Rock Music As Art
Greasy Lake, 1996, by: Karsten Stanley Andersen
The following essay is an excerpt from the main thesis I made in 1996 when graduating from the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen. The thesis was called "Rock Music - Body, Art, Lifestyle" and was about rock music as a cultural factor in modern society. It consisted of two main parts: 1) Rock music as identity and life style, and 2) Rock music's expression. The latter part was again divided in several parts one of which was "Rock music as art". For this chapter I conducted a survey among Springsteen fans using the Luckytown Digest and received answers from many kind souls, answers that were very thoughtful and useful.
If some things in the essay seem somehow detached, it is because it was taken out of a larger whole. Please bear with that. Also, please bear with the references to Danish sources that aren't known to people in other countries.
1. Food for the mind
Far into this century the novel, classical music and the art of painting have been considered the only real cultural outlets. Even in today's public schools and high schools the children and adolescents must study a considerable amount of this traditional cultural production. Of course, there are many good reasons for that, but later on they rarely get their intellectual stimulants from those spheres. Instead it would be obvious to mention TV as the dominating source, which is partly true, but TV is not in itself an art form like the novel. TV is a method to convey different types of art and information such as movies, news and pictures. That's why you can't really compare TV with for example a novel.
That being established, the question is what has taken over, among other things, the novel's role as the preferred food for the mind among young people. My claim is that rock music, perhaps in competition with movies, is closest to the truth. There can be many reasons for that, and it doesn't necessarily mean that rock musicians are quicker to scent and express the tendencies of society or are altogether better artists. But through MTV, music magazines and the quick distribution of CDs, the music is spread to the whole world in no time. You have to consider the fact that before a novel can be published in another country, it must first be popular in its own country. Then a publishing firm in another country must buy it and have it translated. Thus a year or more might easily pass by before a book's message is spread to a larger market. A CD on the other hand is automatically released in all countries at once, because record companies are multinational, and because the product doesn't take any adjustment to the local market, such as translation or the like.
Also, it doesn't take a hard, concentrated effort or very long time to profit spiritually from a CD, even though it may be as complex as a book. The message slips down more easily when it's set to music.
The problem is that many cultural critics, etc., have questioned rock's artistic and philosophical qualities and have been determined to make young people read more books again, as if reading in itself is a good thing. Not that I want to say anything bad about reading, but in the following lines I will show how rock music and its lyrics also have a lot to offer on both an emotional and intellectual level.
2. From Little Richard to Bob Dylan
Rock music was almost ten years old before the lyrics really started to get any weight and real contents. All the way back to the beginning the lyrics merely had one purpose: sounding cool. Based on that philosophy, lyrics like "a-bop-bop-aloo-bop-a-bop-bam-boom" from Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" or "I'm in love, huh, I'm all shook up" from Elvis' "All Shook Up" were created. These lines contained no depth or meaning of any kind. The Beatles' first albums didn't give any promise of what the future would bring from their hands either. Beatles historians may come up with all their psychological analysis of even early Beatles lyrics, but there really isn't much to derive in the lyrics to a song like "She Loves You". Which doesn't make it a bad song of the simple reason that the purpose was entirely different. The purpose was to make happy, festive music that should exclude the older generations and help create the young people's own universe. Not to make great art.
It took a folk singer to really change that picture. When Bob Dylan in 1965 plugged his guitar to the amplifier and thus was transformed from a folk singer into a rock singer, rock suddenly had a whole new dimension of meaning and relevans which it has kept ever since. Of course, even after Dylan's change there have been made a lot of meaningless rock music, either because it simply is bad or because the purpose has been different. Often that kind of music is dismissed as "pop" or "disco" whereas the word "rock" today indicates something more meaningful.
3. Bruce Springsteen
Like many artists in the start of the Seventies, Bruce Springsteen was categorized as "the new Dylan". The comparason was natural at the time. Springsteen was very influenced by Dylan, both with his wordy lyrics and his folk-oriented music. As Springsteen developed his own style, the similarities were reduced to that of the lyrics being the essence. Musically Springsteen was far harder in his expression, just as he became known for a very physical stage show - contrary to Dylan who's reluctant to move away from the microphone. Lyrically Springsteen as early as by the end of the Seventies went to the opposite extreme of where he'd started out, by developing a very stripped-down style, almost Hemingwayish, where, with simple means, he creates a rare depth and genuiness with his gallery of characters and his settings.
For Springsteen's fans on LuckyTown the lyrics are a big part of the fascination. Springsteen has with all his albums barring one included the lyrics, and all the respondents take it almost for granted to read them. As Adam says: "I originally thought that I particularly read the lyrics to the earlier records where often I often find myself asking, 'What is it he's saying?' But I realized I actually check out the lyrics for every song on every album until I'm familiar with them - including everything from the 'deep' songs like 'The River' to frat rockers like 'Cadillac Ranch'."
However, various American studies have indicated that Springsteen fans may be an exception in giving the lyrics so much weight. Maybe the studies are somewhat outdated, but one of them showed that only the fewest of the respondents were able to tell the message of the protest song "Eve of Destruction", even after several listenings, and it was mostly considered to be good entertainment.
4. Songs - not poetry
Before we delve into the lyrics it must be specified that what we're dealing with is music; not poems or prose or anything else. That usually makes a big difference. Firstly, songs have the advantage over written words that they can control the way we perceive the words. You can read a written text in many ways which may not have much to do with the way the writer meant it, but if you set music to words, the words get a new dimension that helps us understand them.
The quality of the lyrics may not even be very important. As Torben Bille says in his book "Music and poetry", a good singer can "sing from the phone book and still give us goose bumps". And it's true that most rock lyrics do hold up only because of the music. If you read them without listening to the music, they can seem almost embarrassing. Take this sequence from Bruce Springsteen's song "I Wish I Were Blind":
I love to see the cottonwood blossom in the early spring
I love to see the message of love that the bluebird brings
But when I see you walkin' with him down along the strand
I wish I were blind when I see you with your man
Not exactly great poetry, but on record the words are being sung with a fervor and conviction that you almost feel bad about having doubted the sincerity. The orchestration of course also plays a role. The weeping guitar makes the rather corny lyrics about unrequited love appear as pearls. In other cases a pounding drum can help thrusting any simplified political message into people's minds. In defense of rock lyrics' relative naivete it must be emphasized that they have to conform to certain rules that don't apply for poetry. First of all, they work best if they rhyme, and secondly they must fit with the melody. That may sometimes lead to some rather odd choices of words, but that's what should be made up for by the music.
Ironically many on LuckyTown feel that you can actually read Springsteen's lyrics without listening to the music. As Linda says: "Bruce is a poet, a storyteller, a musician. His words stand beautifully, with or without music. Some songs are of course more 'narrative' than others, where 'Ramrod' probably says more to the beat!"
Most, however, say that while the words can be viewed exclusively, the music makes a big difference. Adam speaks of the importance of different musical arrangements: "The music adds an extra dimension that can change the meaning of the words dramatically. The released version of 'Thunder Road' is a song about hope. The alternate version with its slow, haunting drone becomes a dirge. The released version is defiant, joyous and young. It says 'We're pulling out of here to win' and means it. This alternate version says the same thing, with almost the exact same words, but it's ironic, cynical and beaten down by life. The speaker knows he's already lost and that nothing he does can change that. The words are the same, but the sound - the music - makes all the difference."
5. Conveying feelings
In my opinion one of art's most important jobs is to convey feelings. To create words, pictures, music or whatever it may be, so that they not only ignite feelings, but also in some way put them in perspective and through that show us something about ourselves and human nature in general. Most rock lyrics are about feelings in some form or the other. Traditionally there are many lyrics which only deal with having fun and dancing and making love, but then their function is usually only to be the filling in a piece of dance music. More ambitious lyrics can easily express and ignite happiness, but it usually happens on a dark background and with a certain complexity.
An illustration of this is Bruce Springsteen's album Lucky Town from 1992. Lyrically it is Springsteen's most optimistic and cheerful work to date. It's about obtaining happiness through love and children, and by first listen the giddiness almost becomes too much. But at the same time the lyrics circle around a dark past with isolation and despair. As in the song "Living Proof" where rain and drought are used as symbols of love and loneliness respectively:
It's been a long, long drought baby
Tonight the rain's pouring down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God's mercy
I found living proof
In the middle of the happiness the same song expresses a lurking fear of losing love and return to the "desert":
Now all that's sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
of this boy sleepin' in our bed
Generally, however, it is rare that good rock lyrics are based in content with a given situation. Often it's the pain, as in so much other art, which is the mainstay of rock poetry. This is emphasized by the fact that Danish lyrics in the Eighties were hugely criticized for being too nice. They were too one-dimensional in their tribute to love and their lack of complexity.
In Springsteen's case too the lyrics have mostly described painful feelings such as loneliness, longing, desperation, fear and insecurity. Sometimes all of those things at once. As in the classic "Born to Run" from 1975:
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we're young
In these lines the desperation is obvious. The narrator feels caught in a trap which means a kind of emotional suicide if he doesn't get out. A little later the insecurity, fear and loneliness are expressed:
Walk with me out on the wire
'Cause baby I'm just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta know how it feels
I wanna know if love is wild, I wanna know if love is real
The narrator seeks someone to accompany him to relieve the loneliness and the fear, and at the same time remove his insecurity to love. At the very end, the longing enters the picture:
Someday girl, I don't know when
We're gonna get to that place where we really wanna go
And we'll walk in the sun
But till then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run
In the best romantic tradition he yearns for a place to settle down. We don't know where that place is. Perhaps because he doesn't know it himself. The only thing we are told is that until he finds the place he has to be moving on. The ironic thing is that even though the lyrics show all this pain, the song as a whole leaves an impression of triumph. The music contains a lot of hope, will and energy, which is exactly one of the forces of rock music. It can express all the negative feelings people contain, but at the same time it gives the solution, or at least the inspiration, to conquer them.
This is probably also why, when you ask the fans on LuckyTown about what feelings the music evokes, a typcial answer is happiness. Chris says: "It depends on the song or the type of song I'm listening to. I would be most prone to say that [Springsteen's music] in general is a mood booster. It can exaggerate a good mood or be a 'pick me up' from a down mood. I guess in that respect there is a strong feeling of happiness, probably from a basic sense of enjoyment that is invoked in Springsteen's music."
Paul touches the paradox with the dark lyrics and the optimism they still manage to create: "Springsteen's music evokes very complicated emotions. A lot depends on the characters he's trying to evoke. Overall his music is about disillusionment, and the strongest emotions swirl around that. Disillusionment might seem very bleak, but at its core is idealism and determination, mixed with sensitivity and honesty. So at the core is an undying sense of hope."
The most common answer to the above-mentioned question, however, suggests that the music evokes all kinds of feelings. "Are you kidding?!" says Jennifer. "Joy, sadness, disappointment, ecstacy, love, melancholy, freedom? everything!"
And Linda: "Emotions span the entire range - from tears of sadness to pure joy. I cried the first time I heard 'Secret Garden' because I felt Bruce had touched a secret place in the female psyche so powerfully. And I have been known to dance exhuberantly around the house to Badlands' as well."
Kalle describes among other things how the music can put the feelings in perspective: "[Springsteen's music] evokes all the basic human emotions. It gives me the feelings of longing, missing, happiness, bitterness, and just about every emotion there is. It's one of the best things about his songs: I can always find the things I'm looking for in them. They can describe my feelings. Sometimes I need to 'realize' my own feelings and opinions, and Bruce's songs can put words to them. It helps to get over negative feelings, just to realize them and have someone singing them for you."
6. Rock as opinion-former
In the article "Rock music has become clean" Dan Turell argues that rock music is anything but an opinion-former. He says rock first and foremost is physical and that John Lennon might as well have sung "Go to hell" instead of "Give peace a chance". In the following I will show that rock fans aren't necessarily the kind of empty-headed individuals who only want to have fun and dance.
I have already touched on how art is able to convey feelings. Another thing art does when it's best is to influence our senses to such an extend that it makes a difference on our way to look at the world. A good book, a movie or a piece of music can have influence on everything from our political opinions to our general outlook. Rock music can, if it wants to and the audience wants to, be an important opinion-former. And I'm not talking about the left-wing bands of the Seventies such as R?de Mor or Jomfru Ane Band [two Danish socialist bands] who had a very explicit political message. That kind of music mostly works to confirm certain opinions people already have and it is, in my view, too simplistic to be called art. Art doesn't exist until the listeners feel that they form their own opinions from the music's description of human emotions and life in general. In other words, music shouldn't tell us what to think, but only put forward some premises that you can base your own conclusions on. Music can of course have an attitude and steer us in a certain direction - as long as it's relatively implicit.
As an illustration of the difference between the two ways of writing songs let's look at two quotes. The first one is from the song "Rebild '76" by Jomfru Ane Band from 1976, and the other one is the well-known, but often misunderstood "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen. Both of them are about the Vietnam War, among other things, but the approach is completely different.
Greetings from someone who couldn't make it themselves
The Indians and Vietcong and the others you killed
Because it was USA's birthday that day, and USA's got blood on her flag
It was the kind of greeting they didn't like
But they were prepared, there was lots of police
Someone who brought greetings from Cambodia was quickly put to silence
With angry strokes from a club
And here is the quote from "Born in the USA":
I had a brother at Khe San, fighting off the Vietcong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Both songs put up a critical attitude to the American engagement in Vietnam, but whereas Jomfru Ane Band says things exactly the way they want the listener to perceive them, Springsteen puts things more in perspective. With one line, "They're still there, he's all gone" he expresses the total meaninglesness of the war. The narrator's brother was killed in Vietnam to absolutely no avail. That's the conclusion we get to draw ourselves, whereas in the first example we're told exactly what to think. Jomfru Ane Band has undoubtedly had great success with their songs among like-minded, but they probably haven't convinced anyone else. Springsteen's song, on the other hand, makes people think for themselves by using the "show - don't tell" technique.
In his book "The Politics of Rock", John Orman questions rock's influence on the listeners' political attitude. First of all, researchs have shown that there isn't any obvious connection between the music people listen to and their political views. Even by the end of the Sixties, there was only a slight tendency that rock fans were more left-wing than others. Secondly, Orman thinks that rock in itself, at least up till 1984 when the book was written, isn't that political. When you exclude the obvious names such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and the Clash, only few artists and bands have dealt with politics. The problem with this argument is that a song can be political without referring directly to political issues. There are values hidden in any lyric, values which may not in themselves be political, but which still draw the listener in a certain direction. A song about having fun can indirectly be a protest against a stiff and cold society and thereby draw in an anti-conservative direction.
Without further questioning Orman's conclusions, my own investigation indicates that at least Bruce Springsteen has made a difference and influenced some fans' way of thinking. And it's not only in the political area, but with a lot of life's essential questions. Here is Kalle's comment: "[Bruce Springsteen has influenced my attitude to politics] more than anything else. I started to listen to Bruce when I was around 14 years old, and after listening to him a while, I started to become conscious and critical to the things that surround me. [In regard to love] Bruce has matured my perception. With his music I have learned to understand my own actions better. I have also started to appreciate true love when I have found out that it isn't always black and white, that things aren't always as clear as you think."
Todd has always been influenced by Springsteen's lyrics: "Bruce has an ability to show us a piece of other people's lives. I find it difficult to understand how anyone can listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad without feeling affected by the stories he tells. [?] If the listener comes away with a little more understanding than he/she had before that's an important change."Jennifer talks about Bruce's influence on a little more concrete level: "At a particular time of my life I was re-evaluating my marriage. Bruce's song 'If I Should Fall Behind' reminded me of what marriage was about."
Finally, Linda sums up by expressing what many feel: "I would not hesitate to say that Bruce's music is one of the most important influences and inspirations of my life."
7. Rock's ideology and message
In order to have the above-mentioned influence on our lives, rock must of course have something to say and be about something we can relate to. In his book "Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm", James Harris analyzes rock lyrics from particularly the Sixties and has found a number of subject categories they can be fit into. Since the Sixties was the period in which the most important lyrical developments happened in rock music, I think these categories still apply to later times, which the incorporated Bruce Springsteen examples should illustrate.
The all-important part of rock music is, according to Harris, about alienation. I have already mentioned the concept in connection with idolizing, but without touching on the causes for alienation. It is those that rock music has been able to express, Harris thinks, just as the consequences are described.
Alienation exists on many levels. As early as in the relationship between child and parents things happen that influence the child's self-concept. Perhaps it's wrong to mention children in this connection. Rock deals particularly with the relationship between adolescents and their parents and the deceit and lack of understanding young people suffer. Bruce Springsteen, for example, for many years wrote one song after another about his father with whom he had a tempestuous relationship. "Adam Raised a Cain", "My Father's House", "Walk Like a Man" and "Independence Day" are all deeply personal songs where this painful relationship is analyzed. Like in "My Father's House" where the son, in vain, has went to see his father in order to make peace with the past:
My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling so cold and alone
Shining 'cross this dark highway
Where our sins lie unatoned
The son in this song must acknowledge that the past cannot be changed and that the sins he and his father committed against each other can no longer be expiated.
A more common subject in rock is the alienation between man and woman. In all the cases where love isn't the way it should be, alienation can be lurking, but according to Harris, rock deals mostly with the fear of ending up in a monotonous, boring relationship where love is no longer thriving - and the realization when this has happened. Bruce Springsteen has written a whole album on this subject, about what happens when the romantic dreams no longer work. It's called Tunnel of Love, and the song "Brilliant Disguise" is the essence of the alienation love can cause:
Now you play the loving woman, I'll play the faithful man
But just don't look too close into the palm of my hand
We stood at the altar, the gypsy swore our future was right
But come the wee-wee hours, well maybe baby the gypsy lied
So when you look at me, you better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby or just a brilliant disguise
The song shows how a relationship can be built on self-deception and masks and how such a relationship automatically reveals itself. It ends with the line "God have mercy on the man who doubts what he's sure of".
Alienation also exists on a bigger level. Often it is things in the society that causes it. A lot of Danish rock in the Eighties was dealing with this phenonomen, for example how technology would turn us into robots with no identity in a cold society. But also in modern times, this subject plays a big part in rock lyrics, whether it's commercials and TV, capitlism og politicians who get the blame. Bruce Springsteen has dealt a lot with this subject. On his album Darkness on the Edge of Town from 1978, Springsteen constantly refers to "they", which is just a nameless, faceless power which influences our lives and which holds us in a futureless monotony. For example in the song "Something in the Night":
You're born with nothing
And better off that way
Soon as you've got something
They send someone to try and take it away
And the song ends with the following lines:
They caught us at the state line
And burned our cars in one last fight
And left us running burned and blind
Chasing something in the night
The main characters are trying to get away, but "they" don't permit it. It is clearly an uneven battle. "They" must be a colossal power. Whether you call it "society" or something else is up to the listener.
7.2 Friendship and love
Almost like a weapon against alienation rock music has through the years also been a defender of friendship and love. This is the second big category of songs Harris has created. Those which deal with the real, unconditional solidarity between people that goes beyond the physical relationship and which is the only way to a better, more meaningful life. And vise versa, many of the songs are about the dangers of isolation and turning your back on love.
Bruce Springsteen has, if anything, written about these subjects. Time and again the human contact is worshipped as the only way to identity and meaning. Friendship against all odds, friendship despite the surrounding world, love which no one can escape, love as salvation. All these are central issues, not just with Springsteen, but in large parts of rock.
The examples from Springsteen's catalogue are of course numerous and they speak for themselves:
One soft infested summer, me and Terry became friends
Trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in
Now we went walking in the rain
Talking about the pain that from the world we hid
There ain't nobody, nowhere, nohow gonna ever understand me
the way you did
Baby in a world without pity
Do you think what I'm asking's too much
I just want to feel you in my arms
And share a little of that human touch
If you think your heart is stone
And that you're rough enough to whip this world alone
Alone buddy there ain't no peace of mind
That's why I'll keep searching till I find my special one
Two hearts are better than one
You could in some right call many of this kind of songs na?ve, but they convince you thanks to the passion they are sung with and the music that pounds the message into you.
7.3 Other themes
Songs about alienation and songs about friendship and love take up far the most part of rock, but James Harris also pulls out other themes. For example, many songs are simply about having fun. Not in the same way as the silly lyrics of the Fifties or lyrics about dancing. In the Sixties a whole philosophy developed on living in the present and get as much out of every single moment as possible, whether this included the consumption of drugs or free sex. Rock lyrics took part in creating this philosopy where every day should be lived as if it were the last. Even though this phenonomen to a large degree is connected to the Sixties and the hippie- movement, it will always have a conspicious place in rock.
The last subject I will touch on is "the individual human being's relationship to the world around him". In many rock songs the individual is often opposing society. It's about breaking out, away from the norms and run away, before society swallows you and makes you a part of itself. Again, a song like Springsteen's "Born to Run" a classic example. The subject overlaps that of alienation, which is why I won't discuss it further here.
7.4 It's about life
One thing is what an intellectual book on rock lyrics has to say about the themes in rock, but it's an entirely different matter if you ask how the fans themselves perceive, in this case, Bruce Springsteen's lyrics and his message.
A typical answer is that the lyrics are, in short, about life. Linda expresses it like this: "Bruce's music is about the human emotions, raw and tender at the same time. He's able to paint pictures with his songs. Bruce to me sings about LIFE, pure and simple. Underneath every story I feel like Bruce wants people to rise above as best as possible. "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive ["Badlands", 1978]. That line comes to me every single day."
M thinks that the overall message is hope and despair: "In his earlier songs I heard a lot more hope; that we can rise above the ills that befall us. But now I hear more despair. Often he seems to be saying life has turned sour and there's nothing you can do about it. Often there is a mix of both hope and despair. Sometimes the characters overcome the despair, other times they get caught up in it, and sometimes they just keep hoping and trying."
Kalle sees a message of brotherly love in Springsteen's lyrics: "I think his message is that you should appreciate your fellow human beings, their opinions. It's also to help your fellow human beings and not be aggressive toward anyone. You have to keep on fighting and go your own ways. That way you become able to help others as well. Bruce's songs also say that things often has a bigger meaning and that there is something great in many ordinary things and that they are also important. Family, friends, love. Hope is one of the central words in Springsteen's music. There is both hope and optimism in life."
Closely connected to the question of message and themes you'll find the question of to what degree you can identify with the songs. In short, if the listener feels that the songs are about oneself. Evangelos from Greece thinks that's the essence of Springsteen's music and art: "To identify with the characters of a song and become influenced, that's actually what art in general is about. The definition of the greek tragedy is that it's an imitation of an aspect of life which is magnified, and through the interaction with it, the audience is morally upgraded."Paul from Holland thinks he, to a certain degree, identifies with Springsteen's characters: "There are many songs about me. It started with 'Dancing in the Dark'. I was 13-14 years old, I think. I had never listened to pop music before, because I didn't understand it (it wasn't in Dutch). But some day I heard 'Dancing in the Dark' and that was about me trying to find out who I was."
Bradley has another concrete example: "What fascinates me about Bruce is his ability to sum up a world of thoughts and feelings in one line. I listen to it and say? 'wow!!' Here is a quote from his new album which shook me. It's from the song 'Dry Lightning'. This song is about love, or almost love. Bruce says it's about missing. I had a relationship to a girl for about two years, and we just couldn't go on, and I didn't know what was happening. I listened to this song and then it hit me. It's so simple, but I could never find the words to express it myself."
One word which is repeated in the description of Springsteen's lyrics is that they are universal. They are about everybody. Jens from Denmark talks about this, among others: "It's a matter of course that we with a safe Danish background can't identify with the people in The Ghost of Tom Joad. On the other hand, the lyrics on for example Tunnel of Love and Lucky Town are universal. You don't have to have been raised in either New Jersey or California in order to think that it fits on yourself in various periods of your life."
Kalle get the final word: "Yes, the songs are about me and everybody else. That's how they get their meaning and value. It's important that they are realistic, because then it's easier to believe in the answers they give me."