By HENRY STALEY
To make the argument that the intellectual quality of popular song lyrics is plummeting, I could easily use this space to reprint any lyric by Rick Ross or Miley Cyrus. However, I’d like to make a positive point: that the rock music of yesteryear was rich with references to philosophy and literature. Of course, I understand that references do not equal depth and that literary references can still be found in the music of Modest Mouse, Vampire Weekend and Radiohead. But below I seek to show the degree to which the memorable pop musicians of the ’60s and ’70s were engaged in conversations with former thinkers or writers. I organize these conversations by thinker or movement. If you like lyrics that are strong enough to be read as text and enjoy references to history’s most influential thinkers, look to the music from the Age of Aquarius and become a declinist like me. Besides, declinism is on the rise.
Nietzsche — the ultimate declinist (“history is the story of the degeneration of man”) — has perhaps received the most noteworthy shout-outs in rock history. The Doors’ Jim Morrison once told a report that, in order to understand “where he’s at right now” psychologically, one must read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Above any of his contemporaries, Morrison was most truthful to Nietzsche’s suggestion to harness Dionysian energy. He was faithful to his books too: His father remembered that Morrison was offered a high school graduation gift and chose the complete volumes of Nietzsche over a car. Morrison would go on to write an impromptu ballad “Ode to Nietzsche,” attempt to make a film about the horse that kicked Nietzsche in the head and bring goats on stage to mimic Dionysus, Nietzsche’s chosen God. One could argue that Morrison lived according to Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence — which roughly suggests that a person should live his or her life so freely that he or she would choose to live it over and over again. Of course, Morrison lived so freely that he died at 27, giving leverage to Nietzsche’s quote, “The favorites of the gods die young.”
Around the time Morrison died, however, the most popular song in the United Kingdom was David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” a song that describes the coming of a beautiful, superior race to wash away the lowly, crude humans — “homo sapiens have outgrown their use.” According to Bowie, these lyrics, as well as those of his “Quicksand,” were inspired by Nietzsche’s ideas regarding the arrival of the Overman, or Übermensch, who redeems man by disobeying man’s slavish adherence to morality. His lyrics reflect the Nietzschean influence less than Morrison or Bowie’s, but John Lennon reportedly read On the Genealogy of Morals while on LSD. Lennon’s “Imagine,” however, clearly reflects the idea that nihilism will pave the way to freedom. “Imagine there’s no heaven / Imagine all the people / Living for today.” If we negated all values, as Nietzsche and Lennon’s nihilism posits, imagine how free we would be.
Further testimony to Bowie’s intellect is provided by Brain Picking’s “David Bowie’s 75 Must-Read Books.”
Karl Marx’s influence on music is, perhaps, less exciting than Nietzsche’s and harder to trace. One band, however, won’t let you forget that they are Marxists. This band is the Leeds-based, post-punk group Gang of Four. Aside from their name’s reference to the top four Chinese Communist Party officials under Mao, Gang of Four’s stated purpose was to penetrate the airwaves with reminders of the omnipresence of capitalist consciousness. This goal reconciles the contradiction between the band’s production of commercial entertainment and Marxist philosophy and is influenced by the thinking of the Marxist Critical Theorists, who sought to explain the degree to which capitalism has gripped the consciousness of the modern individual. Their song, “Natural’s Not in It,” references Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive desublimation, which roughly elaborates the idea that ‘capitalism uses sex to sell.” Further, the song pays homage to Marx’s notion of the fetish character of the commodity. Marx’s conversation on alienation is echoed in “At Home He’s A Tourist.” Other songs, such as “Ether” and “To Hell With Poverty,” deal with issues of exploitation and inequality. Post-punk also featured references to the sometimes-Marxist Albert Camus with the Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” a brief retelling of Camus’ “The Stranger.” Morrison was known to be inspired by Camus’ “The Rebel” and can be heard retelling Camus’ notion of “Metaphysical Rebellion” in interviews.
Beyond philosophy, 19th century poetry finds its successors in 20th century rock music. Perhaps it was the idealistic, nature-loving English Romantics and the brash, rebellious French Symbolists who paved the way for the musical icons of the ’60s. Certainly, they paved the way for the ’60s’ first major musical icon, Bob Dylan, who counted Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Woody Guthrie as his primary influences. Dylan was often elusive about his inspirations — he once claimed that the intimate, autobiographical “Blood on the Tracks” was entirely based on Chekhov’s short stories — but his lyrics clearly outline his heroes. Hear him reference Verlaine and Rimbaud in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (“Situations have ended sad / Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud”) and Pound and Eliot in “Desolation Row” (“And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them”). In the later ’60s, Morrison (again) would call himself “Rimbaud in a leather jacket.” The Doors, in fact, named themselves after a quote from English Romantic William Blake — “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it truly is: Infinite.” — and reference his poetry in their song “Journey to the End of the Night” (“Some are born to sweet delight / Some are born to the endless night”), based on the book of the same title by French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine. To see where poetry — past and present — and rock music truly collide, listen to The Clash’s “Ghetto Defendant,” in which Allen Ginsberg reads a passage about Arthur Rimbaud and French Rebellion to the sound of a raga beat and Joe Strummer’s guitar.