Some of the most influential and idealistic songwriters, like John Lennon, have claimed that music can change the world. Other musicians, like Bono, have used their fame to effect political change. On the other hand, much of the popular music today self-orientated and superficial. Even still, this is entertainment; an example of music as not-so-much saving the world, but making it a less shitty place to be.
There’s something to that, right? If Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” makes your teenage daughter ignore the latest gossip, or blow off some steam dancing in her bedroom, then good!
That being said, if all of the popular musicians today — our mainstream culture’s primary source of artistry — relate only melodrama and superficiality, then the much needed role of the artist as a compensatory force, against the status-quo, is not functioning.
The Traces of Counterculture
Let me break that down: Historically, art was created in order to express the deeper contents of our psyche’s, that couldn’t be understood otherwise. In ancient cultures, sculpture, painting, song and dance sprang up spontaneously and has continued to do so. Artists open themselves up to the muse of inspiration, who has agendas beyond any individual’s ego.
A great example of this is Goethe’s "Faust", written in the early 1800s. His fictional writing was based on a growing legend at the time, of a strange old alchemist, who in an exchange with Satan, begins to discover the natural, instinctual side of life.
This opposed the predominant, highly restrictive form of Christianity dominant in Goethe’s European culture. The movement towards secularization (rejection of religion) and acceptance of sexual drives has indeed come to pass. Furthermore, many people gravitated towards this Faust legend and it has proliferated into modern times.
The Legends of Blues and Rock
Famously, Robert Johnson, the blues player, sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for musical abilities. Then, he died mysteriously at 27. When psychedelic-blues legend Jimi Hendrix and other Sixties cohorts Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin all died at 27, a new legend arose.
Great artist’s tap into wells of potent emotions and ideas, which spring up from the depths. This unique social position drives change.
The hippie movement was an oppositional response to the conservatism and homogenized “American Dream” of the 1950s. Books like Aldous Huxley's “The Doors of Perception” and the Eastern Mysticism of the Theosophical Society (predecessors of the New Age Movement) opened young people up to counter-typical areas of thought and experience than their parents.
Counterculture in The 1960s
The Rock ’n Roll musicians were strong leaders in this counter-culture movement. But, being so close to the fire of social change and with deep wells spouting fourth with fierce pressure, those talented bodies and minds were burned and drowned prematurely.
An exploration into “expanded consciousness,” “free love,” and “revolution” ended in hard drugs and early death for many of the pioneers. Then later for the followers it lead to conforming, careers and children: everything they the hippy trend had originally denounced.
This shows us that when artist’s are not conscious of their relationship to a power beyond themselves, they can be destroyed and so can the movement which they were propelling.
Also in the Sixties, were other artists who exemplify a positive relationship to rejection of the status-quo.
Besides having incredible vocal harmonies and beautiful folk arrangements, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young crafted protest lyrics that represented a generation with anti-establishment sentiments. Songs like "Ohio" are emblematic of the political active "Woodstock" generation.
This particular group came out of the "summer of love" unscathed and continued their music careers. While much of the movement took a sour turn after the violence at a Rolling Stones concert, and a series of drug-related deaths of the greatest stars.
Another artist who was able to continue after that misfortunate ending, Joni Mitchell, captured the idealism and heightened sense of awakening of that Woodstock generation. In her song, written for Crosby, Stills and Nash, she wrote: “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon. And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Drugs, Sex and Rock 'n Roll
The effects of this movement resonate into recent times. On the negative, the establishment started a “Drug War,” which hampered down on the outcome of hedonism and debouachery that arose out of the Sixties.
On the positive end, the hippy’s played a huge role in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in substantiating an American tradition of protesting for progressive change. Also, momentum behind the Environmental Movement was driven by the hippies.
As these young people communed and connected with the Earth they fulfilled Geothe's Faustian prediction: acceptance of the natural, instinctual, bodily aspects, after so many centuries of Christian purity.
To be weighed by Generation Y and Millennials, and future generations are other outcomes. The hippy’s pushed culture away from stigmatizing sexual promiscuity (especially for women). Today's Grinder, Tinder and hook-up culture is a Freudian wet dream.
A particularly interesting outcome of the hippie movement is the emergence of a vague and multilayered spirituality permeating sections of the population.
The New Age movement has seeped into popularity, in ways manifold and ranging in commitment or intensity. But no doubt, Yoga, meditation and other, more far-out, dabbles and explorations into a new spirituality will be in the foreseeable future.
And as all these outcome mix together and the many pendulums swing in opposite ways, the modern person is faced with a way to sort it out.
Artists: The Only Hope for a Selfie Fixation?
In the midst of contemporary conundrums of atheism or yogism, foodie and fashion or psychedelics and camping, monogamy or the hook-up lifestyle, artists must find creative solutions.
When artists don’t tap deeply into the well beyond themselves, they reflect society directly. In popular music this has become dominant. What does “FourFiveSeconds,” “Hello,” “Hotline Bling,” “Sorry,” and “I Can’t Feel My Face” have in common?
Well, isn’t it obvious? The lyrics of these songs are self orientated. These songs represent a "selfie generation." But maybe that should be changed! It’s the artists who should drive that necessary change.
Millennials inherited the washy hedonism which became the fallout of the Sixties (which continued well into the Seventies and Eighties). So, we dropped the restrictive religiosity and replaced it with worship of asses?
I am only hinting at the many trends and moral dilemmas facing modern people. It will be up to authentic artists to express and communicate what counter-movement will emerge next.
New Artists for New Times
From our study here we can see that it is vital that artists become more conscious of their role and the potentially damaging, or deadly power of inspiration. We have seen that the sources of artistic expression come from a impersonal, super-personal region of the psyche, and when individuals tap into the tributaries of that vast ocean, they must tread carefully.
In other words, artists, who intend to break new ground and tell society what they need to hear -- not what they are already enamored and opiated by -- must be aware of the position they are putting themselves in.
Those authentic artists may have to humble themselves and find ways to balance their lives, as to position themselves in a place of service and not self-destruction.
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