Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Nature of Soul

On a listserve I subscribe to concerning the academic study of the Grateful Dead, there's been an interesting conversation around the nature of soul, not in the sense of an immaterial essence that survives the body, but soul in art, specifically, in music. The conversation began as a discussion differentiating the lived experience of people who had attended shows by both the Dead and Phish, many (but not all) of whom saying that while they enjoyed and appreciated the latter, there was something different, a depth, a spirituality, something that didn't quite touch them deep down in the same way.

Hypotheses to account for this difference looked at the subject matter and lyrical qualities of the words of the songs, at the musical influences, at the times from which the bands emerged, and their biographical details.

There seems little doubt that some music "has more soul" than others. A rough necessary, but not sufficient condition for "soul" seems to be the ability to invoke an emotional response through empathy with the performer. If someone is being a jerk and their art is insulting and obnoxious, it may cause strong feelings, but that is not soulful; yet, if the performer is angry or portraying anger towards something in the song and it causes you to experience the same sort of emotion, that would be soulful.

Now the standard cliche is "You have to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues." So is soul something that is more than technique, more than the musical equivalent of method acting? Is it something that itself requires the lived experience of strong emotions? Do you have to have been in dire straits and come out the other side to acquire soul? Is it something like, "Once one has felt emotions in a deep place, it is then possible to communicate emotionally in a different way, but trying to copy someone without having 'been in that place' makes it inauthentic and ineffective"?

The music we tend to associate with being soulful does seem to come overwhelmingly from oppressed minorities. Is this a function of the suffering that social and political alienation and violation bring with them? Is soul the artistic version of post-traumatic stress disorder? Those in the group wielding the most power not only have many fewer opportunities to experience great joy or suffering, but tend to be suspicious of strong emotions since they rock the boat, they are a first step towards challenging the structure that gives them their power. Systemic control and self-control seem related and this would mean that those in control would prefer a music that emphasizes self-control -- technical virtuosity and lyrical cleverness instead of emotional amplification.

And in our two bands, we seem to see something similar. Phish's music was certainly different from that of the Dead exploring tone and tempo in interesting ways that were much different from the Dead. Lyrically also, the Dead tend to come from the folk/bluegrass tradition with songs of betrayal and mortality where Phish's lyrics tended towards the ironic and off-beat. This shouldn't seem odd when the Grateful Dead arose from the Beats into interesting times as the ancient Chinese curse would have it, a period of war, assassination, and the struggle for rights, but also a time when there was a belief that the younger generation could change the world with music, love and chemical substances. The music contained, often mournfully, the residue of the times.

But Phish came out of the Reagan years into the era of irony, from a generation that traded scornful glares with the baby-boomers, a time when naive optimism had frayed and a different ethos was running amok in the suburban world of those drawn to scene. When double-speak became the coin of governance and a love/hate relationship emerged towards complacency. The vague fear of losing the comfortable lifestyle always loomed, but the milquetoast existence also repressed. The key to dealing with this sense of the bifurcated neurotic self was musical dada, controlled chaos, safety in rebellion. But to paraphrase Nietzsche, it was upon these grounds that the mind became interesting. Maybe distance is needed for playfulness. The Latin word "esse" gets translated as both mind and soul, but the two seem to be different.