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Music and Suggestibility
Okay: let’s assume – just for the sake of argument – that they can and do hypnotize the music they listen to and enjoy. What are the consequences of this?
Of course, I have to qualify the above immediately. When I use the word “hypnosis” in this context, I am not referring to the kind of passive and relaxed state one experiences under the guidance of a hypnotherapist. What I’m referring to is simply the change in the quality of consciousness that occurs when you’re immersed in your favorite music—whether you’re spinning on the dance floor, surrounded by flashing lights and deafening sounds, or sitting. quietly mesmerized by a Chopin nocturne. I believe that any such shift in consciousness makes us more predictable.
I have to state the obvious. We are not puppets or computers. In whatever state of consciousness we are, we do not respond immediately, fully, and positively to every suggestion we encounter. And yet, in hypnoid states of consciousness we are more suggestive than in “normal” waking consciousness. So – to rephrase the opening question, if music puts us in a hypnotic state, what are the consequences?
Again, to state the obvious, it depends on what kind of music you listen to and why. What kind of music do people listen to today? All kinds. There is an audience for jazz, folk, classical, etc. But—and I know this is a sweeping generalization—the majority of people, especially younger people, listen to what sells, what’s trendy.
Surely anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s in Britain will remember Top of the Pops on television and Alan Freeman’s radio countdown show. Back then, almost everyone knew – or at least had a rough guess – which song was Number One.
Do you know which song is number one right now? Me neither. But I thought I’d take a quick look at the Top 3 to indicate what a significant portion, if not the majority, of the population is currently listening to. This would also give some idea of what kind of suggestions are being communicated through music.
Well – I’ve been poking around the internet and it looks like the Number One song at the time of writing – April 30, 2012 – was Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. Both the song and the singer are unknown to me. The song, along with its accompanying video, was easy to find online.
The singer is a thin but pretty young woman who looks like she is 16-17 years old. Presumably older. The song tells a very simple story. Our heroine throws a wish into a well and presumably falls for someone wearing ripped jeans as a result. The attached video clearly shows that this person is a young man. The lyrics say nothing about it. He gives you his phone number and asks you to call him. Original, right? The singer’s voice, like her appearance, is thin and immature, with that faint, adenoid quality that seems to be in vogue at the moment. The melodic line is proverbially simple. The backing track consists largely of synthetic string chords and percussion. There’s nothing here that we haven’t heard a thousand times before.
Calvin Harris’ song “Let’s Go” is in second place on the charts. The “lyrics” of this song, if you can call it lyrics, consist of nothing but the most banal clichés. Come on. I speak. What you do matters. Let it happen. And that’s pretty much it. The singer is a man. The voice has the same immature whiny quality of the Number One slot singer, but without the girlish charm. The melody line, if it deserves such a title, could not be simpler and shallower. The accompaniment consists of the most basic rhythms and synthesized chords. Again, there is nothing original or distinctive about this.
In third place is the song “We Are Young” by the group “Fun”. The title of the song and the name of the band probably tell you everything you need to know about this masterpiece. The song is about a trivial incident in a bar. The (male) main character is trying to apologize to his beloved for some reason – the nature of his offense is not revealed. Apologies don’t seem to be going too well. Meanwhile, our hero’s friends are sitting on the toilet on something or other. Interspersed with these sordid and trivial details is a recurring refrain that asserts that “we” can burn brighter than the sun. Musically, however, this seems to be the strongest of the three. The melody line is significantly richer and more varied than the two songs above it on the charts. The chorus, with its booming piano, straightforward if not entirely original harmonies, and anthemic melody line, ensure that the piece is a little more memorable than most such ephemeral products.
Before I say more about these three songs, I just want to say that I have no particular ax to grind when it comes to rock and pop music. I don’t see it as the root of all evil. I am interested in all kinds of classical music, from Leonin to Stockhausen. I like jazz and folk/world music. I like it too some Rock and Pop – but I don’t like it all and think most of it is absurdly overrated. There are some pop artists I would put next to Schubert, Strauss and Wolf such as Kevin Coyne, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and many others. But I also believe that about 95%, if not more, of loosely “pop” music is absurdly overrated and overrated. I predict that in 100 years all the pop music of the last two decades will be completely forgotten – although I probably won’t be around to say “I told you so!”
Of course, I don’t want to ban any music, or blame or condemn anyone who takes pleasure in music I don’t like. Pop music hasn’t been around for long, and it’s always been surrounded by controversy, at least until recently. Early rock ‘n’ rollers, even seemingly innocent acts such as Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley or the early Beatles, were attacked on moral grounds. Such criticism now seems ridiculous. The Rolling Stones were once seen as a menace to society. Sir Mick Jagger is now an established figure. The Sex Pistols were once taken seriously as heralds of anarchy. How many years until John Lydon is knighted?
Such knee-jerk reaction is an overreaction. Still, I believe that prolonged exposure to a certain type of music can be harmful, and I want to explain exactly why I think so.
The music of a song allows the lyrics of a song (and the suggestions made in the lyrics) to penetrate our consciousness much more deeply than would happen if we just read the lyrics or listen to them being read aloud. This is because music turns off our judgment or analytical ability. (This only happens if we love the music. If we don’t, our critical skills are strengthened rather than circumvented). None of this has been scientifically proven or clinically tested, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s true. What are some suggestions for today’s pop music listeners? Back to the top three:
Call Me Maybe is not a love song. It’s a song about contentment. A wish is thrown into a well, and the singer immediately receives the object of her wish. We are told nothing about this other person other than the ripped jeans and exposed skin. It’s not about feeling, it’s about desire. Of course, you can feel an instant attraction to a complete stranger. This is usually accompanied by some kind of speculation or fantasy about the person’s nature. But sometimes it can be purely physical, without seeing the other person as a person, just a body. So this song celebrates the most basic form of human affection, like two dogs sniffing each other.
Let’s Go has no narrative content. His message seems to be: live in the moment and make it happen tonight. The words “make it” and “tonight” suggest that instant sexual gratification is the goal, but nowhere do they make this clear.
In We Are Young, a relationship seems to go wrong, but it doesn’t matter because we’re young, we’re great, we deserve the best, and everything is available to us if we just reach out and grab it.
Shallow self-indulgence seems to be at the heart of these three best-selling songs. I would paraphrase the suggestions they offer as follows:
- I deserve the best
- What I want is most important.
- You are important to me if you turn on and make me happy.
- I have unlimited potential.
- I’m wonderful.
- I can have whatever I want.
These suggestions are a mix of good and bad, positive and negative. Of course, happiness and success require high self-esteem and a positive outlook. But when these suggestions occur in the context of narcissistic instant gratification, it can become downright toxic.
These top three songs can make us feel good – for a few minutes. They are the musical equivalent of McDonalds for the ears. And we all know what an unbroken diet of hamburgers can do. And such songs appeal to our lowest and most childish instincts.
Could this do any harm? What effect can it have? I honestly don’t know. It is likely that the negative effects will not be very long-lasting and may be offset by more positive cultural effects. But I really fear that cultural products like these three songs can have an infantilizing effect on consumers. And looking at the bigger picture, it’s certainly a cause for concern.
I left school at 16 and immediately got a full-time job with vocational training. So did most of my peers. Some of them were soon able to live independently, independent of parental support. They were either in rented accommodation or bought their own apartment or starter home. At school, almost all of us had a part-time job or source of income that gave us some financial independence from our parents. When we were very young, we were allowed to play unsupervised and were expected to take responsibility for our actions. Today, fewer children are able to earn money at all. They are completely dependent on their parents until their late teens. As more and more people are enrolled in higher education, today’s young people can only earn their own wages in their early twenties. They are supposed to be adults, but they are treated like children. Modern pop music tastes seem to be a symptom of this trend.
And why is it that modern pop music seems to enjoy so much support from the Establishment that used to condemn it? Politicians are sometimes asked about their musical tastes and the answers are tiredly predictable: always something like Coldplay or Radiohead or The Smiths or something non-elite and “trendy” from the last 15 years. I doubt if any politician in his right mind would ever be ashamed to admit that he likes Purcell or the Bartoks. A minister who comes into possession of a CD containing music by Varese or Gesualdo should probably resign! Why is this? I think part of the answer is that modern pop music promotes an image of man that politicians of all parties approve of. We are consumers whose job it is to earn and spend money. Our petty desires and wishes play an important role in this. We have to buy more, spend more on expensive gadgets and built-in outdated devices, indulge ourselves and indulge in every trend, follow every fad and fulfill every need – because we deserve it. I speak. It’s all about me. We can make it happen and burn brighter than the sun – and hopefully contribute to an ever-growing economy. Heaven forbid that we begin to look in a different direction, to think not of the individual, but of the community, to put the needs and feelings of others next to ourselves, even before our own needs.
The young generation is our future. They have to grow up sooner rather than later. So let’s hope that one day soon they will turn their backs on the narcissistic little rhymes offered to them by today’s music industry and look for or create something more meaningful. Something healthier.
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