Music Is Profound- Whatever That Means

December 03, 2005
Al Barger

Art reaches down into the soul to make connections and moments of recognition. Music especially does this. It gets down through all kinds of obscure and subjective personal pathways of our consciousness. Music is profound.

But what does that mean? Let's start with the obvious, a dictionary definition:

1) Situated at, extending to, or coming from a great depth; deep.
2) Coming as if from the depths of one's being: profound contempt.
3) Thoroughgoing; far-reaching: profound social changes.
4) Penetrating beyond what is superficial or obvious: a profound insight.
5) Unqualified; absolute: a profound silence.

Obviously, different people are going to find Deep Meaning in different things. Of course, we have to remember that some of this is purely subjective. People are responding to personal associations and experiences that are not all universal.

Some music gets deep responses from some people that I just don't understand much. I appreciate that there's a lot going on in European classical music and jazz that I just don't get. I know that there's a lot going on with Coltrane and in those Beethoven symphonies that is simply beyond my comprehension. For now we see through a glass darkly.

On the other hand, I see people carrying on about stuff closer to home musically that just looks silly to me. I gave a couple of exasperated sighs this summer over some of the people carrying on about how deep Mariah Carey supposedly is in the comments to my review of The Emancipation of Mimi. See, she's really deep cause she's writing about how there's a hero down inside everyone of us.

There's a hero If you look inside your heart
You don't have to be afraid Of what you are
There's an answer If you reach into your soul
And the sorrow that you know Will melt away

Lord have mercy, but that's awful. That looks more like someone desperate to be perceived as deep than someone with something insightful or illuminating to say. That's just extremely shallow and sophomoric. I get what she's doing here, but it is not coming from much depth.

But of course, Mariah Carey is too easy a target. Instead, let's look nominally upscale a bit. A lot of supposed "art rock" type stuff is more egregious. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for example, have always struck me as particularly ludicrous. They have these ponderous high concept albums and lyrics, and song titles like "The Endless Enigma, Pt 1." They have conservatory musical training, and sometimes throw in bits of real European classical music. See, these guys are Deep.

Except that they're not. In short, conservatory training doesn't equal talent or vision. Having technical skills and being able to play a lick of Beethoven is great- but it doesn't begin to mean that you've got anything to say.

ELP certainly had a much bigger musical vocabulary than, say, Little Richard. Obviously, however, there's more real meaning in a couple of minutes of "The Girl Can't Help It" than in all of the art school posturing of these guys. The Georgia Peach shined a light that illuminated some corner of the human condition more meaningfully than the whole lot of these art school idiots.

Which isn't meant to denigrate the cerebral or the ponderous. For example, Pete Townshend was acting like he thought he was deep on Who's Next. Pete thought he was really making some kind of statement with stuff like "Won't Get Fooled Again." But in this case, he really was. It's not just the denotations of the lyrics, but the tune and the dynamics and arrangement that puts across a unique statement of disillusionment and determination. I can really hear where that's coming from the depths of ones being, as per the definition of "profound."

So much perception of meaning comes from expectations built on every kind of extraneous nonsense but the music. This essay was inspired by conversations based on an article about Billy Joel. The author felt shamed by her interest in Joel, and literally put his albums away in her closet after seeing an Elvis Costello concert where he made some snarky comment about Joel- while playing "Just the Way You Are."

But that song is in fact a modern standard, recorded by many people- including Elvis Costello's fancy jazz singer wife. Obviously Joel's not quite up there with Elvis Costello (Who is?), but the guy often doesn't get recognition for true meaning because he's somehow not legitimate. He's not cool- but he had something to say.

Joel asks to get mocked because of the silly overreaching of stuff like the uber-concept and album cover of The Stranger, and because of the ham handed striving for political Dylan-style relevance. Brenda Kahn memorably mocked the pretension to profundity of Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" in a much better contemporary song called "Eggs on Drugs" in which she said, "Billy Joel thinks he's political cause he can memorize an encyclopedia."

But Billy Joel sometimes really is deeply, memorably meaningful. Forget "Allentown" or the Cold War laundry list. Meditate instead on "The Longest Time." An Innocent Man was definitely Billy Joel's most profound record.

Then you've got other people who are profound despite themselves. Neil Diamond makes the perfect example. He makes these hugely grand, epic pronouncements that overreach so far into pretentiousness as to boggle the mind. "I Am... I Said." Holy jumpin' Jebus.

But Neil Diamond has the skills to pay the bills- and sometimes something to say. He just doesn't seem to know his own strengths sometimes. The abstract philosophical cheese of his more ambitious lyrics is just laughable.

However, when he leaves aside his aspirations to be the philosopher-king to work his day job as a Brill Building pop songwriter, he has actually had something worthwhile to say. Not so much the words per se, but the guitar rhythms and rising melodic strains of "I'm a Believer" or the new "Delirious Love" capture some bit of the life giving spiritual gift of love. They're obviously outstanding pop songs, but also "penetrate beyond what is superficial or obvious." Really.

Many are the musicians who would be more profound if they less thought of themselves as profound. His Brill Building background has halfway kept Neil Diamond grounded. Tori Amos comes to mind as one who would likely be making far more truly meaningful work if she were working with her creativity hitched to the discipline of trying to write commercial radio hits. Oh, and what's so damned deep and profound about the Velvet Underground?

So much of the perception of depth seems to be centered on superficial aspects of words, when after all we're talking about music. The real profundity of music comes from bypassing the pathways and language of words to get down into the deeper recesses of consciousness.

Words would have just gotten in the way of meaning for Miles Davis, for example. It'd be tough to try to wrap words around it, but the icy blasts of trumpet wind roiling that "Bitches' Brew" are thoroughgoing, and coming from the depths of Davis' being.

Whereas Bob Dylan, by contrast, often means a lot less than meets the eye. He's had his moments, but he's often been precisely UNprofound- putting out pretentious nonsense that means far LESS than it appears.

A lot of the time, he's played a lyrical shell game where he acts like he's saying all kinds of meaningful stuff. There's enough meat here and there of actual meaning to sell people on his Profundity- but it's real hit and miss. Dropping invocations of Italian poets or French symbolism does not mean that you're saying anything significant. That's just name dropping. Which lyrical shells actually have a nut of meaning in them? How about,

Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit,
He spoke to me, I took his flute.
No, I wasn't very cute to him,
Was I?
But I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride
And because time was on his side

Perhaps it falls under "go for what you know," but I tend to look for musical profundity in the more humbly presented realms. The obvious example that many would relate to is the profundity of Hank Williams. Even a goofy novelty song like "Kaw-Liga" reflects depths of longing and heartbreak that'll speak to your soul.

Understanding the profundity of Hank Williams is what keeps artsy-fartsy Elvis Costello honest- truly real and meaningful, and away from becoming ELP or Sting. Get out his 2004 The Delivery Man CD, particularly "Either Side of the Same Town." That's the work of somebody who gets Hank. That's pure heartbreak and longing. Hank's influence keeps Elvis' artistic aspirations from getting too much in the way of his actual art.

My godson's musically erudite mama gets a bit sheepish or defensive sometimes about her taste for Jerry Lee Lewis country ballads. She was struck by the words of a writer mocking the seeming sophomoric puerility of one of the Thug's Ma's favorite songs of all time.

I know she never meant to make me cry
It's not her heart Lord
It's her mind

She didn't mean to be unkind
Why she even woke me up to say goodbye

Granted, the songwriter there wasn't invoking any French symbolist poets, or anything meaningful like that. But by the time it gets hooked to the melody and Jerry Lee's vocal performance, "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye" reaches way down into the gut in a way that no overeducated egghead REM lyrics ever could.

Bringing it in close to home for a landing, I personally take great meaning from from the humble work of Tom T Hall. This soft spoken Kentuckian has always been, as my father would say, common as an old shoe. But he gets at a deep and startling moment of sudden awareness of his mortality in that "Salute to a Switchblade" despite and actually partly because of the nominally comic presentation.

Perhaps though, the most profound - or at least profoundly "far reaching" useful piece of music for me is Tom's dissertation on "Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs?" It's presented very modestly, "That's all there is to this small song..."

But imagine the narrator pondering the simple minded farmer laying in the next hospital bed. I've spent a lot of hours pondering this farmer now myself, particularly a year ago when I was laid up in a hospital bed. What was it exactly that caused that farmer to heal himself like that?

I guess profundity is where you find it. Then again, the Flaming Lips singing about Sponge Bob strikes me as really deep.

And we haven't even thought about the profundity of gospel music. All I know is that music sustains the soul.

Holla Back!

Music Sustains the Soul

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