Does Your Music Have Soul?

By: Sam Klee, ’16

My Saturday playlist is typically filled with the unexceptional tripe that saturates our local airwaves.  As electronic beats blend into monotonous noise, it reflects the frenetic sense of stress behind my study habits.

Yet this weekend, rather than settling for the latest Eminem or Avicii, I sent Spotify deep into the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to rediscover the smooth, soulful sounds of Motown.  Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke sang with gusto, while the songs lent a foreign sense of calm to our apartment.  Life slowed to a mellow, thoroughly enjoyable pace.  The contrast was truly striking and, needless to say, the night resulted in a new 39-song playlist (available upon request).

“Why don’t we make music like this today?”  

I thought long about this, my roommates’ recurring question.  Many would agree that music is a fundamental expression of culture.  Furthermore, according to the historian Christopher Dawson, each culture embodies a particular religious tradition.  By this logic, one may be able to discover society’s values through its to popular music.

Therefore, what values are expressed by contemporary music?  Certainly, people find something about it attractive, that it speaks to something within the modern experience.  However, what values are being expressed by Shakira and Cyrus?  What lessons are being taught by Lady Gaga and Rhianna?  Vapid indulgence in sex, drugs, and general freedom from moral restraint are certainly consistent themes.

Comparing this picture to the 1950s and 60s, many of these themes remain.  Marvin Gaye sings of sex, the Rolling Stones of drug abuse, while the Who rail against social conformity.  My point lies in a matter of degrees; modern musicians make no effort to varnish their messages, settling instead for the overtly blatant approach of grotesque shock.  In contrast, many artists of the past retained at least some vestige of prior moral sentiments.

This progression does not serve to vindicate the past, nor wholly vilify the present.  Instead, it should make us question those values running beneath.  To me, if music reflects our cultural sentiments, such expressions found across decades would signify a deeper problem in society than passing trends in recording.  It reveals a society looking for its soul, searching for truth, yet lost amidst its divorce from tradition.

This article was expanded from a Student Voices article, originally published with the Intercollegiate Review Online.

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