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Music and Suggestibility
Okay: suppose – just for argument’s sake – that the music people listen to and enjoy can and does put them into hypnosis. What are the implications of that?
Of course, I need to qualify the above right away. When I use the word “hypnosis” in this context I don’t mean the sort of passive and relaxed state which one experiences under the guidance of a hypnotherapist. What I’m referring to is simply the sort of shift in the quality of consciousness which happens when you are absorbed in the music you like – whether you’re gyrating on a dance floor, amid flashing lights and ear-splitting din, or sitting quietly mesmerised by a Chopin nocturne. I believe that any such shift of consciousness renders us more suggestible.
I also need to state the obvious. We are not puppets or computers. Whatever state of consciousness we happen to be in we do not respond immediately, fully and positively to every suggestion we encounter. And yet, in hypnoidal states of consciousness, we are more suggestible than in “normal” waking consciousness. So – to restate the opening question, if music puts us into a hypnoidal state, what are the likely consequences?
Again, to state the obvious, it depends on what sort of music you’re listening to, and why. What sort of music do people listen to today? All sorts. There is an audience for jazz, folk, classical, and so on. But – and I know this is a sweeping generalization – the majority of people, especially younger people, listen to what sells, to what is in fashion.
Surely everyone on Britain who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s will remember Top of the Pops on television and Alan Freeman’s chart countdown show on the radio. In those days, almost everybody knew – or at least had a rough idea – which song was at Number One.
Do you know which song is at Number One at this moment? Me neither. But I thought I’d have a quick look at the Top 3 as an indication of what a substantial proportion of the population, if not the majority, are listening to at the moment. This would also give me some idea of what suggestions are being communicated by means of music.
Well – I had a rummage around online and it seems that at the time of writing – April 30th 2012 – the song at Number One is: “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Both song and singer are unknown to me. The song, with its accompanying video, was easy to find online.
The singer is a thin but pretty young woman who looks as if she is aged about 16 or 17. Presumably she is older. The song tells a very simple story. Our heroine throws a wish into a well and, presumably as a consequence, falls in lust with someone wearing ripped jeans. The accompanying video makes it clear that this person is a young man. The lyrics say nothing about him. She gives him her phone number and asks him to call her. Original, isn’t it? The singer’s voice is, like her appearance, thin and immature, with that pale, adenoidal quality which seems to be in fashion at the moment. The melodic line is of nursery-rhyme simplicity. The accompanying music consists largely of synthetic string chords and percussion. There is nothing here that we haven’t heard a thousand times before.
Number Two in the charts is a song called “Let’s Go” by Calvin Harris. The “lyrics” of this song, if one may call them lyrics, consist of nothing more than the most banal string of clichés. Let’s go. I’m talking. It’s what you’re doing that matters. Let’s make it happen. And that’s about it. The singer is male. The voice has the same immature whining quality of the singer at the Number One slot but without the girlish charm. The melodic line, if it deserves such a title, could not possibly be more simple and shallow. The accompaniment consist of the most basic rhythms and synthesized chords. Again, there is nothing original or distinctive about this whatsoever.
At number three is a song called “We Are Young” by a group called “Fun”. The title of the song and the name of the band probably tell you all you need to know about this particular masterpiece. The song is about a trivial incident in a bar. The (male) protagonist is trying to apologize to his lover for something – the nature of his misdemeanour is not made clear. The apology doesn’t seem to be going too well. Meanwhile our hero’s friends are on the toilet getting high on something or other. Interspersed with these sordid and trivial details there is a recurring refrain which asserts that “we” can burn brighter than the sun. Musically, however, this seems to be the strongest of the three. The melodic line is considerably richer and more varied than that of the two songs above it in the charts. The chorus, with its pounding piano, its straightforward, if utterly unoriginal, harmonies and its anthemic melodic line, ensures that the piece is a little more memorable than most such ephemeral products.
Before saying any more about these three songs I would just like to say that I have no particular axe to grind when it comes to rock and pop music. I don’t regard it as the root of all evil. My interest is in classical music of all types, from Leonin through to Stockhausen. I like some Jazz and some Folk / World Music. I also like some Rock and Pop – but I don’t like all of it and I think that most of it is absurdly overrated. There are a handful of pop artists I would set alongside Schubert, Strauss and Wolf, such as Kevin Coyne, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and a number of others. But I also believe that about 95%, if not a higher percentage, of what we may loosely term “pop” music is absurdly overrated and overvalued. I predict that in 100 years time all the pop music of the last two decades will be totally forgotten – although I probably won’t be around to say “I told you so”!
I certainly wouldn’t wish to ban any music or to blame or censure anyone who takes pleasure from music which I don’t like. Pop music hasn’t been around long and it has always, at least until recently, been shrouded in controversy. The early rock ‘n rollers, even acts which now seem totally innocent, such as Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley or the early Beatles, were attacked on moral grounds. Such censure now seems ridiculous. The Rolling Stones were once regarded as a threat to society. Now Sir Mick Jagger is an establishment figure. The Sex Pistols were once taken seriously as harbingers of anarchy. How many more years will be have to wait before a knighthood is conferred upon John Lydon?
Such knee-jerk revulsion is an overreaction. And yet I do believe that prolonged exposure to music of a certain kind can have a detrimental effect, and I want to explain exactly why I think that.
The music of a song enables the lyrics of a song (and the suggestions which those lyrics embody) to penetrate our consciousness far more deeply that would be the case if we just read the lyrics or listened to them being read aloud. The reason for this is that the music has the effect of switching off our judgemental or analytical faculties. (This only happens if we like the music. If we don’t, then our critical faculties are reinforced rather than bypassed). None of this has been scientifically proven or clinically tested but, for argument’s sake, let us suppose that it is true. What sort of suggestions are the listeners to today’s pop music likely to be receiving? Let us return to the Top Three:
Call Me Maybe is not a love song. It is a song about gratification. A wish is thrown into a well and immediately the singer is given the object of her desire. We are told nothing about this other person, apart from the ripped jeans and showing skin. This is not about feeling, just about wanting. Of course, it is possible to feel an immediate attraction to a complete stranger. Usually this is accompanied by some sort of speculation, or fantasy, as to the nature of the person him or herself. But sometimes it can be purely physical, with no regard for the other person as a person, just as a body. This song, then, celebrates the most basic form of human attraction, like two dogs sniffing each other.
Let’s Go doesn’t have any narrative content. Its message seems to be: live for the moment and make it happen tonight. The words “make it” and “tonight” suggest that immediate sexual gratification is the goal but nowhere is this made explicit.
In We Are Young, a relationship seems to be going wrong, but that 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-gratification seems to be at the heart of each of these three best-selling songs. I would reformulate the suggestions they offer as follows:
- I deserve the best
- What I want is most important.
- You are important to me if you turn me on and give me pleasure.
- I have boundless potential.
- I am wonderful.
- I can have whatever I want.
These suggestions are a mixture of good and bad, positive and negative. Of course, high self esteem and a positive outlook are necessary for happiness and success. But when such suggestions occur in a context of narcissistic instant self-gratification then the whole thing can become distinctly toxic.
These Top Three songs may make us feel good – for a few minutes. They are the musical equivalent of fast-food, McDonalds for the ear. And we all know what an unbroken diet of burgers can do. And such songs appeal to our lowest and most childish instincts.
Can this do any harm? What effect might it have? To be honest, I don’t know. Probably any negative effects will not be too long-lasting and may be countered by more positive cultural influences. But I really fear that cultural products such as these three songs may have an infantilising effect upon the consumer. And if we look at the wider picture, this is surely a cause for concern.
I left school at 16 and went straight into full-time employment with professional training. So did most of my peers. Some of them were soon able to live on their own, independent of parental support. They were either in rented accommodation or they were buying their own flats or starter homes. While at school, almost all of us had part-time jobs or sources of income which gave us some financial independence from our parents. When we were very young, we were allowed out to play unsupervised and were expected to take responsibility for our actions. Nowadays fewer children are able to earn any money of their own at all. They are totally dependent upon their parents until their late teens. As more and more are being shoe-horned into tertiary education, young people nowadays don’t get to earn a wage of their own until they’re in their early twenties. They should be adults but they are kept as children. Modern taste in pop music seems to be thoroughly symptomatic of this trend.
And why is it that modern pop music seems to enjoy such support from the very Establishment which used to condemn it? Politicians are sometimes quizzed about their tastes in music and the responses are wearily predictable: it is always something like Coldplay or Radiohead, or The Smiths, or something non-elitest and “trendy” from the past 15 years or so. I doubt whether any politician in his or her right mind would ever shamefully confess to a liking for Purcell or Bartok. A Cabinet Minister caught in possession of a CD of music by Varese or Gesualdo would probably be required to resign! Why is this? I think that part of the answer is that modern pop music promulgates a view of human beings of which politicians of all parties approve. We are consumers, whose function it is to earn and spend money. Our petty wants and desires play an important role in this. We must acquire more, spend more on expensive gadgets and gizmos with in-built obsolescence, we must indulge ourselves and pander to every trend, follow every fashion and satisfy every want – because we’re worth it. I’m talking. It is all about me. We can make it happen and burn brighter than the sun – and hopefully contribute to an eternally growing economy. Heaven forbid that we should start looking in another direction, thinking of the community rather than the individual, putting the needs and feelings of others alongside, even before, those of ourselves.
The younger generation are our future. They need to grow up sooner rather than later. Let us hope, then, that some day soon they will turn their back on the narcissistic little nursery rhymes offered them by today’s music industry and seek out, or create, something with more substance. Something healthier.
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