The ability of human beings to reason and develop that has separated our species from our environment. However, claiming the human identity, this “privileged” species, has not guaranteed a completely communicable group. Conversely, the ability to reason has left us with the ability to lack completely congruent thought. While this seems a visionary prospect, individuals will claim allegiance to various patterns of thinking. In doing so, their thoughts and/or goals form an individual system of values referred to as an ideology.
Now, in order to form an ideology, a group of people must agree on a set of values. This is how individuals form groups and identities. For example, there are ideologies which relate and depend on facets such as media, government, education, geography, ethnicity, race, heritage, gender, religion, social status etc. One ideology, which grew out of the Late Classical Period is based in the arts. Claiming an idealistic attitude for music and art through the title of Romanticism, this way of thinking brought a concrete expression of lofty ideas. In other words, the work of Romanticism brought forth attempts to find truth and clarity through ambiguity. The ideals of Romanticism are often problematic, in that they often create dual interpretations for both the creator and audience. This battling of self and other makes way for a number of dualities that guide one through the analysis of art through a Romantic lens.
While “Man versus Nature” begins by questioning the effects humanity and nature have on each other, “Science vs. Irrational” pits humans against each through their ability to reason and live reasonably. Each duality represents a version of questioning the self’s relationship to the other. In order to explore these dualities further, I will consult Timothy Morton’s “Environmentalism” and the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche as they apply to examples in music across the genres.
Timothy Morton describes environmentalism as “a set of cultural and political responses to a crisis in humans’ relationships with their surroundings” (Morton, 696). This description is haunting in relationship to Romanticism, because Morton reveals that environmental crises rather than appreciations are what have called humans to examine their relationship with phenomenons other than themselves. I would argue that Romanticism struggles to create a balance between the self and other, constantly critiquing the effects each has on the other. For example, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl not only affected the physical land but those living in and near the city. Morton writes “no matter what our nationality or class affiliation is, we share the toxic legacy of Chernobyl” (697). This instance speaks to the long lasting relationship between humans and earth, and puts into perspective the values humans hold (industrialism over environmental consciousness).
Nature is included in this discourse but certainly not the sole focus. The neglectful behaviors that led to Chernobyl illustrate the attitudes humans can have toward each other due to “otherness.” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” allows the listener to reflect upon the economy and state of the inner city ghetto of New York City. Written in 1971, there are aspects of the song which deliberately expose the inequality among the races, especially between black and white. The echoing vocals are illicit emptiness and the addition of percussive bongos brings the listener to a bleakness of losing oneself in that emptiness. The lyrics describe the inability to pay bills, monetary inflation, and the double standard of living in the city as a black community. The piece could be angry, but I believe Gaye deliberately chose to write “makes me wanna holler” rather than “I will holler” in order to prevent the creation of a violent voice/attitude. In this piece there is simultaneous fear and frustration for change. Gaye’s “self” struggles to be heard over the dominant “other” without precautions or policing of behavior- an environmental (social) injustice he undoubtedly aimed to affect with his music.
To elaborate on the policing of human behavior, I will move to discuss the duality of “Science vs. Irrational.” According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “man must understand that life is not governed by rational principles” (Brady, 1). Rather, humans are absurd and when stripped naked, cannot claim allegiance to society while continuing to stay true to themselves. Therefore, there are various instances of humans defying social norms. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the system is constraining (yet we strive to subscribe to it by forming ideologies).
Prince is an appropriate musician to analyze for this duality because of his tendency to skirt in an out of social constraints and expectations. For example, he has made several statements based on gender nonconformity and against labeling identities. In these actions, he illustrates that society is constraining. Perhaps this makes him crazy, but perhaps he is saner than those who conform. “Let’s Go Crazy,” (1984) is a commentary on the restrictions humans face on earth. The lyrics form most of the commentary, calling on the audience to remain true to themselves and to their own mind. He says “So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills/You know the one, Dr. Everything-will-be-alright/Instead of asking him how much how much of your time is left/ask him how much of your mind” he attitude is not as morbid as Nietzsche would suggest, that we are all naked and alone in the world. On the contrary, we should be not be brought down by the constraints of society at the expense of ourselves. He ends by bringing the shrink back into conversation, “Dr. Everything-will-be-alright will make everything go wrong.” This is a blatant stab at psychology, and the “fixing” of human incongruences and aligns perfectly with Nietzsche’s theories.
The Romantic ideology of finding a truth through ambiguity and binaries can easily be explained through the examination of the self as opposed to the other. The musical examples I have described in this short essay have hopefully exposed the reality of these conflicting issues in our history and current society. So long as romantic ideals of questioning through expression prevail, humans will be enacting their skills as thinkers and communicators.