It’s good to see you back for part four of the Pop Cycle! You can find the first article here, and carry on reading the other parts at your leisure.
In the past, we’ve discussed how music becomes popular socially, why we like it individually, and how it affects us mentally and spiritually. But in all this, we should stop and ask a big question: what’s the point of music? Why do we like it at all? If an alien came to earth, would they understand the mystical relationships between people and their favorite songs?
What is it about “Stairway to Heaven” that enraptures the Led Zeppelin crowd? About “Imagine” or about “Three Little Birds” that people revere Lennon and Marley? What makes each of these examples so potent? The answer to that question can be found in an antique word, “telos.” Aristotle and his kin used to debate what the telos, or purpose of something was. A school’s telos is to educate, not to make money. A business’s telos is to make money, not create art. In essence, it was a question of mission statement. What is the ultimate good of any given thing? But it was also about objective value. What makes To Kill a Mockingbird a “masterpiece” while The Very Hungry Caterpillar is just a storybook for infants? Telos isn’t just a question of individual purposes, but about finding the Higher Purposes, the True Good.
Of course, people find different telos in what they listen to: some rock out to relax, others meditate on Gregorian chants, and others are serenaded by Italian sopranos. That’s also why the three songs I mentioned before appeal to such a wide range of people. They tell a story that the listener finds attractive, that meshes effortlessly into their worldview with all its likes and dislikes.
Think of a time you had a favorite song you wanted somebody else to listen to (I’ve used a similar example before). But when you played it, they looked at you a little sideways, not understanding how this could possibly be your favorite song. Then they played their own, and you were left wondering the same – how could anyone find that to be the best song there is?
It’s the same with any other preferences. As much as you may love chocolate, tea, coffee, or steak, there will be those who find all of those things repugnant in equal measure. Anything can be anyone’s favorite in some category.
But don’t we also feel that some music, no matter how valid it is as somebody’s favorite…simply isn’t that good? Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but aren’t there certain pieces of art or foods that we just think are better than others? Few people would rather have a rotten apple than a fresh one, for instance. It might not be incorrect to call the rotten one better in your own eyes, but most of us would agree that the fresh is better in certain objective ways.
I’ll end the post here, but stay tuned – next week I’m coming back to explore even further. Let’s see if we can’t find out what makes good music truly good.
[Image credit to Telos Systems]