the more vulgar points of lust. It's crammed with penetrating pulsations and punctuated with oh-so-subtle innuendo. But what about those delicate sensibilities which give love its true character and individual meaning? What does her music tell us that a Victoria's Secret add could not?

2—She is a cripplingly unimaginative composer.

Her songs follow a formula: Goofy exposition, almost anti-melodic verses over a digital pulse, peppy screaming chorus, rinse and repeat. Every. last. one. of. them. As a performer, she actually has a strong voice, and apparently she can pound on a piano. But when it comes to actual musical creation she is slavishly devoted to that one style.

It's not that I dislike popular music. Look at The Beatles. There was imagination and ingenuity. True, it took them a while to
really get loose, but even their early hits are marked by a level of musicality and invention that leave Ms. Germanotta exposed and blushing. And I invoke Regina Spektor's name once again as an incantation protecting my mind and soul from Ms. Germanotta's music. Although Regina's music's style isn't as broad as The Beatles', the framework of each song is unique enough to reward repeated listenings. Also, Germanotta's harmonies could not begin to approach Regina's. The latter's are so refreshing and diverse. The former's are virtually nonexistent.

One last biographical note before I move on to broader topics. When I listen to some of her songs before she became "Lady Gaga," it hurts. Despite all her current personality-gymnastics, she was so much more an individual before her MTV days. I really don't say this to be mean, but it seems like her creative faculty has actually suffered since she decided to whore herself out as a "fame monster." I think there's a lesson in this that's slipping past the youth.

Siren Songs

In my last essay on music, I talked about how abstract music is, how it is the most elusive of the arts.  I promised that I would write about some of the consequences attached to that abstractness. So I begin here by writing about the danger of music.

Because music is so abstract, it has the ability to directly affect our emotions without having to be filtered by our intellect. I think very few children understand the words when they sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," but they are still, without a doubt, emotionally affected by the music. And the same goes for instrumental music, as well. Oscar Wilde wrote, "
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own." When you watch something like Hamlet, you understand why you feel sad. You've just witnessed the downfall of so many profound individuals. But not so with instrumental music. Why are Saite's gymnopedies so heart-wrenching? Why do Bach's Sarabandes feel like prayers?

Music is so powerful in this ability to directly access our emotions and spirits. That's why music is the indispensable messenger in film. We need the score to really drive home the emotions. The acting and the visuals are, of course, necessary, but without the music the film remains incomplete.

But as Uncle Ben says, "With great power comes great responsibility." Music also has the ability to manipulate our morals and ideology. It is the listeners' obligation, therefore, to remove themselves from the song and decide if they want that song's message to slip past their reasoning and affect their emotions directly. Take this song from "Uncle Kracker":

I'm not worried 'bout the ring you wear
Cause as long as no one knows
Then nobody can care
You're feelin' guilty
And I'm well aware
But you don't look ashamed
And baby I'm not scared...

We'll be alright if you don't ask me to stay

I'm confident that if this text were printed without the music, decent people everywhere would be appalled at the disdain for fidelity the song shows. But because the song is so catchy, nobody bothered to worry about the lyrics.

Tyrants like Mao Zedong, Stallin, and Hitler also used music to rally the masses and manipulate the mind of the people. Hitler relied on the great composers of the German tradition to spread his propaganda. Although he did not come up with the words, he certainly encouraged the singing of "Das Deutschlandlied," which was set to the music of Haydn. Hitler also aggressively advocated the music of Wagner with the deliberate intention of spreading anti-Semitism.

And if anyone doubts further the powerful influence music has on our minds, just consider the amount of music in advertisements.

So let's take this full-circle back to Stefani Germanotta. Are the messages of her songs something we want to influence our psychology? Forgive me if I oversimplify her work, but it seems that her overarching themes glorify a lack of restraint in sexuality. If this isn't explicitly stated in her jumbled lyrics, it's certainly hinted at in her music videos.

To tell us why unrestrained sexuality is a bad idea, I invite historians Will and Ariel Durant:

"No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group."

Thanks, guys. I was talking to my brother about this recently, and he said that "Lady Gaga's" music teaches girls that sex is a tool to get things from boys, and that it teaches boys that sex is something for them to take. He then said poignantly, "I don't think that her music will turn us all into prostitutes and rapists, but it could give us all the hearts of prostitutes and rapists."

I think that as a society, we should shun the "Gaga" incarnation of Stefani Germanotta. We should be much more careful about the music we listen to, since it has the power to exalt or eviscerate our minds.


  1. Wyatt. You are an island of reason in an ocean of diarrhea.

  2. Ha! I was still able to access this despite “Mao Ze Dong” and “tyrant” being in the same sentence. Take that, Oh Great Firewall.

    There is an interesting relatively recent school of thought, stating that there are no “robust character traits,” per se. We are situationists—our character traits are not displayed across a variety of social situations, but our moral choice is connected a lot more to our environment than we are prone to think.

    E.g.: If we find a dime in a phone booth the influence on our psychological well being will be markedly different. If, during an interview, we hear a set of words such as “young, vivacious, quick,” instead of “retirement, Florida, old” we will actually walk out of the office to the elevator at a faster pace.

    If we are so affected by small, even miniscule, events, I think we ought to give more credence to music for its power, especially over our ethical well being.

    PS. Maybe you will like this article about contemporary art and the Beatles.
    I think the guy is a bit of a snob, and especially enjoyed the comment at the end that said, “Thanks for wasting my time with this Urban Intellectual Fodder.” Not all of us are Bach’s or Tolstoy's, dear sir, and not all writers will be as revered as Tolstoy was during their lifetimes.

  3. He is a bit of a snob, but he does raise some good points. I think people are getting so conscious about creating ART that they wind up producing something weaker than what they could have done if they just kind of went with it.

  4. So, I think I'm either old or just totally out of touch because while I've heard dozens of references to Lady Gaga on NPR, I don't think I could actually pick out one of her songs. I realize she's been around for a while now, but her music would still be new for me.

    I was starting to wonder what all the uproar is, but now that I've read this, I don't think I'm going to bother finding out, hehe. I trust most of your judgments (example: Danny disagrees with you about Lord of the Rings, but I think I'll just pass on that, too).