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starsofeight's avatar

Is older music more philosophical?

Asked by starsofeight (2528points) January 29th, 2012

Do you find more philosophical content in older music than in new music? As an example: “a man gets tied up to the ground, he gives the world its saddest sound” from ‘El Condor Pasa’ seems philosophical, as does: “all we are is dust in the wind” from, of course, ‘Dust in the Wind’.

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29 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Folk music is more philosophical. Both of the examples you gave are folk music.

thorninmud's avatar

There is definitely a trend toward self-absorbed, hostile lyrics, at least in music that rises to the top of the charts. This has been documented.

I guess you could say that this kind of musical hubris is less “philosophical” in the sense that hostility and individualism tend to be less reflective than more socially-oriented sentiments.

cookieman's avatar

I sometimes feel that lyrics have become less clever, metaphors less interesting, and word choice less complex. I think this may lead to songs that sound more direct and not philosophical. There’s a certain inelegance to popular songwriting it seems.

example: It bugs me that Katy Perry sings “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, blowing through the wind…”. Seems an inelegant choice of words to me given the intended meaning of the song. I would have thought, “Do you ever feel like a fallen leaf…”

Now I’m sure there’s still plenty of subtle, nuanced songwriting out there. It just doesn’t seem to be in the top 40.

If it ever was. Perhaps I’m being romantic.

Charles's avatar

You don’t think this is philosophical?

“You can have me all you want/Any way, any day”
“I want you to be my sex slave /Anything that I desire Be one with my femin-ay /Set my whole body on fire”
“I love it, I love it/I love it when you eat it”
“Suck my cockiness/Lick my persuasion/Eat my poison/And swallow your pride down, down”
“I can be your dominatrix /Just submit to my every order /Enter my diamond matrix/If you want my golden flower”

digitalimpression's avatar

Back in the 20’s it wasn’t quite as cool to be vulgar… so the lyrics were far more philosophical.

amujinx's avatar

Older music might have had more popular songs that had philosophical lyrics, but it also had it’s share of mindless filler lyrics too. The popular music of now seems to trend away from more philosophical lyrics, but there are definitely still artists who have philosophical lyrics in their works.

@cprevite Could the Katy Perry song’s choice of plastic bag over a fallen leaf be a subtle jab at the fact that many people have artificial personas that they display to others? The fact that this artificial person needs change based on trends may make the person feel like they are being blown by by the wind, without any control over what they act like so they can continue to be part of the cool clique.

Or it could just be a reference to American Beauty.

digitalimpression's avatar

@amujinx I believe you, but I’m still very curious to see an example of “mindless filler lyrics” from the 20’s.

Coloma's avatar

The music of the 60’s & 70’s was more related to love, peace, philosophy, nature, yes, I’d say so. Kind of reflective of the social climate of those decades, much better than the newer generations violence, negativity and sexually disrespectful genre.

I don’t care for the “pop a cap in that bitch and life sucks so I might as well blow my brains out” themes of recent decades. lol

TexasDude's avatar

There has always been shitty music and there has always been music with more depth. No single era’s music had more “philosophical” music than any other era, just different trends in pop music.

Coloma's avatar


You’re right, of course, but, I do think the negativity has ramped up in recent decades.

TexasDude's avatar

@Coloma, probably, but that’s probably a result of less restrictive social mores than anything, and there’s no reason why negativity can’t have philosophical aspects to it, and that is what this question is about, afterall. (Not trying to sound snarky).

Coloma's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I agree. You, snarky…oh my little darlin’, fear not. :-)

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I can’t think of any modern music with the philosophical messages as Lucky Man or He Ain’t Heavy. Perhaps some Pink Floyd or Nirvana would come close, but I’m unsure if that is considered modern or not.

amujinx's avatar

@digitalimpression I was being overly derogatory with the “mindless filler lyrics” comment, but if you want an example from the 20’s.

It is indeed a real song from the 20’s by Leslie Sarony and the “rest of the song” mentioned in the Jeeves and Wooster clip is just music and a repeat of the chorus. While the music that he performed was considered novelty music at the time, it is still an example of what I would consider “mindless filler lyrics” with no depth beyond what is presented.

digitalimpression's avatar

@amujinx Thanks for the info. =)

That song is pretty mindless, yes, but compared to the mindless songs of today I’m not sure it remotely compares!

smilingheart1's avatar

The older songs sang about the meaning of life and love and staying encouraged. Modern lyrics lament meaninglessness and the futility of looking for the genuine.

fundevogel's avatar

Go ahead and string me up by thumbs, but I would have a very hard time finding bonafide philosophy in music from any era. They might occasionally mine philosophy, but by the time it gets reproduced in song it tends to be underwhelming, unchallenging and unsurprising pseudo-spiritual wankery.

What exactly is supposed to be profound or thoughtful about “all I am is dust in the wind”? It’s poetic yes, and emotionally stimulating, but as far as philosophy goes its strictly bargain basement. But, and this is important, do you really think you would want substantive philosophy in song form? I don’t think it would be very digestible or efficient at communicating the philosophy in question.

There are always exceptions of course, but meaty philosophy in music must be an extremely rare thing. Would you really want Derrida in song form? Ok, yes, if you’re a total philosophy geek, but how many of those are there really?

Kardamom's avatar

Here is an interesting song from 1936. Not exactly sure what category this would fall under. What are your thoughts?

Berserker's avatar

I agree with @Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard. I mean, take O Fortuna for example. Sounds all badass and epic, but if you check out the lyrics, it’s just really angry and emo. Like a lot of today’s songs. Or lots of songs from any time.

Music is old, but there’s a reason why. It wouldn’t be so prominent if it had to evolve (or devolve?) from one thing to a completely different thing. I think the styles change with the cultures, but the same contents are constantly mused and worked on.

@fundevogel makes an excellent point too. While I’ve heard songs about Darwin, I’m not entirely sure what a philosophical song would be…beyond clever lyrics and using metaphors in singing, I’ve never heard any ’‘philosophical’’ songs. But as she says, I’m sure there must exist some somewhere, but probably not enough to define and justify the history of music through this question’s premise.

TexasDude's avatar

@Symbeline, you worded that a lot better than I could have.

@fundevogel, I know two songs off the top of my head that I would argue are actually philosophical, and I want you to look them up and tell me if you agree. I would link you directly, but I can’t do that from my phone. They are “In a Sweater Poorly Knit” by mewithoutYou and “When Water Comes to Life” by Cloud Cult. Check them out and get back to me, plz!

fundevogel's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I’ll get back to you after I check them out.

flutherother's avatar

What about “Ol’ Man River”? for those who had no Internet access, no books and who probably couldn’t read wasn’t this philosophy?

Paradox25's avatar

I’m not so sure this has to do with the age of the music itself, but rather the generation that grew up with it. It seems to me that music from the 60’s & 70’s was more philosophical than that of the 50’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond.

fundevogel's avatar


First off thanks to pointing me to those songs, they are rad.

I can see why you singled out these songs as philosophical. They certainly hit philosophical themes and do so in interesting poetic ways…But it still doesn’t really read as philosophy to me. I’m guessing this is because the experience of reading in engaging in philosophy is radically different than taking in art. I’m critical when I engage philosophy and since philosophy is usually presented within persuasive writing (unless you’re Camus) this sort or thinking is encouraged by the form the philosophy is presented in. I don’t really get that with art.

With art I sit back take it all in and determine whether or not it’s my cup or tea. If for some reason I feel like critiquing I’m looking at things like is this effective? What was the intent of the artist? Did his execution achieve his intent? Honestly I rarely critique the “message” a chunk of art communicates. I either agree with it or don’t or something in between (assuming the message was one I was able to interpret). But because of the metaphoric presentation ideas often take on in the arts they they don’t have the same qualities of persuasive writing. They might be narrative or expository, but those are telling forms, not argument forms. I don’t think philosophy is about telling, for me it is a thought process. Though all sorts of arts and music can and do incorporate the product of that process, including the songs you referenced, they don’t really engage in the process. To do so would almost certainly sacrifice what makes the piece beautiful and interesting: its ambiguity.

This may just be a personal character flaw on my part, I just don’t see most artistic forms as effectively engaging in philosophy. For what it’s worth philosophy almost never successfully engages art either. With the possible exception of Camus.

Sorry it took me a bit to get back to you. It takes more time to take in music when I’m listening for philosophy rather than just taking in the music.

TexasDude's avatar

@fundevogel while I disagree (and I think our disagreement is more on a level of how we individually engage with philosophy on a personal level than anything else) I can definitely understand where you are coming from, and I appreciate you taking the time to get back to me. GA.

fundevogel's avatar

Thanks, how do you engage in philosophy?

TexasDude's avatar

Well I should start out by saying that I’m one course away from unintentionally qualifying for a philosophy minor, so I’ve had more exposure to bona fide works of philosophy than most folks. I’ve read it all from Plato to Whitehead and Kant and Rawls and everyone in between, and I’ve been forced (if I wanted to get a good grade) to know what they all meant and to think critically about them. That said, I don’t think that a work has to necessarily be an explicit treatise for it to be philosophical in nature, and I feel like a lot of things (like songs) can serve as segues into more traditional philosophical discourse. Songs are just a condensed form for me, sometimes.

I’m a big fan of the Sufis too, and they often managed to pack complex philisophical ideas into easily digestible, short poems. I feel like modern songs are fully capable of following in this tradition.

starsofeight's avatar

I would have liked to see this go more in the direction of actual lyrics, lines, or song phrases. My belief is that songs can and do wax philosophical. If a philosophical notion is pointed to, or even glancingly (my word) referenced, it is philosophical. Some are deeply so, as in the song “Turn, Turn, Turn”, which was taken from one of the wisdom books of the Bible practically word for word.

What I really wanted to see was lyrics that others thought were particularly philosophical, or wise—and by contrast, the least philosophical, even foolish lines.

It’s like: “Hey, I got a blue rock. Anyone else got a blue rock?”

“No, but I have a purple stone—that’s half blue . . .”

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