Monday, 15 August 2011

Opinion: Thinking Through Melody

How much does music affect the brain, and is it a cause for concern within our society?

In light of the recent riots that started in London and then spread to other major cities within the UK, there has been much speculation about what the cause of these riots is. The original riot was started after a man was shot by police in Tottenham, but then why should that be a grievance for people in, for example, Liverpool? Many things have been blamed; Our consumerist society, the gap between the rich and the poor, the discipline with which those carrying out the riots were brought up. However, as we should have foreseen, some people have turned back to that old, ever present chestnut: Music.

In a recent article in the Daily Mirror, journalist Paul Routledge wrote:
" Is rap music to blame for this culture of violence? I blame the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and the loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs."

To which London rapper Professor Green put back this stirling argument:
"Yeah ban rap music, silence us even more. Surely this isn't about shifting the blame, but accepting responsibility? Neither my music or that of my peers is to blame for society and its faults. We didn't create the tiers."

Music has, over the decades, all too frequently been used as a scapegoat for blame when an institution (usually a government) wants to hide away from reality. Marilyn Manson got the stick in America for apparently inspiring the boys to commit the Columbine High School massacre through his music in 1999. English heavy metal band Judas Priest were blamed and even taken to court after two devout fans shot themselves in the head after apparently hearing a subliminal message hidden in one of the band's songs. Emo has consistently been blamed for teen suicide. When people don't want to accept responsibility, music is their easiest way out.

It's certainly true that to an extent music does have an effect on the brain. Admittedly, when listening to Mastodon's "Blood and Thunder" I feel psyched up and ready to take on anything in my path. When listening to Warpaint's "Baby" I feel an overwhelming sense of head- over- heels romanticism, and when I listen to Faithless' "Sun to me" I feel like I should be in the midst of a sweaty mid- '90s rave. But when listening to "Blood and Thunder" I don't want or try to beat up the next person who walks round the corner. When listening to "Baby" I don't try and kiss every pretty girl who walks past me in the street. When listening to "Sun to Me" I don't suddenly take loads of acid, don a fluorescent lycra body suit and start re- enacting those '90s rave ups.

The crucial point is that the lyrics and atmospheres conjured up by music, 99.9% of the time, are not meant to be taken literally. Since the dawn of modern music sex, drugs and violence have all been very prevalent themes in lyrics, across all mediums of music. Bob Dylan was one of the original purveyors of misery through music, and most of Jimi Hendrix's lyrics were probably written off the back of an LSD hallucination, most notably "Purple Haze." However when Hendrix wrote " Purple Haze," he most certainly wasn't condoning drug abuse, he was simply describing an experience.

The same train of thought can be linked to a band who have been an easy target for disgust ever since they emerged from the grimy back alleys of LA, the skulking hip- hop collective Odd Future. Consistently throughout their music they rap about rape, murder, domestic violence and loathing of authority, which in their case is mostly their parents. But when Odd Future rap about these things, they are not advocating any of them. They don't WANT you to go out and rape any women. They don't WANT you to kill any policemen. By creating these villainous characters for themselves, they're simply re- iterating an age- old art- form in music, and this is not to be taken literally at all. I mean, nobody actually suspects David Byrne of being a sadistic murderer as he suggested in Talking Heads' classic "Psycho Killer", do they?

The people who commit these crimes do not do so because the lyrics in a song told them to. In the case of the riots, many things are to blame. The ridge between the rich and the poor is huge and is ever increasing. The consumerist society we live in fuels the idea that it's the possessions you HAVE that matter rather than what you achieve. In any other case, it's often because the people carrying out the deeds have been secluded, or have secluded themselves from society. It's a well known fact that the two boys who committed the Columbine massacre didn't have many friends at school and were socially awkward. More recently, when the police arrested Anders Behring Breivik, the man convicted of killing 97 innocent people in two terrorist attacks in Norway in July, they found that he had "far- right sympathies" and was in alignment politically with the Klu Klux Klan.

At the end of the day, papers like the Daily Mirror are always going to blame something anti- conformist. The fact remains however that music cannot be blamed for the disgusting aforementioned crimes that have been carried out over the decades. The only people extreme enough to commit such horrors are those on the outer rims of society, with a deeper- burning hatred for something. The likelihood is that music will always be used a scapegoat for such times. Rather tragically though, the inclined unwillingness to accept responsibility only decreases the trust we have in those we put our faith in in the first place.

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