Grunge and Philosophy
What Nirvana Can Teach Us about the Philosophy of History
By Micah Tillman
Prelude: Epochal Boundary-Markings
“The new millennium doesn’t start till 2001,” my classmate told me in the dining hall. “There was no year 0, so every century and millennium begins on a ‘1’.”
I found that argument annoying in 1999, and have held a grudge against it ever since. But recently, I’ve realized the problem was where it began, not where it ends.
The real reason the New millennium couldn’t start till 2001 was that the 90s didn’t start till Nirvana released Nevermind in ’91. If you shift the beginning of one decade, the next decade (and hence the next century and millennium) has to shift as well. Grunge has finally freed me from my grudge.
G.W.F. Hegel Will Have His Revenge
“But surely” you object, “Nevermind wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“Au contraire!” I respond. “When people saw the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ video, they realized the tyranny of spandex and neon tank tops was over. When they heard Dave Grohl play drums, they realized choruses can actually rock if you eschew the cowbell for the crash cymbal. When they heard Krist Novoselic play bass, they realized songs were better when bassists played more than one note. And when they heard Kurt Cobain play an entire guitar solo that was just the melody of the verses all over again, they realized they didn’t have to be Jimi Hendrix in order to play guitar. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to write a good riff, invent a good melody, and make good music. Grunge democratized rock like nothing had done since the folk movement of the 60s.”
“But what about punk in the 70s?” you ask, because you know your music history. “Wasn’t that an anti-virtuoso, power-to-the-people kind of thing?”
“Okay, yeah,” I admit. “First there was 60s folk, then 70s punk, then 90s grunge. Whenever pop music starts to get too fancy, there’s a swing back toward simplicity. There’s a return to its roots. Every virtuoso phase is followed by a folk rebellion.”
“Ah, so the history of music is a Hegelian dialectic,” you offer. “The virtuoso phase is like Hegel’s ‘thesis’, and the folk rebellion is like Hegel’s ‘antithesis’.”
“True, true,” I admit, “the folk revivals see themselves as opposed to the fancy, artsy, virtuosic music of the time. But then even the folk artists start to get fancy, developing more and more technically-complex songs. Just think of how the Beatles changed over time. Or remember Green Day’s attempt at a concept album.”
“Well, then you have Hegel’s ‘synthesis’!” you exclaim in triumph. “Pop music has all three phases! There’s the original style (thesis), then its opposite (antithesis), and then their union (synthesis) into a new and higher style.”
Shoulda Been a Nietzschean
“That would surely be nifty,” I respond with the merest hint of disappointment. “But I think it’s just a cycle back and forth between virtuoso and folk. Between technical and organic. Between elitist and populist. I don’t think there’s any progress happening. We’re not headed toward some ultimate goal, like Hegel thought.”
“We’re just spinning our wheels, then?” you ask.
“Well, yeah. But they’re some mighty fine wheels.”
“So, you’re not a Hegelian,” you say. “You’re a Nietzschean. You believe in the Eternal Return of the Same. History just repeats itself, over and over, forever.”
“You have a problem with Nietzsche?”
“Nietzsche is great for angsty teens, like the brother in Little Miss Sunshine. But you have to eventually grow up.”
“So, you think people grow out of folk-oriented styles of music? You never heard of Pete Seeger?” I retort.
“Well, look,” you respond, “it’s just a fact that Nietzsche — and the existentialists after him — are primarily attractive to people in their teens. And in the 90s, it was the teens who got into grunge.”
“Ummmm. . . .”
“And it’s just a fact,” you continue, “that grunge, like all folk genres, is simplistic. It’s the kind of thing a kid can learn to play. Four chords, no solo, and you’re done. But you shouldn’t stop growing in your teens. You should keep developing your skills. You have to mature.”
Back to the Big Cheese Himself
This, of course, gives me pause. “So, you’re saying that being a virtuoso is virtuous.”
“Yes,” you say, “I’m an Aristotelian.” (Congratulations! You’re an Aristotelian now.) “I think everything has an essence. Everything belongs to a definite type or kind. And everything should work to become as excellent and mature as it can be, given the kind of thing it is.”
“Ah, but you see,” I say with glee in my beady little eyes, “I think the more complex and artsy pop music gets, the more it moves away from being ‘song’. ‘Song’ comes from ‘sing'” — a fact I just totally made up (but which seems to be supported by the ultimate etymology of the word). “So, if you can’t sing it, it isn’t a song. And the more difficult it is to sing without accompaniment, or without pausing for long guitar solos, the worse of a song it is.”
“So, you think prog rock and thrash metal songs aren’t songs?” you ask.
“Or maybe they’re songs we’ve caught in the middle of morphing into something else. Songs aren’t the only kind of music, you know.”
“I think you’re letting your theory get in the way of seeing what’s obvious.”
“Or maybe I’m a visionary who’s ahead of his time,” I say, defensively. “Could you go from door to door, caroling Megadeth a cappella?”
“Ummmmm. . . .”
“I thought not,” I cry in triumph. “The great thing about Nevermind is the melodies. Both Spin and Rolling Stone called the songs ‘hummable’, and that evaluation remains current.”
“But metal songs can be singable too. What about ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It‘, by Twisted Sister?”
“That’s a punk song. They can dress themselves up all they want, but it doesn’t make the song not punk.”
“And punk is just another folk genre, like grunge,” you offer.
Coda: You Know You’re Right
“Well, okay. But I still think I could poke a whole ton of holes in your theory if I wasn’t late for work at the Fortune 500 company I own,” you say, wearing your very, very expensive suit.
“No doubt. And maybe I need to grow up, delete my Nirvana albums, throw out my Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus books, and take guitar lessons so I can learn to solo. But I still think Bob Dylan was right when he said, ‘Folk music is the greatest music, and grunge is the greatest folk’.”
You pause for a moment, trying to decide if I’m serious. “You just made that up,” you finally conclude.
“Maybe,” I say. “I would say more, but I’m late for work at my apartment, where I have a whole stack of papers to grade. So, I guess you’ll just never know.”
“I know how to use a search engine,” you reply. “I can find out if Bob Dylan really said that.”
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” I say cryptically, and walk away whistling a mixture of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Come As You Are.”
Micah Tillman teaches at McDaniel College and University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in phenomenology, with publications on the nature of linguistic and mathematical signs, as well as priority theory. For more philosophy about popular music, read his blog and follow him on Twitter.
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