I’m proud to be taking part in this terrifically exciting, deeply educational seminar, taking place this Thursday at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City!
Click here to learn more.
Kevin Fennell: Rock Critic, Singer, Aesthetic Realism Associate
I’m proud to be taking part in this terrifically exciting, deeply educational seminar, taking place this Thursday at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City!
Click here to learn more.
In this groundbreaking interview, the very fine flutist Barbara Allen tells what she has learned from Aesthetic Realism about the profound relation between a person’s way of seeing the world and her ability to play her instrument with depth and honest beauty. She is interviewed by composer Dr. Edward Green.
Listen and you’ll be amazed at the logic of what she explains; and you also will hear great evidence of her success in the beautiful passages she plays by Mozart, Bach and Gluck.
While this site is principally devoted to rock and roll, when something this big happens in the world of music as a whole, I feel I owe it to you, my readers, to let you know.
Click below and enjoy!
I see the following great principle of Aesthetic Realism, stated by its founder Eli Siegel, as true about every good rock song and about every individual person: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And at the same time, this principle is true about our nation as a whole. With all her turmoil and confusion, America is trying, even now, to be beautiful, to put opposites together.
In this post I will look at Chuck Berry’s lovable recording “Back in the USA” and ask: What can it tell us about what America is looking for at this time? Here’s how it begins:
At the very outset, Chuck’s guitar intro breaks forth out of nowhere with terrific eagerness, freedom, impetuous joy. Yet it’s all very exact; all those excited notes — many of them played in pairs (that is, on two strings at once) — keep a very strict beat even as they ring out with such excitement. And then there is that satisfying sense of curtailment as he plays a series of cascading notes sliding downward and ending neatly, squarely upon the whack of that drumbeat which is right on the downbeat and which propels us into the beginning of the song — and we’re off to the races!
It’s important to see that wherever freedom is really beautiful, it is always together with — is always the same as — fairness, measure, exactitude. Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want to feel entirely free at the very same time feel that we’re being fair? The two mistakes I’ve often made have been to either cut loose and be “free” without much regard for what people or things deserved from me — or to strap myself down and be dutiful and rigidly “organized” while seeing life and existence itself as miserably dull. Art makes neither mistake.
And America, our dear country, wants its very freedom to be the same as justice to its own people and to the rest of the world—not to deny liberty to some for the purpose of giving free reign to a favored few.
In an issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known editor Ellen Reiss writes:
Freedom is beautiful, necessary, a right—when it is at one with justice. But a notion of freedom which is not the same as accuracy and justice, is the beginning of all the evil of the world…The American Civil War occurred because persons of the South wanted to be “free” to own other human beings, to sell them, to do whatever they pleased with them… And there was the “freedom” to have child labor. Employers saw…any attempt to curtail child labor as an impingement of their—the employers’—freedom.
I could certainly give other examples of the ugliness of severing “freedom” from justice and accuracy. But for now the point is: our dear America is looking for the oneness of freedom and justice. Mr. Siegel wrote, for example, in 1968: “Perhaps then we should change a well-known term to Free-and-Accurate Enterprise; or, perhaps, Free-and-Just Enterprise; or, even, Free-and-Beautiful Enterprise.”
One of the delights of “Back in the USA” is the richness of diversity in its technique—its interplay of sameness and difference in sound. After the intro, drums, bass and guitar launch into a lively rock and roll stride as Johnny Johnson’s piano swarms up and down the keyboard. They contradict one another and get along delightfully. And I love how the backup singers come in on top of all this with that ragged, syncopated, alternating “Uh-uh-huh! Oh! Yeah! — Uh-uh-huh! Oh! Yeah!” Their voices, high and low, do not comprise what you would offhand call a lovely or graceful interval, but instead emit something kind of sour, sort of off, somehow wrong and yet so right at once. I love it. What diversity! What contradiction! And what a beautiful stew! And you’ll notice as the song goes along, with each new verse these backup singers keep changing it up — using different syllables and rhythms as they go. Meanwhile that driving beat holds it all together.
As Berry enters singing about the joy of “touching ground” on a flight returning from overseas, we can almost feel the landing gear descending and see the runway fleeting by below his window. He is embracing all that diversity, all that contradiction, and he doesn’t seem to mind a bit. Listen:
How much do we need difference — what is different from ourselves — just to be? The answer is, we need it very much. If all we ever met was just what we see as the same as ourselves, we’d go crazy the first day. We need the alphabet, food, metal, mountains, music, other people, and so much else. And I believe that America longs to be in a state where each of us not only “accepts” or “tolerates” people we see as different from ourselves — racially, economically, culturally — but where we honestly feel that we need people different from ourselves — and in fact need them to be different in order to fully be ourselves. This can seem so other than America as we have it now, but I believe it is what the people of America most deeply want.
Ellen Reiss writes in the issue of TRO I quoted from earlier:
All racism arises from seeing a person who seems different from oneself as only different. It is urgent now to try to have these opposites, so deep in America’s makeup, be one in how her people think about each other. Is a person different from me only different? How much is he or she like me too?…
When you see that another person has feelings as real as yours, you cannot be cruel to him. You cannot (for instance) exploit him economically. You cannot feel it’s all right for him to be poor
Getting back to the song, the sweeping poetry of the American landscape gets into the second verse with a listing of US cities, including the rhythmic line, “De-troit, Chi-ca-go, Chattanooga, Ba-ton-Rouge,” and culminating with Berry’s beloved hometown of “old Saint Lou.” Johnny Johnson’s piano now excitedly sails forth and ranges over the ivory continent, in a musical reflection of what the words are telling. Then Berry pays homage to the earthy physiognomy of America — its vertical and horizontal heights and breadth: “Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway/ from the coast of California to the shores of the Delaware Bay? You can bet your life I did till I got back in the USA!”
His gratitude upon returning home from overseas he celebrates now with a joyous guitar solo. He is celebrating his connection, his belonging to the earth — not just any earth; the earth of the USA. But is the love being expressed just chauvinistic superiority: “My country is better than all those other countries”? I don’t think so. I think it’s in keeping with the profound emotion expressed in the famous lines of Walter Scott:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand?
That guitar solo takes ecstatic flight but never loses connection with the ground from which it springs: the basic rock and roll chord progression. And upon reaching the culminating tonic chord, it returns to solid ground.
In the commentary I’m quoting from, Ms. Reiss asks:
Is it un-American to have one child be crippled from birth by conditions of poverty that she did nothing to create, while another is surrounded from birth with more luxuries than she can ever use? These questions are American questions. They are about the oneness of opposites—self and world, a person and a land. And inseparable from them is the question Eli Siegel said was the most important for humanity: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
“Anything you want, they got it right here in the USA!” Chuck Berry exclaims in the song. He knew as well as anybody that not everyone in the USA is equally equipped financially to get those things. But there is such an easy confidence in the way, in the last verse, he describes enjoying the good things of this world that America has to offer, that he makes you believe it; he makes you feel: that’s right, this should be everyone’s birthright, of course! We all should be able to afford sustenance for our bodies as well as the sustenance for our souls that are represented in last verse in the form of food and art: the hamburger that “sizzles on an open grill” and a “jukebox jumpin’ with records.”
I’m saying that America is insisting now — and will continue to insist — upon putting together the opposites I have been writing about: freedom and exactitude, sameness and difference, self and Earth. The closer we get to seeing what this would mean—and Aesthetic Realism stands ready to teach us—the better we’ll all be able to honestly feel what Chuck Berry proclaims in this song: “I’m so glad I’m living in the USA!”
Here is the exuberant last verse:
Rock on, my friends!
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org
Where would we be without Chuck Berry?
Just for starters:
1. We would not have rock and roll as we know it.
2. The Beatles would not be the Beatles.
3. The Rolling Stones would not be the Rolling Stones.
4. A great deal of popular music that has been loved these 60 years and more would never have been.
But most importantly, America and the world would have missed one of the most powerful, positive cultural forces we have seen.
And why do I, and many others, feel that?
I think it’s explained by this landmark principle of Aesthetic Realism stated by its founder Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
I believe Chuck Berry’s music played a major role in the coming to be of rock and roll itself because of the way it puts opposites together—very importantly, the opposites of freedom and accuracy. Freedom has to be the same as accuracy, otherwise it’s not true freedom at all. Chuck Berry’s music is an everlastingly joyful celebration of freedom, and at its best it is always free and exact at once. We love it because it stands for how we want to be. We want to feel that being fair to, accurate about another person or thing is real freedom—the most authentic expression of our very selves.
When Chuck plays one of his exuberant guitar solos at the beginning or in the middle of a song, it always adheres to a very definite chord progression and is contained neatly within the solid rhythm laid down by the drums and band. Often, the rhythm used is “stop-time”—just one strong pulse on the first beat of each measure. As he plays, freedom is achieved not by ignoring these parameters, but by being beautifully faithful to them. And we are thrilled because we are hearing freedom and exactitude—also impediment and release—as one thing.
Then there are all the classic guitar licks, riffs and hooks that Berry uses to underlie and punctuate his songs, so many of which have become part of rock and roll’s DNA. Again and again, you hear his strong hands bending the steel strings of that guitar, and while you feel the stress, the resistance, the pressure, you also hear those glorious, triumphant notes come ringing forth—inevitable, unstoppable, clean.
In addition to the great guitar work, there is so much else to love in Berry’s music—including his often wonderful lyrics and the energetic, sometimes syncopated, sometimes streaming-staccato way he delivers them over the rhythm of the band, his voice conveying a twinkle in his eye—and again, that sense of joyful victory over obstacles.
Chuck Berry himself, with many troubles in his life, didn’t know that his music pointed the way for how he wanted to be, and I wish he could have.
But his legacy as an artist is very large.
Rock and Roll is here to stay, and as long as it stays it will bear his indelible mark.
The world owes him an enormous debt of gratitude, and I’m writing this to express some of mine.
Goodbye, dear Chuck Berry, and thank you!
Are you with me, readers? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
And stay tuned for some upcoming posts with more about Chuck Berry, including his great 1964 record “Nadine.”
Rock on my friends,
Aesthetic Realism is great and new in showing there is a deep, inevitable desire in every person to have a good effect on people, to have people stronger. How much we want our lives to mean something good for other people is so much bigger than we have known, and this is the most hopeful news for every person. It is part of our deepest desire, which I’ve learned is our desire to like the world. In his great lecture, “Mind and Friends,” Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, said:
I have described the three possible situations a person may be in, in meeting even a stranger. Assume that John Rosen meets James Robinson. John Rosen talks to James Robinson for five minutes. John Rosen either leaves James Robinson exactly as he was; or through talking to him he can make him worse off than he was; or he can make him better off than he was. “I was introduced to him and I talked to him for five minutes. 1) I left him exactly as he was—I don’t like that. I don’t like talking to a guy for five minutes and not meaning a thing, even though it isn’t bad. 2) I did him some harm; I really did him some bad things; I don’t like that. 3) I did him a little good.” John Rosen likes that; everybody would.
Aesthetic Realism enables a person to see clearly how we have affected people, and also what effect we really want to have, and it makes for a beautiful change in that person’s life. I am grateful that this is what occurred with me—changing the deep self-doubt I had, and enabling me increasingly to be honestly proud of how I see and affect other people.
I’ll describe here how I changed and also discuss some aspects of the life of the great 20th century singer Elvis Presley, who had a large, good effect on people through his music, and so much wanted to in his day-to-day life.
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, I loved the grandeur of the Hudson River with the magnificent Palisades on the other shore; riding bikes in summer and sleds in winter; watching the “Million Dollar Movie” feature of the week on TV with stars like James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. And some of my happiest memories are of singing in harmony with my sister Marion many of the early songs of The Beatles. As we heard our voices blend and contrast trying to be exact about the notes and the rhythm, our effect on each other was good.
Yet when I wasn’t singing, I mainly had a very different purpose. I wanted to be the most important person in my sister’s life, and enjoyed conversations with her in which I made fun of people, looked down on them, and encouraged the feeling that the world was unlikable and beneath us. Without knowing it I was going after the victory of contempt, and didn’t think about what kind of effect this had on me, my sister, or anyone.
My parents were very busy—my mother with a house and four children, my father often with second jobs on top of his long hours as a fireman—and there was often tension between them. The lives of my oldest brother and sister seemed to be in frequent turmoil with school, friends, parents and each other. And I remember feeling very early that life was confusing and difficult.
The remedy I came to was to separate myself and feel superior, “too good” for all this. As the youngest, I cultivated a mild-mannered innocence. I got a lot of praise from my family for being well-behaved, good-looking, smart, a pleasure to be around. I used this to feel I had a special quality that made just my mere presence good for another person, without my having to do anything. Meanwhile, I came to be more and more dissatisfied, and saw the rest of the world—which didn’t give me the automatic approval my family did—as harsh and unfriendly. This affected very much how I was with people. In his essay “Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?,” Mr. Siegel explains: “If you feel that the world is ill-managed, is contemptible, is unkind, you have to show that in how you see [other people].”
I got less interested in things, and took to hanging around with Matty O’Brien on his back porch where we’d complain about having “nothing to do.” With friends in college, I wanted to be seen as witty and keenly insightful as we mocked people and pointed out the “phoniness” we’d seen in “society.” And I encouraged my friends to use drugs with me—mostly marijuana—ratifying in each other the feeling the world was unlikable and should be put aside. One friend, David, was often torn between his pre-med studies and social life on campus. I’m sorry that I never once encouraged him to study, but instead pressured him to party with us. Though I acted like I could laugh everything off, inwardly I agonized about my relationships with people. I would curse myself and cringe, going over and over things I’d said and done. I despised myself and had no idea why.
I am so lucky that in 1981 I met Aesthetic Realism and began to study in consultations. Because of the kindness and knowledge with which my consultants asked questions, I felt they got to the heart of things I’d felt all my life. When I spoke about feeling very separate from people, they asked: “Have you felt you should keep your distance from people while trying to have them very impressed with you?” I recognized this right away and answered, “Yes.” They asked: “Are you proud of yourself for the way you’ve thought about people—the effect you’ve wanted to have—or are you ashamed?” I, who had wanted so much to convince people, including myself, that I was a well-meaning nice guy, answered, “Ashamed.”
I knew that beneath my smiling surface I really didn’t care so much about the lives of the people close to me, and then I saw something very important: I had actually hoped another person would dislike the world, because in doing so they seemed to be making more of me. The great thing that happened is that in seeing this purpose consciously, I didn’t want to have it anymore! Eli Siegel explains in his essay “The Call for Ethics”:
[T]he central force in ethics, the best thing … in man’s mind … can be described shortly as a man’s inability to like himself if he saw that he met someone or something and wasn’t in some way good for that someone or something …. This desire for self-respect is a much more powerful thing than is thought.
I began to ask myself with friends, co-workers, people in my family, people I met for the first time: Do I hope this person likes things more, sees more meaning in the world around him or her, is more composed?—and in asking it, I saw how much I wanted to answer, Yes! I felt for the first time I was really capable of being kind. Ten lifetimes would not be enough to thank Eli Siegel for the knowledge that loosened the tangled knot that was my life, and gave me a chance to be honestly proud of my effect on people. I cherish the life I have, which includes my happy marriage to Carol McCluer who is a singer and actress, and the fact that we can study together in classes taught by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education.
The great American singer Elvis Presley had one of the largest effects on people—including in terms of numbers of people—of any person who has ever lived. Still loved now, he shook the world in the 1950’s and later with a voice, a sound, and electrifying stage performances that were exciting and new. I believe the reason his singing has had such a lasting good effect on people is explained by this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Listen to the opening of his classic 1958 recording, “Jailhouse Rock,” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Elvis sings with tremendous, all-out exuberance, while also there is measure, precision, even curtailment as each line is articulated separately:
[The] warden threw a party in the county jail.
The prison band was there and they began to wail.
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing…
I think there is no other singer in all of rock and roll who has that magnificent oneness of something tremblingly moved, stirred, and masterfully powerful at once. Until now, the guitar and drums have sounded like they’re struggling to break free, just like the prisoners in the song. Then Elvis gets to the line, “You shoulda heard this knocked-out jailbird sing,” with such exact fairness to the rhythm, and with every note on the same pitch, but with utter, abandoned wildness that sends a thrill through you as the band does what Elvis now sings: “Let’s rock! Everybody, let’s rock!”
Elvis Presley’s singing is loved because it shows opposites we hope to make sense of in ourselves can be one; That you can be free and not only not lose control, but have beautiful control; That you can give yourself over to something and not only maintain yourself, but be more yourself because of it.
Elvis Presley was born in a two-room “shotgun” shack, in the midst of the Great Depression, January 8, 1935, to Vernon and Gladys Presley—desperately poor descendants of Mississippi sharecroppers who perpetually owed nearly every cent they earned to the landlord. He was one of twins. The other, a boy, died at birth. The effect of America’s unjust economic system on the Presleys was enormous and horrible. When Elvis was two, his father, frantic for money, sold his only cow to their landlord. Feeling cheated by the payment—a check for only four dollars—he altered the check to make it appear like 40 dollars. The landlord had him arrested and he went to prison for a year and a half, causing Elvis and his mother to have to leave the tiny shack they rented from this landlord. They remained poor throughout Elvis’s growing up.
In all the hardship they went through, the Presleys keenly felt they needed each other. In particular, Elvis felt his mother depended on him for her happiness. Peter Brown and Pat Broeske write in their book, Down at the End of Lonely Street:
Elvis came to understand he was the most important person in the world to Gladys, and he repaid that attention by becoming—as best he could—the little man of the house.
He was coming to an attitude to the world—feeling it was out to rook him and his family—and that the best way to take care of himself was to stay close to the home base and to those persons he felt belonged to him and whom he could manage. He was very protective of his mother—and often spoke of someday making enough money to “pay all the bills.” But with people outside the family, he is described as “shy” and “removed.” In high school, he painfully felt he “didn’t fit in.” I have learned that when a person concentrates excessively on what Mr. Siegel once called “the near as had by oneself,” it has a bad effect on him and the people he knows—because he is not being true to his greatest need, to like the world himself and encourage that in others. But in his singing, he had another purpose—and the way near and far, the intimate and wide are made one is very often powerful and beautiful.
In later years—after the death of his mother and remarriage of his father, and after achieving enormous fame—Elvis shied away from meeting new people in his personal life, and preferred the company of a familiar group of friends, whom he saw, in many ways, as like his family. He demanded their loyalty, and was very hurt when someone acted as if he or she wanted to live an independent life. And it seems he expected the women he was in relation to, including his wife Priscilla, to be devoted to him in an exclusive way. He didn’t know that this possessive attitude had a bad effect on the people he knew, and that it was in conflict with another tremendous desire he had: to be kind.
“Elvis couldn’t stand for anybody to be in pain,” writes friend Jo Smith, “If anybody in the group had a problem, he had to solve it.” Once when he learned a friend was having difficulty with hospital bills after the birth of his son, Elvis paid the bills. Another time, when a woman visiting his neighbor suddenly died, he paid for all the funeral arrangements and transportation of her family back to England. And there are many instances of his giving gifts—of money, jewelry, a new car—to people he knew, but also to people he didn’t know, who seemed to him to need it.
I think the fight in Elvis Presley between the desire to have an effect on people he could be proud of, and another, more narrow desire, got him down very much. He told a friend, “I’m self-centered, and I don’t like it. It’s a really bad situation.” And I believe this unresolved battle contributed to his insomnia, frequent nightmares, and also his attraction to drugs, which increasingly hurt his life. I wish he could have learned from Aesthetic Realism about the thing in himself that interfered with the deep hope he had to affect people in a good way, a strengthening way, all the time. It is a fact that the understanding of himself and his art he was thirsting for, crying out for all his life, deserved to have and never got, was in Aesthetic Realism all those years.
From very early in his life, Elvis Presley loved music, and particularly music that was sung with deep and yearning feeling. He said in an interview:
We were a religious family, going ’round together to sing at camp meetings and revivals. Since I was two years old, all I knew was gospel music. That music became such a part of my life it was as natural as dancing.
And as he grew, first in Tupelo, Mississippi and later in Memphis, Tennessee, he drank in the white gospel, black gospel, blues and country music he heard on the radio, the street, and anywhere he could find it. The good effect music had on him, he passionately wanted to have on other people. In spite of his shyness, by the age of 9 he had learned some guitar and sang on the radio, and at 10 performed on stage at the County Fair.
In a great Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel gave to a rock and roll musician in 1969, he explained:
The purpose of art is to show feeling can have accuracy. An artist feels he should show his feeling, and if he does, it will be delightful to himself and delightful to others.
The first recording Elvis made—in 1954 at the age of 19—was “That’s All Right (Mama),” which became an immediate sensation throughout the South. In an interview, he said this about the man who originally recorded that song: “I used to hear Arthur (“Big Boy”) Crudup…and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all that old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” I think the singing he heard and loved gave Elvis hope—however unconsciously—that his feelings, including the pain and degradation of poverty, and his feeling of lonely separation from people, could be given form. Aesthetic Realism provides the logic for this.
In the lesson I quoted from, Mr. Siegel said to that musician:
The thing about rock and roll is that it puts two things together. Have you found in rock and roll a sense of assertion and agony? (Yes)… All right. Now this has the answer to people’s problems. On the one hand, they want to be very private and sad, and on the other, they want to have something like sunlight and public force… Is there [in rock and roll] the utmost pain and the utmost assertion?… Is it the blare of agony?…
These great words of Eli Siegel explain for all time why millions of people have loved rock and roll—why I have. The best thing in me, my desire to like the world, has always hoped to win out against my desire to hide, skulk, be inward and strategic. And it is that best thing in me that cared for rock and roll. But I never would have known it if Aesthetic Realism had not made it clear, and it never would have changed.
In a beautiful discussion in an Aesthetic Realism class for which I’m very grateful, Ellen Reiss spoke to me about my desire to keep my feelings to myself. Carol McCluer was expecting the birth of our daughter, Sara, and I stupidly felt I should hang onto myself and not show the big, new feelings I was having. Miss Reiss asked me: “Do you feel you should have a life within that says ‘NO TRESPASSING’?” I answered Yes, and she asked, “What good does it do you?” And she spoke with such passion and confidence about the alternative:
If Kevin Fennell really wants to have good will for Carol McCluer, he’ll feel his mind meets the world in a way it never has before. He’ll see more, know more, things will mean more to him, his life will be more exciting. People don’t know how much non-good will has put a dull gray film on everything. You don’t know how much dimmer your life is now than if your purpose was to have good will.
I thank Ellen Reiss very much for this discussion, which made for an immediate change, enabling me to have such pleasure and pride showing my true feelings to my wife, and wanting to know hers.
Elvis Presley’s great 1956 recording, “Heartbreak Hotel,” written by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden, has “the blare of agony” all the way through. The agony is given such fervent, energetic form in Presley’s great singing, that it is also thrilling, joyous! In the lesson of the rock musician, Eli Siegel said:
I would say that every person has to make a one of the most secret thing and the most public thing. And rock and roll says that that can be done… Do you believe that there’s a desire for a person to unburden himself as if he were an earthquake?… I say the purpose of rock and roll is to make secrets a public delight.
This describes Elvis Presley’s singing at its best. Listen to the beginning of Heartbreak Hotel:
I want every person in this world to know Aesthetic Realism, to learn with pleasure and pride how we truly want to affect people. And I believe Elvis Presley wants the same thing.
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org
Today I’m writing about the hugely popular recording “Stressed Out” by twenty one pilots, why it is successful as music, and why so many people love it. As with everything I write on this site, my basis is this principle of Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
“Stressed Out” succeeds, as I see it, because it delightfully puts together the opposites of tension and ease, complaint and joy — also boldness and uncertainty, or boldness and modesty. Don’t we want these opposites to be beautifully, sensibly together in our lives? Of course! We like this music (or any really good music) because it does what we want to do.
The song is basically one long complaint by a young man about how hard life is and how he longs for the “good old days” of his childhood. But it is done with humor, with rhythm and energy — in such a way that makes it likable.
Coupled with this is a deeper, more legitimate complaint that so many young people today have. That is, when they come of age they are saddled with student debt, have a hard time finding good paying jobs, and even so, don’t like the basis on which they are asked to work — to make profit for somebody else. They have a hard time feeling they can have a purpose in their lives they can honestly like. And as a result, they’re “stressed out.” This isn’t said explicitly, but it’s implied.
The song is an interesting mingling of hip-hop, electronic pop and reggae. Singer and songwriter Tyler Joseph starts out by complaining about how hard it is to write a song, then ends up complaining that now that he’s older he’s “insecure and cares what people think.” Then we get to the refrain, “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think,” indicating, I suppose, the pain of a person so concerned about what others think that he has no identity of his own — he has a “blurry” face. Then we hear the grand, sweeping, anthem-like chorus about longing for “the good old days when our mama sang us to sleep/But now we’re stressed out.” Listen:
As a fortunate man who is grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism about how harmful it has been to my life to use the comfort I got from my mother to see the world as harsh and unfriendly, I am certainly not recommending the sentiments expressed in this song. What I am saying is that these complaints are presented with a form that makes them pleasing and that, in fact, constitutes a criticism of those very sentiments.
In a great class taught at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City called The Opposites in Music, we recently studied music in relation to the landmark work by Eli Siegel, “The Aesthetic Method in Self Conflict,” a chapter of his book, Self and World. In that work, Mr. Siegel shows greatly that the deepest conflicts affecting people every day are aesthetic matters, and that the resolution to those conflicts can be found in the technique of art. For example, he writes about a man he calls Harold Jamison:
Look at Jamison. He is shy and he is arrogant; in fact, he is like most people. Sometimes, Jamison looks at himself and finds a person who is timid, wants to evade people, thinks people don’t like him; is unassertive and inferior. At other times, Jamison is raring to go, feels like an excited regiment, like a dozen energetic lions up to something…
The question Jamison and other people face is: Can, in one mind, feelings represented by superiority exist with feelings represented by inferiority? Can we be both humble and bold at 3:30 PM Tuesday? — Only art shows that the answer is, Yes.
As I said, I believe a large reason “Stressed Out” has been so extremely popular is that, in very likable ways, it puts together these opposites of boldness and humility. Also, opposites related to boldness and humility — definiteness and vagueness.
The song opens with very indefinite sliding sounds, produced probably by a synthesizer in sets of three: “buh-um, buh-um, buh-um.” The bass notes hover and hum in a sort of ominous way, which, together with the sliding quality, gives a feeling of swampy indefiniteness. Then there are the spooky, twilight zone-ish, high-pitched, echo-y sounds that come floating in from time to time. You get a sense already of a person feeling aimless, unsure.
But the fact that these sliding sounds land so precisely on the first and third beats of a measure and then on the first beat of the following measure (and this pattern repeats) makes them also quite definite, bold, confident. The drums likewise anchor this introduction, accenting the second and fourth beats of each measure. Subtle intervening organ chords give the whole groove a reggae feel, which also lends a kind of jaunty confidence. The overall effect is one of ominous vagueness together with a feeling of sureness, direction, purpose. Here’s that intro:
Now the singer complains about how unsure he is of himself; about how he’s “insecure and cares what people think,” and here he’s like Jamison who sometimes, Mr. Siegel writes, “is timid, wants to evade people, thinks people don’t like him; is unassertive and inferior.” But even here, amidst all this uncertainty and unsureness, the words are said with a very orderly rhythm. He is definite about what he’s unsure about, and together with the drums, we feel a very reliable structure. And tell me if you don’t find humor in his pathetic, self-pitying voice.
Then the refrain: “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.” The melody here — is it downcast or lightsome? The way it descends at the end can seem downcast, but there is also something lovely, buoyant, about it. Meanwhile, the music accompanying this refrain floats even more eerily than before, seeming to represent a self that is drifting all over the place. Yet again, it is all contained securely within that very sure, bold beat.
I believe this song is trying to get at something much deeper than just pining away for one’s childhood. In fact, Tyler Joseph said in an interview, about his point of view as a songwriter:
I feel that humans are struggling all the time when it comes to purpose, trying to figure out what their purpose is…justifying your own existence. A lot of kids and people my age struggle with “What’s the point?”
I hope Tyler Joseph and the whole generation of people he is representing in this song will soon learn of Aesthetic Realism and its explanation that the deepest purpose of everyone’s life is to like the world. He could also learn that in the very structure of this recording, he and his musical partner Josh Dun are illustrating, however unconsciously, what liking the world means. The chorus that follows is at once soothing and sour, advancing and retreating, nebulous and exact — and as such stands for a world in which these opposites are one and that therefore can be liked.
Floating, spreading synthesizer notes accompany Joseph’s voice as he grows grandly nostalgic on the words “Wish we could turn back time to the good old days/ When our mama sang…” Then the melody gets more tortuous and sour on the words, “…us to sleep but now we’re stressed out,” ending on a really uncomfortable note. When these lines are repeated, drums, instruments and voices come in with more crashing force, once again bringing a definite anchor — and also impetus — to all this floating uncertainty and self-pity. The accompaniment gets bold, like (to use Eli Siegel’s words), “a dozen energetic lions up to something.” And then, with the repeat of the words “We’re stressed out,” things spread out once again.
In “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict,” Mr. Siegel writes:
If a person is unable to do something, or if he doesn’t know something, and he knows this neatly, definitely, he will not feel inferior in the morbid sense. He would feel at least he knew himself; and would be proud of that. In other words, in yielding to the facts about himself courageously, truly, there would be a self-approval.
Something approaching this happens in “Stressed Out,” because all this inferiority and self-doubt is being boldly, energetically expressed in this very rhythmic, organized structure. With all the complaining, there’s something strangely celebratory about it. In a lesson he gave to a rock musician during the 1960s, Eli Siegel explained the essence of rock and roll. He showed that rock, by its very nature, opposes the desire of a person to be hidden, by taking the inner, secret anguish of a person and putting it out there for all to see and hear with lively, energetic form. “Rock and roll does show,” he said, “that the opposites are very much in motion, and that people are trying to be proud of their pain, not be skulking about it.”
I’m grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that the hope to have contempt for the world and people is what has given rise to both fake inferiority and fake superiority in me. As I have liked the world more — and instead of hoping to look down on people, as I have hoped to respect them more — I feel so much prouder of how sureness and unsureness are in me. This is a study I recommend to everyone.
In this song, sureness and unsureness are made one. In the second verse, the singer (well, you can’t really call it singing — it’s rap or hip-hop) goes on about a certain smell that reminds him of his childhood. Then he gets back to that conflict between childhood — a time, he says, when “nothing really mattered” — and the pressures of adult life, with the culminating line:
Out of student loans and treehouse homes we all would take the ladder (latter).
The desperate whine in Joseph’s voice also has energy, rhythm, and humor that make it not just unsure but also bold, confident. Beneath this complaint, piano notes likewise sound both wandering and purposeful. Following the verse, the “Blurryface” refrain and the “stressed out” chorus both come around again in their turn.
The next section of the song takes on more urgency. With staccato synthesizer-notes accompanying the singer’s rapid-fire syllables, he tells that he and his friends “used to play pretend” that they were flying in rocket ships. But, he tells:
We used to dream of outer space, now they’re laughing at our face, saying,
“Wake up, you need to make money!”
And while that last line is sung and almost shouted by multiple voices with such ferocity, it also provides the release of humor. I think it is valuable to remember that many of the same people who care for this song and have downloaded it by the millions are people who also responded to the recent campaign of Bernie Sanders. In caring for both, there is a sense: “There must be a better, more likable means for me to conduct my life than what I’ve been presented with so far.” The humor here is good.
In the very last section of the song, Tyler Joseph’s voice is electronically altered to sound heavier, darker, more foreboding as it reiterates and hammers home some of the same complaints that came before. But with all the ferocity, the feeling of lightsome humor continues.
As I’ve been showing, I believe the success of this recording comes from the way it puts together seriousness and humor, vagueness and definition, boldness and humility. And I believe that as such it can give people hope. As Eli Siegel wrote in the sentences I quoted earlier:
Can we be both humble and bold at 3:30 PM Tuesday? — Only art shows that the answer is, Yes.
This recording, I believe, gives some of the evidence. Here’s the remainder:
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org
I believe a large reason Prince and his music are so loved is that, in his art, he put together opposites that we are trying to have one in ourselves. I base what I’m saying on this great principle of Aesthetic Realism stated by its founder Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In Prince’s best recordings – and very much in his stage performances – there was tremendous outward energy together with the most personal, intimate feeling; also freedom at one with great precision. And the opposites so fundamental to all our lives – self and world – were often beautifully together in the way he seemed to pour his very soul into that guitar.
We want our outward expression to show, with honest energy, what we truly feel inside. We want to be free and precise at once. And we also want to feel we are entirely ourselves as we try to be fair to something outside ourselves. Music – and any true instance of art – can show us how.
Aesthetic Realism explains this for the first time, and I’m so happy to be in the midst of learning it. Art, when it is truly that, is always a successful achievement of what we are most deeply after: honestly to like the world.
Prince is an important, original, large presence in popular music and will be loved for many generations to come.
I think he would have been grateful to learn from Aesthetic Realism that his music at its best was a guide for how he wanted to be in all the moments of his life. And we can use his music that way now.