Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death by Christopher Partridge

A memorial plaque at the site where T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan was killed in an automobile accident

“[A]ffective space . . . refers to music’s prosthetic ability to manipulate emotion and, thereby, to create internal worlds within which meaning is constructed. . . . In other words, music often contextualizes and gives meaning to situations because of what might be thought of as its “intertexutal” relationship to compositional compositions.” – Christopher Partridge, Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death, p.65

In 2015, singer-songwriter Steven Wilson released his fourth studio album, Hand. Cannot. EraseA song-cycle revolving around issues of death and mourning, the album was inspired in part by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent.

Joyce Carol Vincent was only 38 years old when she apparently passed away, and 41 years old when her remains were finally found laying on her living room sofa.  Her body was so badly decomposed that the reason of death could not be determined. She was identified from dental records.

And yet no one checked on her for three whole years.

As the author of the above-linked article asks: “How does a person die without anybody noticing for three years?”

Wilson had already composed albums with his band Porcupine Tree that dealt with death – Deadwing and The Incident – and another dealing with teenage angst, Fear Of A Blank Planet, that concludes with a song about suicide, “Let’s Sleep Together”. This was familiar territory for Wilson, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. is powerful and emotionally moving, the issues central to the album’s concept treated with care and a depth of feeling that isn’t always present in popular music.*

While many might consider the idea of creating music around death, especially one such as Ms. Vincent’s, not just morbid but downright depressing, the truth is popular music has always dealt with matters of death and dying, with suicide and murder, even with decay and decompositiion. While the peculiar circumstances of our emerging post-modern sensibilities offer opportunities to understand such music in new and interesting ways, we should always be careful when we judge the often youthful creators of such music, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix performing the murder ballad, “Hey Joe” or Carcass’s “Exhume To Consume“. We aren’t living in some particularly odd time where (some) musicians find ruminations on death fascinating. ‘Twas ever thus.

If Christopher Partridge’s previous major work, The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, The Sacred, and The Profane, set forth a large theoretical framework within which popular music can be understood, as he says many times, as creating affective spaces within which meaning can be created. then Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death is the application of this theory to a particular set of musical and lyrical conventions in contemporary popular music concerning themselves with matters of the uncanny, the Gothic (generalized rather than specifically the Goth scene, although including those), suicide, decay and decomposition. I was glad I reread his previous work before reading this newly released volume, offering me the opportunity to revisit the major themes of liminal communities and communitas, the impure sacred, and other concepts that are at the heart of any study of the treatment of death in popular music.

Partridge uses a combination of a sociology of knowledge and cultural criticism to offer the reader opportunities to understand not just the music that inhabits this set of borderline themes but those who find within such music meaning, the book highlights the many layers of meaning within such disparate genres as early post-punk (Joy Division, PIL), folk (Nick Cave), Industrial, Death and Black Metal (Carcass, Cannibal Corpse), and hip-hop (Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent). Never shying away from the equivocal nature of even the best such musics, he nevertheless treats his subject and those involved with respect and understanding. In many ways, his treatment of the subject matter specifically regarding Death Metal is an improvement upon Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, which is far more an apologia for some of the lyrical excesses of bands like Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Limiting understanding to such extremes to an aesthetic of playfulness not only offers more meaning to such excesses than they probably deserve, using Partridge’s theoretical framework situates such extremes within the reality of the intertextuality within which all culture should be understood (although I do wish Partridge had included the fact that some of Carcass’s early lyrical excessiveness was rooted in the band’s militant vegetarianism; their wading knee deep in gore did have a socio-political raison d’ete, although it was certainly aided and abetted by youthful willingness to revel in bad taste).

While the book is insightful and will leave the reader both a greater understanding of the “how” and “why” of such musics and the communities who find meaning and communitas within these extremes, there are two issues that I wish to address. First is an editorial matter. Partridge is a lover both of beginning sentences either with adverbs or long adverbial phrases as well as the passive voice. The repeated appearance of “as has been shown”, sentences beginning with “Hence” or “Indeed” (and yes, I’m guilty of this myself; I, however, only have myself as an editor) started to yank me out of the flow of reading. I suppose this is a minor quibble, in the end, as much a matter of a particular reader’s preferences as anything else.

Second, and far more distracting, was his treatment of hip-hop. Treating it solely within a subsection of the chapter, “Morbidity, Violence, and Suicide”, I found “Living on Death Row” to be surprisingly conventional in both its view of such topics within hip-hop and his agreement with many critics who see the political potential of the genre wasting away with the influx of money and increased commercialization. All musics, as Theodor Adorno reminds us, exist under the shadow of capitalist exploitation; even the most boundary-pushing musical style is available to the general public precisely because it makes money. To criticize hip-hop for being commercially successful makes little sense. While Partridge does speak somewhat of the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he doesn’t spend overtime considering the mythologization of both within hip-hop (his last chapter deals with the deification of dead musical performers and only mentions Shakur’s name; in fact, Shakur is the subject of much mythologization, including, like Jim Morrison, the myth that Shakur faked his own death. Finally, his treatment of hip-hop is far too generalized, making generalizations and sweeping statements about the genre that seem not to recognize the varieties of subgenres and subcultures within hip-hop.

And while I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the fascist and anti-Semitic politics of some of Black Metal, both musicians and fans, should be discussed in any consideration of matters of death and popular music. While Partridge does talk about one of the murders, that of Euronymous by his friend and bandmate Varg Vikernes, and the epidemic of church-burnings in Norway when Black Metal first emerged in that country, he doesn’t speak at all of the murders committed by members of other bands (Emperor’s drummer murdered a man who was trying to solicit sex; one serial killer in Germany and the United States found his identity within both Black Metal and German neo-Nazism) as well as the anti-Semitism of Vikernes (who has spoken and written at length of Norway’s WWII-era occupation leader Vidkun Quisling), Gaahl of Gorgoroth, and others. If the misogyny expressed in hip-hop and some death metal is to be taken seriously as being socially and culturally problematic, then the overt associations with violent, reactionary political movements and the many corpses that lay at the feet of Black Metal should be treated with far more seriousness than I found them to be in this volume.

Having said all that, I still found this book an excellent treatment of a subject too often parodied or ignored or treated with a kind of superficial contempt it doesn’t warrant. Like it’s predecessor (which I would strongly advise reading before reading this volume), Mortality and Music is an important contribution to the exploding discussion of popular music and contemporary society and culture. It has much to say that needs to be said, and it says it well. Whether you’re interested in the religious, cultural, social, or even political meaning of the vast catalog of contemporary popular music’s songs of death, this book will speak to readers in a fresh and interesting light, and within a theoretical framework that demands the subject matter be treated with all the seriousness it deserves.

*I think that’s in part because at the time he wrote and recorded the album, Wilson was 48 years old. Age does offer the opportunity for thoughtfulness.

Jeffrey F. Keuss, “Tom Waits, Nick Cave, And Martin Heidegger: On Singing Of The God Who Will Not Be Named”

Only by walking away from that to which we cling for certainty and solidity can we enter into a life faith and transcendence. – Jeffrey F. Keuss, “Tom Waits, Nick Cave, And Martin Heidegger: On Singing Of The God Who Will Not Be Named,” in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p.157

This final essay in the collection takes readers on the rollercoaster ride of mysticism, apophatic theology, God’s denial and affirmation in the same breath, and the strange worlds of Cave, Waits, and Heidegger.  In a sense, it pushes the entire project of theologizing from secular music (I wouldn’t dare call either Cave or Waits popular, although they do have huge followings, particularly among fellow musicians) to a whole new level.  In particular, using Heidegger, whose lectures on Holderlin form the axis around which Keuss asks his questions about the theologies present in these two performers begs as many questions as its answers.

Like Zechariah’s stunned silence [in Luke 1], Heidegger finds in this silence of the sacred (or rather “sacred silence”) a mourning of language, which is also the mourning “of” the Sacred (in the double sen of the genitive case) through Holderlin’s mourning for the vanished gods of ancient Greece and Christianity.  According to Heidegger, this act of mourning will never be accomplished as a Freudian work of mourning which overcomes its lost object.  Neither will this mourning lose itself by clinging to this object in a melancholic fashion.  As with Nick Cave shouting a triumphant “I’ve been hiding all away,” and Tom Waits declaring like a Southern carnival barker that “God’s away on business,” Heidegger presents the act of sacred mourning as the act of letting the vanished gods become what they always have been: vanished. (p.165)

All this mourning, this not-naming what needs to be named even in the knowledge that it cannot be named because it is not in the way that other beings are is rooted in the mystical theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius:

Since it is the Cause of all beings we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings (kataphasis), and more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations since it surpasses all being (apophasis).  Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this; as it is beyond privations, it is also beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.(quoted on p.154)

Beginning we Cave, we have an artist who asserts his denial of any personal God who nevertheless gave a lecture broadcast on BBC in 1996 entitled “The Flesh Made Word.”  In it, Cave sounds an awful lot like Friedrich Schleiermacher, of whom I would neither attribute atheism, mysticism, nor a preference for the apophatic denial of God’s relationship to Creation:

God is a product of a creative imagination and God is that imagination taken flight. . . . Christ, who calls himself both the Son of Man and the Son of God as the occasion warranted, was exactly that: a man of flesh and blood, so in touch with the creative forces inside himself, so open to his brilliant flame-like imaginations, that he became the physical embodiment of that force: God. . . .  What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. . . .  Just as we are divine creations, so must we in turn create.  Divinity must be given its freedom to flow through us, through language, through communication, through imagination.  I believe this is our spiritual duty, made clear to us through the example of Christ. . . . Through us, God finds his voice, for just as we need God, he in turn needs us. (quoted on pp. 159-160, ellipses in original)

While God might be absent for Cave on a personal level, the creative life brings out the Divine in all of us. Precisely because of the Jesus’s creative imagination, he was the Son of God, the Divine made flesh, fully human yet fully divine precisely because he was, to use Schleiermacher’s terminology, overflowing with God-consciousness.

In 1998, Cave was invited to offer an introduction to the Gospel of Mark for Canongate publisher.  Of the Jesus who emerges from this particular Gospel, Cave writes:

The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist.  Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through  His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow.  Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity. . . .   Christ understood that we as humans were forever held to the ground by the pull of gravity – our ordinariness, our mediocrity – and it was through His example that He gave our imaginations the freedom to fly. (quoted on p. 163, ellipsis in original)

This is a remarkable interpretation of the life and sacrifice of Christ, as viewed through the lens of a musician.  That the life of the Christian, and the communities that became the Church, is to be a life outside the ordinary, calling people beyond the mundane, has been a staple of Christian theology since the beginning.  That Cave, with no theological training, could see in the Jesus portrayed in St. Mark’s Gospel this very reality demonstrates no mourning at all for a lost God.  Rather, it demonstrates the recognition that incarnation, however one defines that term, involves something more than just the miraculous; it involves drawing from the ordinary, and pushing, pulling, prodding toward the extraordinary.  That Cave understands Christ’s crucifixion as an aesthetic rather than theo-political act also suggests there is a link, at least for Cave, between the beautiful and the good and true, something that Heidegger denies precisely because “the beautiful” is part of that empty space where we mourn our ability to speak what we use to speak but can no longer.

Waits is another case altogether.  Admitting in an interview quoted in the essay that he has difficulty discussing matters of personal faith, his music nevertheless is drenched with messages from God, for God, the cry for an absent God, the demand for a life lived knowing Christ is coming.  That Waits’s artistic universe is peopled by the dregs of society – one-eyed dwarfs, a spent piece of used jet trash, drunk stalkers, horrifying carnival barkers – only makes his theological musings all the more interesting precisely because his is a world filled with those outside who are not so much looking for a way in as they are seeking salvation, here and now, without necessarily apologizing for who they are.  As Keuss writes on  p.163:

Where is God in Tom Waits’ universe?  He is both present and “away on business” at the same time.  God is both at work finding evil to defeat and seemingly indifferent to the very same suffering.  This both/and of God’s elusive nature as here and not here draws the listener into a deep and necessary dissonance whereby locating God in Waits’ conception is never predicable or convenient.

Not at all the empty space opened up by Heidegger’s combination of mysticism and modernity, this is, rather, the dialectic of immanence and transcendence which is both understood yet never exactly clear; the mystery of the Incarnation in which God is fully human and fully Divine without either determining or limiting one another; this is the God of the Christian confession whose coming is expected, even anticipated, even as God’s people cry from their hearts that it be soon.

Claiming both Cave and Waits speak the unspeakable a la Heidegger’s loss of any language for the Holy, resulting in a mourning, is belied both by the artistic and other output of both.  There is no mourning here; there is, rather, joy and celebration, even as the demand for the Divine presence is called for in the recognition of its absence.  Cave and Waits speak the Name that cannot be spoken because they have the audacity of the artist who recognizes, in the life and work of Jesus, a fellow-traveler who dared call himself the Son of God.  Heidegger’s preference for a mournful silence in the wake of modernity’s rejection of any language for the Holy just does not fit with the description of the work Keuss invokes.  Indeed, it isn’t the mystical, apophatic Platonism of silence in the face of the ineffable as much as it is the audacity of the faithful to speak to that which is both/and – both God and human, both immanent and transcendent, both present and not-present.

This collection of essays, capped as it has been with this fine piece with which I disagree most strongly, has been an adventure of learning.  As this is precisely the journey on which I have set myself – to work through the possibility of theologizing from popular music – both the good and bad, the insightful and lost, the right and the wrong offer opportunities to think more clearly about the subject matter.  It has also given me my next reading project!  I’ve had Charles  Taylor’s A Secular Age for years without having read it.  Intimidated by its size, I am now encouraged through the discipline of this site to wade into the deep waters of Taylor’s sweeping historical adventure to modernity’s rejection of the sacred.