time to change the way we view music and the arts

Did you even bother to ask how I felt about it?

Feelings. They’re a subject usually attached to soft sciences like psychology and are met with an extreme amount of variance among any one group of people. Music has been long established to affect feelings; either encouraging more of the same or a change in mood. Though measurements of such effects are still being studied and cataloged, there does come a point when music has somewhat definitive lines of emotion and sentiment attached to them.

The journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts recently published a study that discloses a conclusion expressing “clear evidence of American society’s increasing narcissism [that] can be found in our best selling popular songs.” (Quoted from article HERE.) This is in addition to notions of self-absorbed themes, word count software has detected an increase in lyrics encouraging or implying volatile or withdrawn actions, such a hatred, death, damn and the like.

A number of popular songs, both charting and those not even on the Billboard top 40 list, can reference such themes with song story lines that paint scenarios of destructive breakup backlash, (Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”) reckless, inconsequential attitudes, (Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell”) darker sexual interaction (Rhanna’s “S&M”) profanity filled apathy (Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”) and plain internalized, stressed aggression. (See most of Linkin Park’s album “Hybrid Theory”)

Furthermore, ominously related to the research conclusions on increased narcissism, is the increase in U.S. loneliness and psychopathology noted by research over time.

So…music is getting harsher and our moods as a populous are deteriorating to a degree. Are we trapped in a vicious cycle? Not necessary a vicious one, but it can make sense to a point. Although the amount of songs with negative lyrical content is not in a strictly and directly proportional relationship with American loneliness/psychopathology, Psychologist Nathan C. Will and a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky observe that “psychological processes and pop-culture products do mutually reinforce each other.”

Should parents and friends be triple locking their doors for fear of the increasing angry pop music threat? Nothing quite to that extreme has come to fruition thus far, but it doesn’t mean we can’t curtail the beginnings of shady situations often invoving idle people with lots of nervous energy –also known as the common teenager. Reaching back as far as last June, there was an article I had remembered mentioning an effort instituted by the London Public Library to discourage loitering by “young people [who] hung out smoking and socializing by their front entrance, which was ma[king] entry difficult — even intimidating — for some, especially the elderly.” The method was simply to play classical repertoire at a farther reaching volume on outside speakers that would urge along loiterers inhabiting space technically outside the library’s designated jurisdiction.

In both that effort and a much more recent one implemented by the regional transit department in Portland, Oregon, an equally appreciated effect of decreasing idle bystanders has left rail stations feeling much less uncomfortable for active passengers. Echoing orchestral and operatic pieces seem to be the perfect crime stopper, if you will. The Oregon article references a report done by the Seattle Times in 2009 that elaborates more on the supposed theory behind delinquent deterring Dvorak.

The major consensus appears connected to the pleasure connecting chemical dopamine and its possible suppression upon exposure to things people find unfamiliar and or don’t enjoy. Having the music as the unfamiliar element, people are more likely to avoid the source of their discomfort.

While I find the notable reduction in crowd congestion and potential unruly actions a good thing, I’m inclined to be cautious of the possible double edged sword that may manifest from this thought process. As expressed by one business figure in Seattle,

“For a lot of people, opera is like nails on a chalkboard.”

Using this majority presumption, we are in fact, applying operatic repertoire and other classical music as a negative conditioning stimulus. Dr. Daniel Levitin of McGill University and the Author of New York Times best-seller, “This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” expresses a second concern for the potential for associating the promotion of better behavior with classical music, which can lead to an “elitist or ethnocentric” implication over other genres of music that could conversely be associated with frowned upon action.

Funny enough, the outlook switches right back to a positive one because of the optimistic view that says “it unintentionally exposes people to fine arts who might not stop to listen otherwise.” Then of course though, it all becomes a delicate balancing act that can go to no full tilt on either side. If the small “side benefit” of musical exposure were to actually get people interested in and exploring the pieces they heard, it would cease to be an element of unfamiliarity and therefore stop deterring. However, that would also mean that the person is swung to the part of the population that needs no deterring to begin with because it’s ‘well behaved.’ …but then the elitist-good behavior implication comes back into the picture…and turns out to be an accurate and….oh look, another ridiculous cycle of perpetual motion…. *sigh*

Wait! That means the answer is to cut back on general public exposure and awareness so we can keep using Edward Elgar as pest control! …well, maybe not, but regardless of which view you take on that debate, the Grammys are doing just that with their latest decision to shrink the number of award categories for future ceremonies. The number is down from 109 to 78 set for next year. The side by side comparative list can be seen HERE.

Some commenters on the New York Times article speak of narcissism and “self gratif[ication] around the giving of the “peer recognized award.” (guess that study on human perception isn’t too inaccurate?) Maybe musicians should take a note from the rising trend of depression and anger in the American population and not focus so much on writing songs (meant for radio and widespread listening) that either inspire or exacerbate constant negative, selfish, volatile emotions. (Just off the top of my head, older tracks “Cool To Hate” by The Offspring and “Your Guts (I Hate ‘Em)” by Reel Big Fish come to mind, and the latter is from an album titled “We’re Not Happy Til You’re Not Happy.”)

The investigation of metaphors and deeper meaning behind these titles is for another day. However, my next point stands. While by no means the only category that got cut down to size, classical music (and instrumental in this case) is not nearly as capable or pre-disposed to connecting with inherently negative feelings or behavior because of a lack of words to convey direct definition. Saying “I hate you” is pretty hard to dispute as far as meaning is concerned if you’re not willing to hear a lyricist’s life story behind the line’s use. Perhaps, despite the fact that there have been studies done that show certain kinds of pop music do help (for example) teens healthily vent their anger or stress, on this front pop music can more carefully consider the extra power of words that has led to a diluting of its qualitative appreciation.

With a little less overt swearing for swearing’s sake and trimming down on the superficial attitudes in songs’ scenarios (See lyrics for Enrique Igesias’s “Tonight I’m F-ing You”) maybe we can keep the momentum going on restoring “quality” pieces to the Grammy nominee pool, and gradually over time maybe people won’t feel the need to bash the Grammys for their preceived self-absorbed lack of musical integrity and selection protocols.

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