Taking Music

By George Saad


The best minds in the country have matured in the setting of postmodern academia for over half a century now, having been taught by respected academicians that abstract standards of truth are just the imperialistic Western prejudice of a less enlightened time. Our culture has, in response, turned from the virtue of sincerity, embracing instead the non-committal irony compatible with a nihilistic worldview. And while those cloistered keepers of academia can and do hide their denial of any standard of truth by inventing ever new and refined means of obfuscation and verbal acrobatics, the soul of a culture, its true essence, must be manifest in the art it accepts and cherishes.

The virtue of sincerity, the willingness to fully identify and express one’s innermost convictions, is the foundation of a robust culture. Healthy intellectual discourse demands that all express their views forthrightly, so that all aspects of every position may be brought to full attention, without the self-censorship of unpopular or sensitive judgments. Any debate or discussion of truth must begin with a commitment to sincere expression, lest suspicion be cast on the face value of all professed beliefs. With pursuit of the truth as a goal, a person may make many honest errors, but they will never correct or even identify those errors if they allow for the creation of an insincere artificial character that ignores their real confusions and stops seeking answers.

Of course, this all assumes that there is an objective order in the world that a person can judge and sincerely evaluate. If there is no truth, as the postmodernists contend, then sincerity is a false virtue; loyalty to truth, the act of a misguided martyr. The postmodernists believe, following Michael Foucault, that “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.” This creates a glaring, unavoidable problem. How could Foucault speak in such definite terms against fundamental concepts like reason, truth, and knowledge without categorizing this very statement as a “truth” of which he wishes us to have “knowledge”, presumably by appealing to our “reason”? The position of the postmodernists is brazenly self-contradictory, as any positive claim they attempt to advance is undercut by their insistence on the impossibility of a positive claim.

Richard Rorty, another postmodern philosopher, recognized that the acceptance of the postmodern metaphysical project necessarily entailed a new psychological attitude as well. Calling his system “ironism”, Rorty recognized that a system that denied the possibility of truth could not demand that its adherents adhere to it sincerely, as this would mean devotion to a system of ideas that denies that any system is worthy of devotion. Commenting on the problem posed by Foucault’s above statement, he added that,

“The difficulty faced by a philosopher who, like myself, is sympathetic to this suggestion, one who thinks of himself as auxiliary to the poet rather than to the physicist—is to avoid hinting that this suggestion gets something right, that my sort of philosophy corresponds to the way things really are. For this talk of correspondence brings back just the idea my sort of philosopher wants to get rid of, the idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature.”

The solution, in Rorty’s view, is not to reevaluate the position that objectivity is impossible, but to never think that oneself or anyone else ever “gets something right”. The abstract epistemological position that any sort of reality is unknowable produces, in turn, the practical psychological phenomenon of never speaking or acting in full conviction of anything. Irony replaces sincerity as a virtue.

While one may object here that this is only so much deductive theorizing, the culture has indeed produced an immensely popular artist who embraces ironic detachment as an aesthetic ideal. The average man on the street can ignore the philosophizing of Richard Rorty, but he cannot ignore the music of Lady Gaga. A sudden sensation, whose lyrics and presentation shock and confuse the more sensibly minded, Lady Gaga’s bizarre aesthetic persona is the symbol of a culture that has accepted a frivolous, ironic approach to life, wherein the only meaning left to be found is that of confounding meaning. Almost paraphrasing Richard Rorty’s formulation of ironism and adapting it to the aesthetic, Lady Gaga has explained, “For me, art is a lie, and the artists are there to create lies we kill when we make it true.”

In an age when most philosophers claim that philosophy, impotent to discover the truth, is irrelevant to practical living, the culture mirrors that void. What is remarkable about Lady Gaga is that she has achieved amazing commercial success not by keeping her act accessible to the average person, but by introducing an arbitrary, nonsensical aesthetic to pop music. Over 20 million people have watched her video “Telephone”, in which Lady Gaga wears sunglasses pasted with lit cigarettes and an outfit consisting only of caution tape, lyrically devoting an entire song to the annoyance of a being incessantly contacted by a telephone, while acting out a lesbian revenge fantasy of murdering a boorish boyfriend with sidekick Beyoncé. It is an incoherent pastiche of product placements, constant outfit changes, in no way related to the plot, and cheap visual stimulation achieved by rapid cuts. The music inspires no deep feeling, as the cheap, manufactured beats race along without gravity or intricacy.

But what is distinctive about this video is not its lack of musical and lyrical sophistication; pop stars have been producing unrefined music for decades. Rather, it is that it makes no coherent positive commitments whatsoever, not to even the usual low level themes of money, lustful attraction, and partying common in similar music. One is forced to conclude after several decades of the nihilism of modern art, when one may see a telephone placed in exhibit and given a title as a work of art, the wider culture has finally made peace with the philosophical vacuum created by the intellectual leadership. Our culture now embraces those artists whose art embodies the ironic attempt to create meaning where all concede that none can be found. While we may think that figures like Rorty are detached from the practical life of a culture, one that actively seeks this sort of senselessness is practicing the Rorty’s ideal as best as it can be practiced, finding meaning in the meaningless. As such, any hint of the meaningful in Lady Gaga’s music must be subverted ironically. Her treatment of romantic themes glorifies them only insofar as they are deceptive and even destructive. This comes out explicitly in the lyrics of “Poker Face”, a song about how ably she can puts on a poker face to seem attracted to a man while in fact fantasizing about a lesbian lover. In the song “Bad Romance,” a romance is glorified precisely for its destructiveness. She tells her lover , “I want your ugly/I want your disease/I want your everything/As long as it’s free” and “I want your horror/I want your design/‘Cuz you’re a criminal/As long as you’re mine”. To take romantic love, the ultimate tribute to another person, and twist it so much that the attraction is based precisely on beloved’s evil is a colossal feat of insincerity, being ironically repulsed to that which should inspire the greatest admiration. Fittingly, the music video ends with a macabre shot of Lady Gaga lying next to the subject’s charred corpse, having ironically consummated her burning passion in his fiery destruction.

The contradictory elements of her public persona also show that her entire act must be taken ironically. In a discussion of her video “Telephone”, she claimed to be commenting on the excesses of consumerism by putting Coke cans in her hair, yet the entire video features product placements for brands she is affiliated with, from Virgin Mobile, which sponsors her tours, to Polaroid, a company that recently named her Creative Director for a special line of products. She is the perfect symbol of the mindless consumerism she decries, with a line of headphones selling for $120, yet she still ironically plays the role of socially conscious performer. The same is also true of her alleged creative struggles. Commenting on her future, she has said, “I am focused on the work. I am constantly creating. I am a busy girl. I live and breathe my work. I love what I do. I believe in the message. There’s no stopping. I didn’t create the fame, the fame created me.” After asserting herself as an internally motivated creator, who loves creation as an end in itself, she immediately subverts this by then claiming that her entire character is an artifice of fame. Once more, the irony of claiming to be a devoted artist while having nothing to say of oneself separate of one’s fame is inescapable. As Rolling Stone said of her album “Fame Monster”, “Half the disc is Madonna knock-offs, but that’s part of the concept — fame monsters needn’t concern themselves with originality.”

Given the enormous popularity of someone who embodies the ironic subversion of values, one must lament that her popularity is the result of the mindlessness of a culture dogmatically tutored in the fictions that epistemic certainty is the province of religious fanatics and that a commitment to meaning is an unenlightened prejudice to be sacrificed for the appreciation of any brazen outlandishness. They are now fascinated by someone who dares express openly the emptiness they have all known silently; someone who would openly declare fame as her sole source of merit when they have only been so bold as to sacrifice honest ambitions for prestigious careers, who would declare that they are seeking a destructive romance when they merely enjoy the voyeurism of watching the broken couples of reality TV, someone whose life’s work consists of the construction of a deliberately contrived identity when they only sometimes tailor their thoughts and opinions to match group conformity. A culture taught to heap disdain upon truth and morality must have a perpetual frivolity about it to escape this dark emptiness; Kafkaesque viral dance videos that repeat a refrain of “I don’t want to think anymore” lack the gravity for any deep appreciation, and so the viewer, in turn, laughs at himself for watching, completing the ironic cycle of self-contradiction and triviality.

Almost all modern art lacks seriousness and has a similar quality of being ironically manufactured without any depth or consideration, if with less flagrancy. However, one female vocalist in particular stands out from this trend, achieving a notably aware, sincere aesthetic against the detached world of the pop diva. Recently in the news for her new album “Leave Your Sleep”, which revives forgotten Victorian children’s poetry to music, the entire career of Natalie Merchant stands as such a defiant anachronism, achieving a state of artistic purity foreign to modern art. Speaking of her 1998 album “Ophelia”, she commented, “There’s no irony on this album. I have fifty-six minutes every four years, and I want to say something honest to people.” Her depth of feeling and sincerity of expression draws the listener into an entirely different cognitive and emotional universe from that of Lady Gaga, one acutely aware and substantially introspective, where strong, unfiltered passions come forth to be celebrated as the essence of life.

In Merchant’s music, one finds an oasis of rich meaning, full of structured, sincere consideration of matters of importance. Her lyrics are always seeking, grasping for greater understanding and benevolently reaching for the amelioration of humanity. “Carnival,” one of her most popular songs, advances the metaphor of the world as a raucous carnival, which she must consciously navigate to avoid the corruption of its surreal sensationalism. She sings,

“I’ve walked these streets/ A virtual stage/ It seemed to me/ Make up on their faces/Actors took their/ Places next to me/…All the cheap thrill seekers/ The vendors & the dealers/ They crowded around me /Have I been blind/Have I been lost/Inside myself and/My own mind /Hypnotized/Mesmerized/By what my eyes have seen?”

Where Lady Gaga hides behind a concocted façade of cheap imagery, Natalie Merchant describes the finding of substance in a world ruled by escapism. Her smooth, sublime sound provokes the listener to a state of serene contemplation, with the richly textured melodies matching the density of Merchant’s concerns, as mentally engaging as Gaga’s synthesized, frenetic beats are stultifying.

Another song, “I May Know the Word,” deals with the difficulty of maintaining a loyalty to truth and values in a world ruled by the indefiniteness of the postmodern project. Knowing what should be done but unable to live a fully authentic way, Merchant seeks confirmation of her devotion to the truth in morally gray landscape, explaining,

“I may know the word/But not say it/I may love the fruit/But not taste it/…But it’s all gray here/ It’s all gray to me/…Something move me/Someone prove me wrong/Before night comes/With indifference.”

She offers an acute thoughtfulness, one that begins as a natural zest for truth and meaning, and in the end captures the ethical and cognitive vacuum sapping the foundations of Western society. Not able to penetrate to the philosophical root of postmodern culture, she is an earnest and attentive spectator, deeply confused and disturbed by the evasive cultural frivolity, as exemplified by Lady Gaga.

Unafraid to express herself in richly contemplative themes, Merchant also conveys a depth of emotion without sounding cliché or cheesy. Her emotional sincerity, communicated via her irreplaceably unique voice, is such that an ironic, dismissive interpretation of her message is impossible. Without losing the elegance of her style or her ability to consider complexities, she conveys the most bitter, raw emotion in “Beloved Wife”, a song about the death of a man’s wife written for “About Schmidt”, lamenting, “I can’t believe /I’ve lost the very best of me/… a depth so deep /into my grief /without my beloved soul/I renounce my life”. Merchant directly presents the most foreboding emotional state possible, having lost one’s greatest love and considering one’s own end, without censorship or ironic distance from the audience, telling of an unbearable pain in a way that demands that the listener consider the reality of death. In “Life is Sweet”, she feelingly expresses a feeling of exultation, contrasting the notion of life as a burden with that of it as an infinitely precious gift, “They told you life is long/Be thankful when it’s done/Don’t ask for more, be grateful/But I tell you life is short/Be thankful, because before you know it/ It will be over”. Confident enough to express such unrefined emotions as the feeling that “life is sweet”, she nonetheless does not present a Pollyannaish account of it, instead conveying a deep sensitivity to the reality of despair, making her joyousness all the more authentic for its depth.

Unfortunately, given the current state of culture, a vulgar fraud like Lady Gaga has acquired greater acclaim than a true artist like Natalie Merchant. A country that laughs at its gravest national issues every evening on Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart is going to be a country that listens to songs about the annoyance of a cell phone ringing on a dance floor, not sublime feelings of the exultation of life or deep moral confusions. When it is a mark of enlightened sophistication in the highest halls of learning to deny any conception of truth and remain blasé about all moral values, such a self-loathing, ironic culture necessarily follows. While the outlook for a better culture seems bleak, with jaded irony becoming the default tone for our generation, we can never forget that such a detached, self-mocking approach to life cannot create real achievement and keep the world moving for long, as it aims at nothing beyond the advancement of its own vanity, in the creation of “fame monsters.”

Echoing the theme of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which shows how a world without real, non-ironic creators cannot sustain itself, the lyrics to Natalie Merhcant’s “Just Can’t Last” declare, “I know you have the weight of the world today/It’s on your back/A heavy load like that is gonna hold you back/It’s gonna drag you down/You know it just can’t last, just can’t/You know it just can’t last”. Today every person committed to an honest appreciation of facts and a sincere attainment of values is in this position, battling against a cancerous culture that will eat away at them for their willingness to confront reality without a façade. While the prospects of a cultural reversal remain dim but not impossible, it is certain that without one the ironists that revel in laughing at a plausibly real parody in The Onion will one day awake to find that they have been laughing at reality all along, and that there is nothing left appropriate for laughter.