Get up and dance!

Filed in Episode 3 by on August 1, 2017 1 Comment

Maria Popova’s Brainpickings is one of the great joys of the Internet, so it seems churlish to quibble with something that appears there. But I’m going to, because I think the subject matters and never more than now.

One of the pieces from this week highlights Josef Pieper’s paean to the music of Bach. Now I love Bach and I think Pieper says some useful things about Bach in particular and music in general. My problem is Pieper’s attitude to popular music. Referring to its “sheer banality”, Pieper announces “We observe how much attention is demanded by — and willingly given to — the rhythmic beat of a certain crude and orgiastic music… Both kinds of music, the “happy sound” as well as the numbing beat, claim legitimacy as “entertainment,” as means, that is, of satisfying, without success, the boredom and existential void that are caused and increased by each other”.

There is no nuance here to suggest he’s only talking about the worst, commercial pop. To me this is not merely the worst kind of snobbery and elitism but suggests a Cartesian separation of mind and body – with everything of value existing apparently only in the mind (to which the emotions exclusively belong). Did Josef Pieper ever dance? Did he ever listen to his body?

My mother, closer to Pieper’s age, listened to Beethoven, danced to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, sang along with Ella Fitzgerald. One was not more important than the other. She wasn’t a philosopher. She just loved music.

Pieper’s piece was written in 1952, so what “crude and orgiastic music” was he thinking of back then? Glenn Miller? Jazz? I actually find the language used very suspect. I wonder where Pieper would place modern African, Caribbean or South American music? What would he have made of Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron, Aretha Franklin – or Roots Manuva for that matter? Lots of “rhythmic beat” in that. Is this European hubris – nothing to learn from other cultures – not invented here? Did it occur to him for a moment that the music he despises may actually exercise other people’s “existential depth” – that maybe there is more to the spectrum of valid and valuable music than can be obtained from any one sort?

Now this matters too for another reason. Whether Josef Pieper or anyone else (including apparently Maria Popova) likes it or not, a vast number of people over the whole world listen to various kinds of popular music. And their access to that music is to a significant extent controlled by a music “industry” whose purpose is only to make money, which means they promote the predictable. So there’s another challenge. If one objects to music selected for its easy commercialism, one has to object to the whole political/economic system, from which that commercialism gains its legitimacy. Anything else is just simple elitism. I have my reservations about what Adorno and Horkheimer had to say on this subject but at least they understood that connection.

If one’s desire is to allow people’s exposure to music that does touch existential depths, telling them everything they like is dross is probably not going to do the trick. Being open to the music people listen to, being open to the possibility that there is value there that has escaped you, might actually bring you and them into constructive discourse.

I am moved (in my soul, my feet, my belly) by Bach, Beethoven and Berio, by Miles, Mingus and the Mothers of Invention, by Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Papa Wemba, Celia Cruz, Cesaria Evora, Peret, La Troba Kung Fu, Gorilaz, Cake, Dylan, Joni, Cohen, Eliza Carthy – are we getting the picture? So, sorry Maria, I still love Brainpickings but this piece really depressed me. Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe you’ll read this and respond. That would be nice.



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  1. Helen Tyrrell says:

    Yes quite! I think this thinking a product of a generation and era which is now over, but which very much existed and is only a half turn from where we are now-and, depending on your age, is one you will remember. I guess Pieper was disturbed by his own orgiastic side, seeing it represented by the rhythms he could not rejoice in because of his own upbringing. No matter how bad things may seem, they are undoubtedly better than they once were. Spent much of the weekend dancing- inexpertly but happily! Bring it on!

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