Saturday, December 5, 2009

Separation of Music and State- The What, The Why, and The Way

Before this even starts, I want to apologize to all the religious people I'm about to offend.

The nature of religion is to explain and rationalize the improbable nature of the universe and palliate the conflict between self and this nature. Certain facets of humanity are consistently recognized as the root of said conflict. Music, on the same note, is an individual's attempt to reconcile the self with reality, and has followers that use lyrics to determine moral codes. Given their similar functions and mollifying effects, as well as the rights outlined in the First Amendment, music ought to be exempt from censorship the same way religion is in the United States.

Special Thanks to Richard Libowitz

The Bible, The Daodejing, and the Bhagadvad-Gita all express a code of ethics in the form of a religion. The books attempt to rationalize the improbable nature of the world. They identify key conflicts between the self and the rest of the world.

The self comes to realize the need to have concern for the rest of the world. When we realize the world does not revolve around us, we choose to reject reality because it is not as we perceived it to be.

Krishna says that “Knowing the self beyond understanding sustain the self with the self.” While understanding the self helps us find who we are and what our place is in the world but does this activity just reaffirm one's beliefs and one's self image?

We acknowledge the idea that we sin, desire, and create evil in the world. However, these realizations calls into question our greatest deity, our self-conception. By understanding that our perceptions are inevitably fallible given our relationship with the rest of the world, we recognize that we fall victim to our own short-sightedness. We read ideas with prejudices that only see the world the way we have been taught or have taught ourselves. In this way, individual dogmas gain power and notoriety, while those who refuse them become ignorant sinners or the enemy. Whether blaming the world's problems on original sin, economic relationship, the Freudian ego, bad karma, or individual desires, all schools of thought consistently recognize similar 'evils' in civilization and attempt to rationalize them and change the behavior.

With all the truth in the Bhagadvad-Gita, it still leaves possibilities for misinterpretation when it commands the reader to “Great warrior, kill the enemy menacing you in the form of desire.” If one takes these messages to be a call to kill upon others, it can mean the mutual destruction of life across the world. If we kill the enemy in the form of desire within ourselves, whether you call it original sin, self-interest, or social Darwinism, and accept our duty to not delude ourselves or others, then we can become great warriors championing our ability to control the self.
Those that believe in God ask us to submit to the idea that the search for knowledge begins with accepting that we know nothing about right and wrong. This is similar to Socrates' belief that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” However, rather than claiming to give into our own ignorance, religion argues that we should begin our quest to attempt to eliminate our ignorance by accepting God's perspective of the world. In this way, the 10 Commandments attempts to provide definitions for right and wrong. It asks us to resist our desires because of the effects our desires have on others. The Ten Commandments ask us to curb our desires, telling us not to steal, lie, murder, or covet each others belongings or lovers. The Bible asks us to accepting no God other than God and to never take His name in vain. However, should we interpret this literally as a need to commit ourselves to God necessarily or should we simply strive to achieve what loving God represents, loving each other and treating each other with the respect we would give a deity?

No matter which argument you accept, our concern for our fellow people manifests itself through these rules. At the time that The Bible was written, these rules represented problems that individuals' observed in the real world. The family feuds in the Old Testament show that when left to our own original desires, we fight with even those who we are close to over our desires. The dilemma of killing our own family arises in The Bhagadvad-Gita as well. However, does this dilemma mean that we should kill our families or does it mean that we should simply recognize the killing of the family as a metaphor for killing the selfish desires that make us attached to our families? The Daodejing says that we should “always eliminate desires in order to observe its mysteries,” suggesting that our desires cause us to be deluded into doing wrong unto others.

However, our interpretation of reality is defined by the cultural lens through which we perceive it. Some argue that fear of God's omniscience begins man's pursuit of knowledge, but perhaps it is our knowledge of the way the world works that makes us fear that God's plan is either nonexistent, indefinable, or not what we hoped it would be. In the texts, God, The Way, or Lord Krishna are enigmas. They are objects for individuals to possess as a part of themselves; a representation of the good and evil within society.

A New Hope Is Hopeless: How did you understand the message of this poster in my room? Did you read it cynically as a negation of Obama's campaign, or an optimistic way of finding hope in the hopeless situation we find in the state of world affairs? Did you read it based upon your own prejudices? Will I get sued by Mad Magazine, Barack Obama, Rolling Stone, Shepard Fairey and others for using their work or have I created my own creation?

The possessive nature of our conception of god mirrors the possessive nature of our own egos.

<a href="">Fuck Hard, Speak Easy by The Speak Easy</a>

Laozi explains that the mystery of life is that it is difficult to define what is right and wrong because of the limitations of words and the ideas onto which we grasp. The Daodejing says we must “always have desires in order observe its manifestations” but recognizes that “when good tries to be good, it is no good.” While we may objectively see the same rules that govern the universe, we can subjectively justify our own lifestyle by our own interpretation of the rules. A god's plan presents a direct opposition to our natural desires of self-indulgence, pride, and self-preservation. The Daodejing says that because “note and rhythm harmonize with each other... sages abide in the business of action... without words” and therefore we must “produce without possessing” and “act with no expectation of reward.” It presents a revelation asking us to reject our own status as a self-anointed prophet and to abandon our lives of self profit. It asks us that we accept in suppressing our self towards the benefit of the group, whether you agree or disagree.
<a href="">J5 Jive by The Speak Easy</a>

Like religion, music provides a way of explaining the rational and the irrational. Lyrics are the rational. Verses serve as scriptures outlining a philosophy. Music is the irrational, an illusion meant to grasp the attention of the listener. Through limiting the means for communication through music, we feel as though we are able to express emotion rather than thought. Music is a similar attempt to rationalize reality like a religion with the rhythm, harmony, and melody of music providing the "faith" in the performer. (Editors note: I know this probably the most offensive comparison to any religious person but understand that I'm not trying to knock on your beliefs, I just want to show how my beliefs recognize a lot of what your beliefs recognize and that we should not let our mechanisms of faith divide us apart.)

Fortune magazine declared Bob Marley the richest dead celebrity ever. Marley is a virtual deity, having been branded on everything from posters and t-shirts to incense sticks. Does this make Marley a sellout even though his music brought prosperity to others around the world through the universal metaphor of "Trenchtown rock," which united people around a common struggle?

In the chapter "Music" of The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom argues that music has replaced the traditional values of society in Western universities. He asserts that music “is the youth culture.” He says for students there is “now no other countervailing nourishment for the spirit.”

Music's ability to provide “nourishment for the spirit” might explain why groups like Parents Music Resource Center were so concerned about musicians corrupting youth culture. The PMRC held hearings asking rock musicians why their lyrics had corrupted their children with obscenity. At time, Frank Zappa argued against any form of censorship, saying “here's no words that need to be suppressed, it is just about words.”

When Washington Times columnist John Lofton reminds him that “words connote ideas, Mr. Zappa” and asks whether Zappa would endorse songs that portray incest, Zappa retorts, “Would you ban the mention of incestuous activities? Then why don't you take a look at the Bible and see what's in there? What happens after Sodom and Gomorrah?”

Even under conditions of suppression, music serves as an expression of appreciation for the world's wonders while also serving as an outlet for the cathartic release from its pains. Alan Lomax explains in “Song and Social Structure,” that music reflects the conditions of the society from which it came:

Music-making is one of the most strictly patterned forms of human behavior. Its modes of communication are so limited that even a casual listener can quickly distinguish the best performers and identify the pieces in an idiom with whose technique and content he has little acquaintance... No one knows anything about melody. If melody, a possession of all human beings everywhere and at every stage of development, is a mystery, what of rhythm, harmony, and the superstructures erected with these three magic tools?

Music ultimately becomes a reflection of the conditions in which the individual creates it. Just like community standards, good music is difficult to define yet quantifiable to the individual perspective. All music is based around objective rules of relationships between notes, but the same notes can be used to convey very different ideas. Despite the existence of these basic parameters in music, there is no way to judge a musical piece as “good,” especially since some of the greatest music breaks these exact parameters.

Allan Bloom argues that rock music is as “empty and false” as all other choices in society. He exemplifies how music satisfies the ego and sensual desires without any respect for the ideas that came before it.

Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
He says “liberal education is meant to show them” that “the choice is not between quick fixes and dull calculation” but as long as consumers of music continue to listen to themselves they will find themselves “deaf” to what “great tradition has to say.”

However what Bloom labels as self indulgence, musicians argue that they are simply asserting their basic rights as human beings.

Without guidance, we can recognize some patterns within music naturally but we learn very quickly that if we want to master making music for ourselves, we have to learn from those who made music before us. In this way, music has always built upon the ideas from the past.

There can be miscommunication in interpreting others' music just like interpreting a religion. When George Harrison first tried to pick up a sitar to play on “Norwegian Wood,” Ravi Shankar objected to the misinterpretation of his religious music. He felt Western listeners were misinterpreting his religion for the sake of fulfilling their egos and desires. On the album An Introduction to Indian Music, he warned Western listeners about their preconceptions of how his music should sound like the improvisation of jazz. Ragas are built upon strict musical ideas that take a discipline to develop rather than creating artificially through the alter mindfulness of his hippie Western audience. Shankar did not reject the Beatles for their misinterpretation though. The Beatles eventually came to India to study meditation with the Mahirisi Guru. He later became good friends with George Harrison, organizing the benefit concert for Bangladesh in 1971 for Pakistani refugees. Instead of fighting Harrison, Shankar used music to teach Harrison his ideals and values. Harrison and Shankar's friendship after a initial misinterpretation of culture served to help Harrison understand himself by understanding Shankar's culture.

Inevitably, music and religion can cause delusion from others through flattery and delusion of self through ego but they can equally work for the general welfare by creating communities with an open and relaxed mindset. We live in a time period where the needs of our society combined with our ability to connect through technology gives individuals the ability to either create or destroy much easier through the distribution of information. Beatlemania began at a time when technology was changing the music industry and society. They capitalized on the changing perspectives of their time and represent the great things musicians can do in the world but they also represent the fallibility of even the highest ideals of success.

Bloom argues “premature ecstasy” in rock music has an effect on students “like the drugs with which it is allied.” He complains that rock music artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors” falsely giving individuals the feeling of “victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth.”

While we may acknowledge that music practice requires a diligence like a religion, there's not necessarily a unified method. Individuals must be free to take their own path towards achieving their musical and moral objective. Bloom argues that dedication to rock's self indulgent practices enables musicians and their audiences to feel these successes “without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties” because “anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits.”

Bloom fails to see this "equal right to enjoyment" as a freeing ideal, it leads each individual to assert his or her identity as a musician and music listener. Technology has changed the reality for the modern musician enabling us to indulge in our desires without honoring musicians the same way we used to do. Our attachment to our musicianship causes a conflict between our desire to express ourselves and the necessity of balancing with the community standard. The digital era of information has caused music to lose its' traditional barriers, making it harder for people to control who owns what and what music is right or wrong.

Just like religions, music is a variety of ideologies that attempt to explain reality. When the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States proclaims that we cannot prohibit “the free exercise of religion," how can we judge what music is right and wrong? If music is simply a reflection of reality, who can claim to own the rights to a melody? How can we control the messages of music when we do not control religions, given that the only difference seems to be “words?”

Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empiire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. -W.E.B. DuBois