How Popular Music Supports Thinking About the Big Stuff: Nirvana and k.d. lang

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As a teacher in the Los Angeles public schools for over 10 years, and a college instructor of philosophy for as many, I have run the gamut of attitudes about thinking. From believing that higher education should include a fairly rigid canon of books, to supporting the idea that students’ interest should dictate the syllabus of a college course, to various hybrids of thought, I am now at a point where I can appreciate art and artists for their role in promoting independent thought. In this piece, I want to cash out what I have been thinking about this issue, specifically with respect to so-called popular music.

What is attractive about studying Western Philosophy, as I have done for more than 30 years, is that there is a very narrow opportunity for interpretation. Generally, this is to say that when one reads Kant, or Hegel, or Plato, there is a “right” way to interpret what is being said and a “wrong” way. This is not to say that there is no room for discussion, but what room there is often leads to trivial conversations whose resolution does not advance the main theses of these thinkers to any significant degree. If I were to teach students that Plato was a materialist, I would be severely reprimanded, if not fired unless I could substantiate such a claim reasonably.

For someone like me who has been looking for answers to the “big questions” since aged 12, Western Philosophy is great.  It is easy to categorize (for the most part) most thinkers and to pursue their ideas seriously or not. If nothing else, reading the “great works” illustrates  lots of ways problems have been approached and “solved”. The bad part about Western Philosophy is that it trains one to look at problems in a certain way, even if this was is not identified or noticed. Between the way language molds our thought processes (Nisbett, 2004) and the way the European tradition has approached society, government and culture, it is inevitable that a certain amount of bias is created towards thinking about things.

This is one reason why, as I have grown older, I have gained an appreciation for pop culture; especially American pop-culture. One of the great aspects about America is the sheer number if true individuals in tandem with a society that allows many of them to express that identity. As a result, we get all kinds of “provocative” and “non-traditional” ways of looking at the world. What I like about pop music is that there are layers to the media. There is the music, the artist, the performance, and the message. This allows for a more obvious overflow of possibilities than does “The Great Books”.  Here are two examples of pop icons and how their art has contributed to thinking about the “big questions”:

  • Nirvana: Although fame came to this band mostly through their album “Nevermind”, what I take to be the best contribution to thinking about life comes out of their album “Bleach” and from this album, the track “School”.

“School”

[x4]

Won’t you believe it
It’s just my luck

[x3]
No recess

[x4]
Won’t you believe it
It’s just my luck

[x3]
No recess

[x8]
You’re in high school again

[x7]
No recess

 The lyrics are stunningly simple, and yet the issues it encourages to be brought up are profound. Between the extensive vamping and the sense of fatalism in the line “Won’t you believe it it’s just my luck, no recess”, the feelings of an entire lifetime are expressed. It’s brilliant and forces all listeners to think about what it might mean to have “recess” in life, and is it luck that we do not have it?

k.d. lang is tough to categorize. Her abilities allow her to sing nearly any musical style she wishes. One of the most overlooked albums of hers is Watershed (2008), where several of the tracks deviate even from  her often “crooning” style of albums filled with covers. One such track is Jealous Dog.

This song seems to follow a person’s life over a period of transitions. First they are materialistic, then they are disillusioned by organized religion, and finally they are encouraged to abandon key aspects of modern society. Further, the use of the metaphor ‘jealous dog’ is both commonplace and intense. To realize this, all one needs is a modicum of experience with a two-dog household. A jealous dog is completely overtaken, distracted, consumed and unhappy. Consider that it is after the line about church that the line about the mean mouth of a jealous dog is introduced. Hmmm. Church, mean mouth, jealous dog.

In the final stanza, a role model seems to live without care for the mores of modern life. Going on in the background of all of this is k.d. singing practically a capella with only the seemingly simple picking of a banjo. Finally, the way she uses her voice in this track is somewhat unusual for her. It is almost performed as a chant. In doing this she creates some doubt over what exactly this song is saying.

“Jealous Dog” on the album Watershed

Once I turned the TV on
I saw the green grass on the lawn
I don’t know why it struck me off
That life was perfect as a catalog
I guess I’m just a jealous dog

I walked into a house of prayer
I didn’t feel so welcome there
I was looking for the hand of God
When it struck me hard, I was hit by a fraud

Oh, the mean, mean mouth of a jealous dog
Oh, the mean, mean mouth of a jealous dog

I had a friend with a handsome trait
When he’s done with his dinner he’d lick his plate
It’s a way of living that I applaud
Like the message in this monologue
To never be a jealous dog, never be a jealous dog
Never be a jealous dog
Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/k-d-lang/jealous-dog-lyrics/#2GVZPxA9vj6tmEFF.99

These are just two examples of how modern popular music seems to me to be more flexible in how interpretations of life are ignited as well as how problems to the “big questions” of life, meaning, society and authentic meaning are answered.

1 Comment

  1. Your posts are giving me severe brain-ache! This is a sure sign that my mind is having to expand, be of use, *learn*, stretch for the first time in a long time. For this I thank you. The ache is incidental.

    Liked by 1 person

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