Music Playlist of the Absurd

Music and emotionThe human condition is ultimately absurd. Yet the unconscious mind works in ways to disguise that fact from our awareness while circumventing the uncomfortable feelings that would otherwise be provoked. The threat is always there – as is our unending thirst for psychological equanimity. Illusionary ideological systems offer meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence, and our cultures provide never-ending distractions that operate as psychological anesthetics. Even those who discover the absurdity of the human condition cannot help but occasionally be lulled into a sleepy forgetfulness, or tempted into subscribing to some faith-based system of meaning. However this would mean ‘forgetting precisely what we ought not to.’ Man is a slave, yet his dignity lies in knowing that he is a slave, and in carrying the anxious burdens related to his existential condition. We must remain alert, and ensure that we do not forget what lucid reasoning has uncovered. In short, we must find ways of reminding ourselves. One way of doing so is through art, and more specifically, music.

“The artist, through creation, expresses their subjective interpretation of the world. This may involve an uncovering of what exists, a highlighting of the beauty or viciousness of the world, or representative of a more humanistic statement, a profound contrast, a feeling, or of a longing or nostalgia for hope or unity. The Artist and Metaphysical Rebellion, Modern Psychologist.”

Music has a special place because it appeals so readily to the emotions. It goes without saying that the experience of music is in large part subjective. A certain note, rhythm, or lyric, can rattle us to our core, cause our hair to stand on end, send a shiver down our spine, our eyes to moisten, or create a subjective moment of heightened awareness or lucidity. I want to offer a short playlist of songs that, in my experience, can often ‘get at’ this feeling of absurdity; keeping in mind, of course, the subjective nature of musical tastes, and in one trying to interpret the meaning of any piece of music. This is my short music playlist of the absurd.

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I am going to start with Pink Floyd’s song High Hopes. In many ways it is a song about personal reflection and nostalgia. We remember a time of naiveté, of “magnets and miracles,” in our youth, “the grass was greener… the lights were brighter…” we had such high hopes. We chase our dreams, fueled with desire and ambition, “… steps taken forward but sleepwalking back again…” Our “hunger unsatisfied” … and still our weary eyes still strain to the distance… “…though down this road we’ve been so many times.” We are thus not unlike the mythical Sisyphus, spending our lives with determination, rolling a heavy boulder up to the top of that hill, only to watch it return again to its original resting place – to repeat again and again. Our earthly movements are ultimately absurd, and yet the nostalgic desire for meaning urges us to continue pressing forward, against all hope; but hopelessness need not yield to despair. Our burden is in maintaining the balance.

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Who knows the intent of any songwriter, but it seems to me that Arcade Fire’s ‘Neon Bible’ is likely a criticism of religion, culture, or perhaps both. Arcade Fire are known for the emotional intensity of their performances, and one can sense that raw energy seething beneath Butler’s facial expressions in the accompanying video. Like many, he sees much wrong with the world, yet the feeling is not quite anger or despair, but rather a wearisome emotional turmoil, measured and tolerated, hinting at this absurd feeling. The song maybe even evokes that sense of quiet estrangement or nausea during a moment of lucidity, as one fully experiences the senseless of the world and what that means for us. “… not much chance of survival if the neon bible is right.” Everyone thinks they have it right – some privileged access to an unquestioned and uncompromising Truth; though in reality, they are nothing more than illusionary ideals based on dogmatic faith. In this world there is little room for dissent or for reason. And thus, sings Butler, “in the future I will read at night.”

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Isis Unveiled, by And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, is a heavy-handed, and maybe a somewhat absurdist take on religion. Although we can guess that it is meant to be a critique of Christianity, the song merely describes the main directives of the faith, as outlined from the perspective of an all knowing, all powerful God(s): “… if you honor me in kind, I will be grateful…” with promises of being admitted into an everlasting “garden world” …“but be warned for I’m an angry, jealous God…” so one must do what they are told and not ask questions, be prepared to make sacrifices…”give me daughters, send me sons… I’ll make them all chosen ones… I will send them out to die, to meet the angels of death, with no tears or regrets…” The song reaches the heights of absurdity with the rhythmic and chanting chorus of voices: “… and if they raze our walls we’ll let them in… and if they raise their swords we’ll let them hit… And if one has to be forgiven, then, we’ll pardon all of them.” God relieves us of the burden of responsibility… we only need to ask for forgiveness and we shall be saved. I don’t like to ‘hate on religion’ (though I am more than happy to debate it), but this song really seems to get at the absurdity of it, while perhaps suggesting that even if God existed, we might have good reason to rebel against him in the name of higher human values.

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The ancient monks had a skull on their desk to remind themselves of their mortality and of the preciousness of time. For the rest of us (i.e. those who do not have access to human skulls), there’s Modest Mouse. Parting of the Sensory is a meandering acoustic journey that builds to a spine-tingling climax reminiscent of a Cape Breton kitchen party. Reminding ourselves of death, a fate that we all share, allows us to remember that we are all in the same metaphysical boat. The captains will change, but the ship is ultimately destined to sink, though we must not allow this knowledge to drive us into nihilism or despair. Death is the great equalizer – it is the ultimate source of humility. In the face of inevitable annihilation, our own personal hero projects seem ultimately futile. This should be enough of a reminder for us to treat others with compassion, while cautioning us from forcing our own cherished “Truths” down the throats of others who are different. It is also a reminder of the preciousness of time. In another of their songs, Brock cleverly sings, in response to those desperately hoping for an afterlife, “you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?” Awareness of death actually slows time down by making each moment more lucid in our own subjective experiences. It changes how we look at the world. Ask anyone who has had a near death experience.

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Mike Patton, is a musical legend and was frontman in the band Faith No More. Who knows what he intended to express in the song King for a Day. Some interpret it to be a song about a drug user, but with the band’s previous flirtations with existential issues, I don’t think it would be too far-fetched to interpret it as a general critique of modern life. Life is like a party, where we become intoxicated by godly illusions and tangible distractions. We are introduced to some form of idolatry, and if we commit ourselves fully, we might be led to believe that we can cheat death. The song ends with a hypnotic and spinning outro… “this is the best party I’ve ever been to” … as Patton finally whispers pleadingly: “don’t let me die with that silly look in my eyes.” However, the request, as we all know, is absurd. No one cheats death, and many of us will die in some degrading form or humiliating posture. But again our dignity lies in being lucidly aware of our ultimate fate, by being an active participant in life, while also not allowing ourselves to take it too seriously. We can live and die for our illusions, or we can learn to walk that existential tightrope with full awareness of our mortality, without the need for the kind of psychological anesthetics that otherwise impair our capacity to relate to one another and to see reality for what it is.

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There is something about Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence, that I think provokes that sense of existential isolation (probably not what the song-writer intended). Human beings live in a solitary world of private subjectivity. No one can feel what we feel. No one can experience what it is like, to either be in our heads or to have walked in our shoes. By extension, the existential burdens that we all carry are also ours and ours alone to bear. Think what you will of the song, but there is something about that image in the video… the solitary king wandering the countryside, pensive, determined, and stoic. There is without question something dignified in the way we carry our own psychological burdens. This solitary existence is punctuated only imperfectly by our clumsy use of a language, which often serves to cheapen its meaning (“words are very… unnecessary”). But how wonderful it is when words, gestures, or even perfectly timed silences, can cause us to feel felt by another person. For a moment, we are made to feel like someone else ‘gets it,’ though the moment is fleeting. Again, we walk the tightrope between denying our existential isolation and falling into despair. But I should also mention that there is of course a difference between being alone and being lonely. If we find ourselves alone but in good company, there is good chance we might enjoy the silence.

4 Responses to “Music Playlist of the Absurd”

  1. Alicia Says:

    This post is very different and I like it! There is a particular song that I enjoy that questions religious ideology called East Jesus Nowhere by Green Day. Thank you for the collection of music presented here!

  2. Brad Says:

    Thanks Alicia… and you are very welcome.

  3. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    We have such a craving for anesthesia Brad. Sometimes, for me, it’s hard not to see humanity as just a mistake. Understanding the absurdity of it all is painful. If not anesthesia we want diversions… anything to take our attention away from .. “what lucid reasoning has uncovered”.

    There can be such pleasure in just being lost.

  4. Brad Says:

    I agree, there is something in recognizing the absurd, that while binding, is also liberating.