Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iddy Pop

Freud and Rock Music


Sigmund Freud's position as the father of psychoanalysis remains largely unassailable. But what does he have to say about music?

Curiously for someone living in late nineteenth century Vienna, Freud never wrote specifically about music. He hardly refers to it in his work and seems to have been less interested in music than any of the arts.

Naturally this hasn't prevented his ubiquitous theories from permeating musical culture, just as they have influenced film, fine art and literature.

Among classical composers, Mahler underwent analysis with Freud and Rachmaninov famously used therapy to overcome a crippling three-year writer's block.

Then there's the mission of jazz - to confer freedom from inhibition through communication and improvisation. Couldn't that be described as a direct corollary to the free association of psychoanalysis?

And in the pop world, Eddie Cochran, The Count Five, Neil Young, Kevin Coyne and John Lennon are just a few of the artists who have undergone or sung about therapy.

Far-fetched Freudian fancies

Though he became marginalized as the twentieth century drew to a close, Freud's ideas have enjoyed something of a resurgence, and looking at pop music through a Freudian lens can be quite illuminating.

The main criticism of Freudian theories is that they are untested and supported by unsubstantiated beliefs. Social scientists have not exactly been falling over themselves to carry out empirical studies of the more far-fetched Freudian fancies, mainly because there's not the faintest reason to think they might hold water.

They include the hilarious notion that toilet training and breast feeding can affect your personality in deep and disturbing ways for the rest of your life.

Then there's the 'Freudian slip', with its barmy insistence that no slips of the tongue come from random processes. Surely it's more sensible to imagine these so-called 'slips' as grammar or syntactical errors to which we disproportionally assign meaning.

Chief among Freud's untested theories is the neurotic cultural myth of The Oedipus Complex. It's dominated by the dubious assertion that Oedipal impulses represent the "nuclear complex" of every neurosis. Thus boys fear castration then conspire to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers.

Though I don't entirely hold with Oedipal theory, its dramatic possibilities are realized to remarkable effect in Jim Morrison and The Doors' celebrated opus The End. The singer enacts a drama straight out of Sophocles and there's that famous "Father?" "Yes, son?" "I want to kill you" exchange.

Morrison's second-hand Oedipal rant shouldn't be taken literally. It's partly a diatribe against his authoritarian dad, but more accurately a cry for the destruction of repressive hierarchy and restriction in one's inner and outer life.

Cigars and Guitars

But Freud believed that society could only function if man repressed his base instincts. He illustrated this by devising the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle. The former describes our wish to satisfy our animal desires, whereas the latter - preferred by Freud - opposes immediate gratification and calls for us to satisfy our needs in more socially 'appropriate' ways.

Rock ‘n’ roll stood in direct opposition to that. To paraphrase Jim Morrison, it wanted the world and it wanted it NOW.

Thus hedonistic wild men like Jerry Lee Lewis and Iggy Pop seek the self-gratification of the id and satisfaction through the Pleasure Principle.

I doubt they'd agree with Freud that the repression of man's base instincts is essential to civilization. They're more likely to embrace Reich's call for greater sexual freedom as a way of dealing with neurosis.

Icons like The Beatles, Mick Jagger and David Bowie represent a feminized male alternative to dominant or hostile father figures. But the sexual licence they indulge reveals they are also partial to the Power Principle.

After all, everyone knows that guys join bands to get girls, and at its extremes rock is custom-designed to unleash dionysian impulses. A cigar is usually just a cigar, but since pop is always about context, oftentimes a guitar is definitely a phallus.

Inner lives

I must admit that as a confirmed Jungian I've acquired a grudging respect for Freud. Though some of of his theories remain unsubstantiated, when it comes to libido, drives, and the unconscious, Uncle Sigmund seems to have anticipated the inner lives of the rockers he never knew.

His theories foreshadowed their erotic obsessions, psychedelic explorations, and even - since Freud was a user of cocaine - their experimentation with drugs.

Clearly rock and psychoanalysis share far more than a preoccupation with sex.

At their worst they are capable of encouraging self-indulgence and preening self-obsession.

But at their best both represent attempts to liberate our desires and impulses from the cultural and psychological chains which threaten to imprison us and at any moment deny our authentic self-realization.

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