I was delighted this morning to join Rod Dreher in his ruminations on rock music, which he loves but has difficulty justifying in terms of his Christian commitments. The post is worth reading in full; I’m going to take as my own jumping-off point his conclusion:
I end this digression almost as conflicted and as confused, and as “dialectic and bizarre,” as I started. The one thing my theologian friend’s question helped me to learn, by sending me back to Auden, is that the answer, or answers, will likely emerge out of a reflection on the distinction between what is Real and what is True, and how the two relate dialectically in art, including the art of rock music.
I think that’s very much the right place to start. If I understand Auden, or Dreher’s take on Auden, correctly, then the difference between “Real” and “True” is the difference between phenomenology and ontology – between an experience and an objective reality independent of subjective experience. From Dreher’s perspective, that realm of “True” includes moral truths, and he’s asking a question, as old as Plato, about the effects of art that allows us to participate in an experience that is “untrue” in a moral sense. Which, to me, devolves back to a question about whether it’s a good idea to have experience as such – because, clearly, from a moral perspective it’s better to understand from the inside what it’s like to be, say, a Nazi, or a prostitute, or whatever, through an encounter with great art that really takes you inside that experience, than to have to actually become a Nazi, or a prostitute, or whatever.
But I wanted to make another observation. Dreher comments in passing that he can’t appreciate rap music in part for aesthetic reasons: he just doesn’t like it. And there’s no point in trying to argue somebody into or out of an aesthetic appreciation – you can learn to like something you don’t appreciate initially, but you can’t really be taught to like it in the way that you can be taught to understand it. But he also says that he can’t imagine what music, what aesthetic experience, would make him capable of appreciating the experience of the lyrics of a rap like “Big Pimpin'” – a rap he calls “animalistic.”
I just wanted to point out that Jay-Z himself had conflicted feelings about that bit of writing, and used the same terminology that Dreher did to describe it:
WSJ: A lot of musicians claim to never go back and listen to their old material, but you obviously took some joy in digging back into your archives for “Decoded.”
Jay-Z: I believe that it’s necessary. Especially for rap music, where the words are fast and for the most part there’s not a consistent melody that people can sing along to. So a lot gets lost in translation. Because rap music is poetry, I thought it was important to describe it as such.
WSJ: You’re famous for not writing your lyrics down as you compose them. What changes about them when you see them on the page like this?
Jay-Z: Some [lyrics] become really profound when you see them in writing. Not “Big Pimpin.” That’s the exception. It was like, I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh. [emphasis mine]
If I take Jay-Z at his word (and that’s my inclination in the absence of a reason not to), he’s saying that this particular lyric came from someplace he’s a little alarmed to discover in himself. He doesn’t read his words and say: wow, I got at something important and complex. He reads them and says: did I say that? How could I have? Must I this thing of darkness acknowledge mine?
Is that, perhaps, a stance from which the lyric can be experienced more effectively by someone like Dreher? Does framing the lyric that way, as something that came out of the artist almost involuntarily, and that disturbed him when he looked at what he created, make it something that can be appreciated from within a moral framework that Dreher would respect? Or does it do the opposite – suggest that the artist himself should have suppressed it?
That interview with Jay-Z went on:
WSJ: What would you change about hip-hop if you could?
Jay-Z: We have to find our way back to true emotion. This is going to sound so sappy, but love is the only thing that stands the test of time. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill ” was all about love. Andre 3000, “The Love Below.” Even NWA, at its core, that was about love for a neighborhood.
We’re chasing a lot of sounds now, but I’m not hearing anyone’s real voice. The emotion of where you are in your life.
“The emotion of where you are in your life” – that isn’t always love, and may not always stand the test of time, but it’s something we, as a species, are not very good at living in. If great art enables us to do that, connecting us more deeply to ourselves by connecting us to somebody else who has connected deeply to him- or herself, then I’m for it. And if we can’t make moral sense of that experience, well, sometimes it’s hard to make moral sense of life. But we can’t escape that problem by not living.