Mikis Theodorakis (b. 1925)
The art of the song and the redemption of pop music
“I create means I am free – I become free. The message of art is a message of freedom.” – Mikis Theodorakis
During the founding of a modern nation in an ancient land, pulverised by the World Wars and multiple civil wars. From imprisonment, torture and exile, these songs were born: a revolutionary pop music that would capture the spirit of the people and instill them with the strength to struggle against adversity and oppression and find their way to freedom.
PART I: MIKIS THEODORAKIS AND THE REDEMPTION OF POP MUSIC
This text is about pop music and the art of the song, making it also essentially about the art of lyrics and poetry – for there is no popular song without the power of the word.
At the core of this text there are three questions. Firstly, what is “pop music”? We now use the term pop to indicate a genre, but the origin of the word popular – of the people – goes far beyond our current use. The Vox Populi, the voice of the people, would be a music born out of the masses and not only made for the masses. Can it really be said that what passes for “pop music” today reflects the voice of the people, the very inner spirit of man unfolding itself into the world of song? Or is this “music” the product of an industry whose primary aim – aside from profit – is social and behavioural engineering? This “music” that with each successive generation seems to descend further and further into simplicity and repetition, not to mention vulgarity… Is this really a true “pop” music, a music of the people? The next question then emerges: in our modern age, has there ever really been a true popular music? If not, what would a true “pop music” be? And what its effect?
Enter Mikis Theodorakis. To assist us in answering these questions, let us look at his life and work.
Born in 1925, Mikis Theodorakis has been a leading figure in every major event in modern Greek history. Launched into the public sphere through his fame as a composer of symphonies, oratorios, operas, ballets and chamber music, he became an active and highly polemical political figure. Aside from his classical compositions, his popular songs – of which there are over 1000 – topped the charts in Greece and abroad, fueled revolutions, and consoled the masses for the multiple tragedies of decades of nearly continuous war. He was awarded the IMC UNESCO International Music Prize in 2005 for “his constant struggles for freedom, social justice and human dignity, [which] rise above national boundaries and become a legacy for all humanity.”
Throughout his long life, Mikis Theodorakis has endured inconceivable trials of body and spirit – pushed to the brink of death on several occasions. Multiple incarcerations, exile, torture… Many of his songs were penned on scraps of paper during his numerous periods of imprisonment. The accounts of the jailhouse performances of his works are legendary. The biographies of such pivotal figures are also a history of the time in which they have lived – to know Mikis Theodorakis is to know the history not only of Greece, but of the entire global climate of his age .
“Therefore, the art that wants to express faithfully and sincerely a people that struggles for its freedom aspires to win not only the love of this people but also the hatred of its enemies.”
When in the late 1960s, a Military Junta took over in Greece and thrust the country into what is called the “Seven Years”, a hell of conflict during which exile, torture and assassinations were the norm, one of the first acts of the military regime was an official ban on playing any music by Mikis Theodorakis – either live or on the radio.
“1 June, 1967: Army Order No. 13: 1. We have decided and we order that throughout the country it is forbidden (a) to reproduce or play the music and songs of the composer Mikis Theodorakis… 2. Citizens who contravene this Order will be brought immediately before the military tribunal and judged under martial law.”
This is the power of a true popular music – to affect the hearts and souls of a nation, to stir the spirit of the people and inspire noble action and even giving your very blood for truth. Songs of Resistance: that is how the popular songs of Mikis Theodorakis are known. They are songs of Freedom.
To get an idea of the breadth of Theodorakis’s artistic impact, British journalist Ron Hall wrote: “It was as if Benjamin Britten had set verses by Auden to be sung by the Archbishop of Canterbury – and the records had pushed the Beatles out of the charts.” Obviously the West does not have any parallel movement with which to draw comparison.
In response to our second question – have we ever really had a true modern popular music? – during a period of exile mostly spent in France and England, Theodorakis wrote:
“Nonetheless there is no dearth of vast musical movements like pop music. These however have not been able to mount the barrier of spontaneity and to create complex works that aspire to embrace more than the senses – the mind, imagination, intellectuality, the aesthetic deliverance, and, finally, the moral and spiritual elevation, the internal liberation.”
It is of extreme interest that this was written during the early 70s, when “pop music’“, especially in England, was a thriving industry – with bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others reaching a fever pitch of popularity. These heavily marketed crazes did not rise to the challenge of granting “aesthetic deliverance.” Theodorakis, in short, emphatically answers “no”, at least for American/English industry pop music. A cursory glance at the development of pop music from that time to the present only makes that “no” more resounding and absolute. So, if this is not a true popular music, what is it?
As for our third question – what would a true popular music be? – the differences between true pop music and industry music are not to be found in structure. The basic layout of verse-chorus does not need a major overhaul; what is needed is for the song to be imbued with poetic content, as Theodorakis himself explicitly points out.
Regarding lyrical quality and content, industry music pales in comparison with great poetry, even for those whom some would consider poets – songwriters. So poor is the lyrical content of the industry song as far back as we look into the radio age that I contemplated whether it was necessary to give examples… I concluded that even a short glimpse at any random selection of lyrics should be sufficient to prove this point. Rather than reinforcing collective values, our current lyrics promote and elicit the most base behavior, the most crude and narcissistic expressions of the ego, reducing the human being to little more than an animal in pursuit of money and loveless sexual gratification and “good times”. Poetry and lyrical content this will be more fully addressed in the third installment of this series.
In the next article we will deal with the nature of the industry and social and behavioral engineering.
PART II – POP MUSIC: REBELLION OR CONFORMITY
“I create means I am free – I become free. The message of art is a message of freedom.”
Having passed through several generations of different styles of popular music – from the earliest days of the songbooks of Tin Pan Alley to Bee-Bop and Rock ‘n’ Roll to contemporary mostly electronic-based industry music – we see with every successive development an increase in shock and brutish aesthetics. From early crooners through to rock and punk, metal, death metal, rap, hip-hop, gangster rap, there is an increasing dependence on the image and the inevitable icons that are propped up as colossal cultural figures. And of the lyrical content? It has reached a point that popular songs listened to by youth throughout the world consist merely of the repetition of a single expletive. The names of the many singers and the bands are of no importance, for one cannot criticize directly with any positive results. Each generation has its own favorites, and the music that one hears during their years of development is so tied up with identity that to speak negatively of a singer or popular music figure is to enter an argument of no resolve. To insult the music a person likes is to insult that person. So we must speak apophatically about the music that has been popularized through the industry. Apophatically: not criticizing what it is, but what it is not.
The paradox is that each generation has felt a rebelliousness in the new music of their generation that pours through their radios, stereos or smartphones – to the dismay of their elders. But after so many successive generations, we can see that this feeling of rebelliousness has always actually been conformity. With each generation, what the industry produces is more extreme, visceral and shocking. But for the discerning ear, though the style is shocking, the music is actually very simplistic and conservative, breaking no boundaries. The fundamental characteristic of popular music is standardization. The music has become more simplistic. Interestingly, the frequencies of pop music through modern production techniques has come to resemble that of white noise. And of the lyrics, words fail to describe the vapidity of content and the complete lack of craft.
Theodore Adorno, in his highly influential essay On Popular Music, proposes that all popular music is created in order to distract and create an ambivalent, automaton-like behavior, stripping away all individuality:
“Listening to popular music is manipulated not only by its promoters but, as it were by the inherent nature of this music itself, into a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society.”
There is a plethora of works that discuss social engineering and behavior manipulation through the mass media, but that is not the point I wish to emphasize. With the pseudo-individualization that takes place within popular music forms in order to disguise its highly conventional standardization, the emphasis has increasingly been placed on the personality of individuals and on the image and behavior as opposed to the art itself. We are offered puffed-up and propagandized illusions of the so-called ‘talented’ icons, but in reality, the cultural icons that have been offered to us – and particularly in our greatest times of need – have been some of the greatest cultural failures and disappointments. Searching the annals of Western popular music, I can hardly think of one positive role model. It is all a puffed-up illusion.
The illusion of choice provided by the careful differentiation of ‘styles’ of music portends towards an ‘individuality’ and ‘freedom’ with which the listener aligns to the style of his choice and builds his identity around this choice – in other words, pseudo-individualization. So we have the rocker, the hip-hopper, etc. Even less so now, as stylistic identity has been eliminated by the assimilation of all music by technology, even the choice has been automatized by the machine. With the advent of streaming technology, the machine even makes the choice for us. To push a button and listen to sounds emitted on a poor quality speaker is enough to give the feeling of freedom of choice. Adorno states;
“The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment, which does not demand attention either.
People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire.”
There can be little that is more embarrassing than the adult listener of pop music. Bound up with the feelings of nostalgia, the strumming of a chord of an old song is nothing but the listener’s own personal conformity to that ‘cheap commercial entertainment’, which has always been cultural trash. And now with the prevailing focus on drugs, sex, and the sheer vacuity of the texts, this music is poison – to an extent unimagined even by Adorno himself.
Over the course of the development of the ‘culture’ industry, the masses have discriminated less and less, allowing commercialization to take complete hold over entertainment and to sell their ‘cultural commodities’ with complete abandon, leaving us with the feeling that we’re getting what we want and that we enjoy what we’re getting.
The void for which people turn to pop music and entertainment is to escape the boredom of their daily labours. It is a stimulation into a senseless state of distraction, but in order for it not to become boring, the stimulation must be increased. And if we go back to the earliest days of modern popular entertainment in the age of mechanical reproduction, we feel we have passed from an age of innocent song to the most visceral carnality of spread-legged women with demonic countenance singing of the functions of their bodies. The stimulant must become more intense and ever-more extreme. The music produces a void of effortless sensation.
So where can we go from here? Is it possible to find redemption for popular music within the confines of this industry? Should discerning people only look to Art-Music, so called ernste Musik, to find relief and inspiration? What about the basic structures of the song – can they be kept?
Theodorakis, who has produced an incredible body of beautiful popular music that empowered his nation and the entire and world, points us in the right direction:
“To achieve this, composers of pop-music ought to do what we did. That is, they should collaborate with the great poets and writers of their countries, so that they could marry their musical sensibility, which is full of life, with the poetic visions and the messages of the living poetry of our era. In this way, they would avoid resolutely the threatening danger of repetition and superfluity. The elevated poetic content would reinforce their musical creation and compel it to develop into more complex forms, always speaking face to face with the broad masses of world youth.”
Poetry is the highest elevation of language; through poetic contemplation we can be brought to the absolute heights of our human ability. Our lives can be transformed. Our worldviews can be changed forever by the insights that can be gained from the empowered use of language. It is the poetic content of the song that should be its central and integral core.
The answer is not to fundamentally to reinvent the song. The redemption of pop music can be found in THE WORD.