Music, Art, Beauty

Witnessing the extremely gifted at their work has the strange effect of simultaneously inspiring one to attempt to join them in what they’re doing (because they make it look effortless), and provoking one to quit one’s own efforts in that field (because one is made so painfully aware of how bad one actually is).

I was reminded of this not so long ago when hearing John Piper preach, which is both a spellbinding experience in person, and also immensely discouraging to someone whose profession is in large measure based on public speaking, as mine is.

Jack and JeffI was reminded of this principle again some days ago when hearing a friend and his band perform. Derek’s sound is like a mixture of Jeff Buckley and Jack Johnson, and his obvious quality made me wish I had the stuff to be a performer. As I lack just about everything that is needed to be a rockstar, I decided to settle for thinking about why I couldn’t witness talent without wanting to have it for myself, and why it is that Derek isn’t famous yet.

The first issue is probably fairly simple. As with all things human, our desires are a tangled mess of the good and the evil. I want to be a rockstar because I’m jealous of the attention and praise that such people receive. And I want to be a musician because it is hard to be a human worthy of that name without a deep love for beauty, and witnessing beauty should legitimately provoke in us a wish to participate in it.

As for achieving fame, that’s not so easy to understand. Getting the attention of the public is something that countless unworthy people achieve and many great talents fail to do. Becoming famous probably is a combination of skill, timing and a generous helping of luck. The best one can do is to work hard, I suppose, because as someone once said, ‘The more I practice the luckier I get’. Or you could get yourself killed during a late-night swim in all your clothes, which did wonders for Jeff Buckley’s career.

What makes a song successful?
While I was thinking about how no-good I’d be as a sensitive acoustic guitarist, and reassuring myself that I should just stick to my rambling prose, I wondered at what it is that makes certain songs successful (this was probably during one of Derek’s less excellent numbers).

Art in general and music in particular are — in my opinion — relational activities. One can make art consciously ignoring the viewer in much the same way as you can talk to yourself, but by and large, art exists as a means of artist and viewer sharing something on a deeper level than conversation is able. Art keys into an experience or emotion that bridges the space between artist and viewer. It is put well in a largely forgettable film called The History Boys, in which Richard Griffiths’ character says:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

I take it that these emotional connections are also the reason why we experience enjoyment of songs that we hated two decades ago, because what did not exist within that song 20 years ago that does exist now is the experience of nostalgia. So people lie and say, ‘Ah, I remember this song! I love this song!’ about tunes from Neil Diamond or whoever, but it is not the song that is loved; it is the lost era of life that it represents.

So how does the idea of shared experience and emotion play out in the music world?

Consider the following popular-yet-rubbish music categories:

Novelty music
It’s hard to fathom how it is that a song featuring a chorus sung by a falsetto cartoon frog can smash all Billboard chart records, but this kind of thing happens all the time. People love ‘doing the funky chicken’ and 3D dancing babies. We’re all idiots deep down, and more importantly for those hoping to capitalise on our stupidity, we love a shared joke. As long as the novelty checks enough boxes to win the right kind of approval, most of us want to enjoy what our peers enjoy (the rest of us want to be seen to be too good for what the hoi polloi likes).

Dance Music
Only slightly more credible than music sung by drunken sports mascots, dance music also achieves popularity for reasons largely other than its intrinsic emotional or intellectual quality. Dance music ought not to work when played on the radio, because people don’t typically dance to the radio. I can only account for the enjoyment of dance music in non-dance contexts because it triggers memories of club experiences, or perhaps produces some of the adrenaline and shared energy that one would have at a club.

Pop music
I’m not sure that ‘pop music’ is actually a genre, but I’m thinking of the kind of music that lands up on Top 20 albums each year. It typically employs formulaic compositions that evoke the ‘right’ moods with a minimum of effort. It requires no exploration or digestion on the part of the hearer. It is immediately understood and appropriated. It is the fast food of the music world. It is a taste that requires no acquiring.

I loathe pop for exactly the reasons that makes it successful. It is entirely as engaging as a ‘Royale with cheese’. It capitalises on shared experience or emotion, but it achieves wide approval by being generic and superficial. Like the Cassanova, one feels the emotion, but in hindsight one curses oneself for falling for the self-interested insincerity with which it was delivered.

Pop music deals with extremely complex emotions, such as love, hate, happiness and even anger, but it succeeds in appealing to the many by ensuring that the treatment is shallow. Songs about love rarely go further than sexual desire. Even angry, shouty songs enjoyed by moping charcoal teenagers have to be classed as pop, because with few exceptions, they deal with anger for its own sake and with no target. It is a calculated ploy to appeal to hormonal children whose anger is chemical and directionless. Pop musicians get labelled as artists, but they do not in fact achieve genuine human relational contact with their audience. Their art is marketing, not exploration.

Good music
The difference between music that I would consider pejoratively to be ‘pop’ and music that I would consider good is the ability to escape superficiality and insincerity, and to involve the listener in a shared exploration of experience or emotion.

For example, I consider Radiohead to be my favourite artists, but on a certain level, it’s hard to justify why they should be. The lead singer’s voice is an acquired taste at best, and is often accused of sounding whiny or depressing. Their music is probably at home in a bleak urban UK winter, but rarely would be classed as feel-good or earthy or warm. Their lyrics are not especially linear, often seeming to be a stitched-together series of idiomatic expressions without a clear narrative.

Lyrics like snatches of idiomatic expressions

And yet it’s not a masochistic tendency within me that causes me to love the unlovely. Radiohead are extremely successful, not only popular with millions, but also universally acclaimed by the critics.

I think what wins them wide appreciation is not the superficial beauty and accessibility that appeals in pop music, but rather a willingness to explore difficult themes, such as personal paranoia and alienation, as well as political and social issues, in an emotionally rich and intellectually stimulating way. The lyrics may not be a perfectly formed narrative, but by sketching the shadows and tones they invite the listener to share in the process by providing bridges and connections. In much the same way as a pencil sketch is usually over-drawn when every detail is captured, and better for what it leaves out, the songs give enough detail to capture the image, but not so much that the listener’s own heart and mind are not required. That’s the genius of any art.

I said at the beginning that it is a characteristic of true humanness to want to involve oneself with beauty. Maybe not everyone should be forced to agree that the music I like is some kind of aesthetic high-water mark, but there is certainly a level of tragedy when people get all Ga-Ga with the skin-deep, and never experience the deeper beauties of exploration, just because the singer has a face for radio.


3 thoughts on “Music, Art, Beauty

  1. David says:

    Your topic reminds me of some related thoughts from John Piper on the human longing for beauty and to be swallowed up in something bigger than we are. Here’s a quote from a sermon of his from back in 1982:
    “I do believe that deeply rooted in every human heart is a longing for beauty. Why do we go to the Grand Canyon, the Boundary Waters, art exhibits, gardens? Why do we plant trees and flower beds? Why do we paint our inside walls? Why is it man and not the monkeys who decorated cave walls with pictures? Why is it that in every tribe of humans ever known there has always been some form of art and craftsmanship that goes beyond mere utility? Is it not because we long to behold and be a part of beauty? We crave to be moved by some rare glimpse of greatness. We yearn for a vision of glory.”

    Piper, being a pastor, also connects this longing for beauty with God and how our longing for beauty can be most fully satisfied in Jesus. If you want to see or hear all of Piper’s sermon, look here:

    Our desire for beauty and our response to beauty and greatness is an interesting topic. I agree that we as humans love to be caught up in beauty and greatness — to be standing on the sidelines, so to speak, cheering for and caught up in the beholding something magnificent.

    Piper has a word picture that he has used frequently of a person standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon looking (a huge natural canyon in the southwest United States. see here: and then Piper makes us think about what is going on inside the person while he is doing it. It is true — we love to be caught up in something bigger than ourselves.

    I as a Christian would say that God put this longing in us to be satisfied ultimately in God himself. There is a purpose to our innate longing for beauty. Even for non-Christians, I think most deep-thinkers would agree that humans have a craving for satisfying beauty (which can take many forms) even if they would not see that as completed in God.


  2. LG says:

    I guess in my sub-concious I always wanted to be a ‘singer’ – appropriately a back-up singer you know. Like that Carla woman with Meatloaf (“You took the words right out of my mouth” video is really well, an example as to how I mean back-up singing!! You should go watch the video on U tube)

    Anyway be as it may I now rather sing back-up in the bathroom but my youngest is making better progress on stage than I did. What I actually wanted to say was the quote from the History Boys is sooo appropriate not only for reading but also when listening to music. My biggest addiction to Bruce Springsteen came in my early teens when the words of his songs resonated with me and were so beautiful and understandable to me I felt them in my blood and I had no reason why a 30 something in the USA could touch me with his words and music a 13 year old across the world… And I’m not talking his instant ‘pop’ hits in 1984, the stuff before that. Till today they are with me, especially aka “Darkness on the Edge of the Town” album and “Born to run” and “The River albums”. Art connecting for sure!

  3. Hephaestion says:

    I want to be a rockstar because I’m jealous of the attention and praise that such people receive. And I want to be a musician because it is hard to be a human worthy of that name without a deep love for beauty, and witnessing beauty should legitimately provoke in us a wish to participate in it.

    There are two main drivers of sexual selection (as opposed to natural selection) in evolution: aggressive rivalry (which leads to, for example, bigger horns) and mate choice. The classic example of mate choice is the male peacock, with its ridiculously flamboyant plumage. Females choose males with the more flamboyant plumage and so drive evolution to shape it thusly. (Sexual selection, in the case of the male peacock, actually works against survival, so only the hardiest, the best, of males survive.)

    Humans, being animals (one of the great apes) are no less immune to sexual selection than they are to natural selection. One of the effects of sexual selection is sexual dimorphism, in which males and female have different forms. Males humans are, on average, slightly better at maths, poorer verbally, more aggressive, heavier, taller and stronger. Some of these traits in men may have to do with aggressive rivalry as they compete amongst themselves for mates. Mate choice is performed by both males and females, with both desiring the “best” genes. Women are more discerning (with their investment in a few big eggs, long gestation period, etc), while men are more open to opportunistic sex (with their cheap and prodigious numbers of sperm).

    Displays of verbal acuity, physical agility and such are essentially displays of genetic fitness (known as “fitness signals”). The best displays are those that are difficult to fake. Not many people have the creativity and dexterity of, say, Jimi Hendrix. Groupies instinctively recognized this and he had access to a vast number of mates – much more so than the average man. Led Zepplin were legendary in the annals of groupie sex. The ultimate form of display is arguably ballet, in which physical agility, timing, musicality, grace and strength are all combined. The best dancers are viewed with awe and reverence. So rock stars and ballet dancers are at the top of a clambering pile keen to display their genetic fitness.

    Evolution has equipped us with a lust for sex, not necessarily a lust for Children. Jimi Hendrix may have had a prodigious sexual history, but he only had two children (of which we know). Rudolf Nureyev was also known to have had many partners off the stage, but sired no children. Like Hendrix, Nureyev demanded attention. His first performance in England was electric: “Long-haired, wild-eyed and half naked in grey-streaked tights, Nureyev seemed to the English audience to be a primordial force of nature.”

    The trajectory of fame, talent and creativity follows that of age. Though our prime reproducing years we are at our most energetic, creating and performing and lusting for sex. As we get older the creativity wanes, the performances become fewer and fewer, the lust for sex declines. Male aggressiveness follows the same trajectory, peaking in the 20s and 30s and then experiencing a long, slow decline.

    Humans have an innate appreciation for virtuoso displays of music, painting and dance (and much more) with “virtuoso” being the operative word. This appreciation has been forged by evolution. We see beauty in things made or performed with exceptional talent. Even as far back as 1.4 million years there is evidence that homo erectus made stone blades (“Acheulean hand-axes”) for display rather than utility.

    Whether it is the choice of car we drive, the clothes we wear or the music we enjoy, we all dance to the choreography of evolution.

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