Audio: "The Romantic Movement and rock music"

Interesting piece on correlations between modern rock music and the Romantic “tendencies” according to Byron, Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche. I’ve pasted the abstract, audio link, and full transcript below.

Listen Now – 20062009 |Download Audio – 20062009


Romantic ideas and philosophy live on in certain strains of modern rock music, according to this week’s guest, Craig Schuftan, author of Hey Nietzsche – Leave them kids alone. David Bowie, The Cure, The Smiths, Queen, and more contemporary bands like My Chemical Romance and Weezer share some seriously Romantic tendencies with people like Byron, Schopenhauer, Wagner and even Nietzsche – and it’s not just because they all viewed the world through the same gloomy prism.

Alan Saunders:What does modern rock music have in common with what went on in the Romantic period? Well, quite a lot, as we’ll find out today on The Philosopher’s Zone with me, Alan Saunders.

Romanticism was a by- product of European disillusionment and European inward-turning, a Europe that had seen the ideals of the French Revolution slide into a Reign of Terror, and in which some thinkers and artists took issue with the Enlightenment ideals of progress and reason.

Well it’s not over yet. Romantic ideas and philosophy live on in certain strains of rock music: David Bowie, The Cure, Queen, and more recently, bands that have been lumped together into the category known as EMO, bands like My Chemical Romance and Weezer. EMO, by the way is short for ‘Emotional’.

So yes, that’s right, Keats, Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche have something in common with the New Jersey-based Indie rock band, My Chemical Romance, and not just because they all view the world through a somewhat gloomy prism.

My Chemical Romance, in particular, has been accused of arousing too much emotion in its listeners, emotions of the depressive and suicidal kind.

Well Craig Schuftan has written a book about this called Hey, Nietzsche, leave them kids alone, and he’s speaking here with Kyla Slaven.

Craig Schuftan: EMO is kind of a collision of the Romantic movement and My Space and Facebook. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is to look at the way that romantic philosophy was being played out on this incredible scale, with bands like My Chemical Romance, and again, this has been happening gradually through the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but now the speed with which bands can communicate with each other, the speed with which they can consume and enjoy music, and just the sheer size of the communities they create, it leads to all these amazing contradictions. The biggest one is how can you have a movement which is based on the idea that everybody is alone? That’s a tough one.

SONG: My Chemical Romance – Welcome to the Black Parade

Craig Schuftan: I’m a little bit obsessed with this song and have been for quite some time, and I read the lyrics. When I listen to the song and study the lyric sheet, I do it the way I did when I was 15, when I feel like I might discover the meaning of life by reading the lyrics of the song and absorbing the lessons that it teaches me.

When these bands first kind of appeared on the big mass media radar, everybody said, ‘Oh they’re an EMO band’ and, I’ve since discovered that they’re not really, but

Kyla Slaven:But they hate being called EMO. I read a few interviews where it sounded like he was going to kill the next person who called them EMO.

Craig Schuftan: Yes, I believe he would. The implication was that this music is emotional, like it’s over-emotional and that it’s receiving a very emotional way by fans and all its values have to do with emotions, which is why it got me thinking about Romanticism. Because really, Romanticism, if you live it as a philosophy, it’s a system where powerful feelings automatically have moral significance. If you feel something really strongly, then it must be right, and righter than things people might try to teach you at school, or the laws that society lays down for you.

Gerard Way: It’s frustrating because we were so the opposite of EMO band that we couldn’t get booked playing shows. In some way we’d all in our own lives than the people that did not fit in, or were built like other people. So then when we go to the shows, we’d start meeting kids just like us, you know. And then it was almost like a group therapy session, that was really exciting.

Craig Schuftan: I was very, very interested in the idea of an EMO band starting a movement based on the idea of feelings that we all share, and of course, once I’d started thinking about that, I had to know what the song was about. You know, what is the journey that this song represents? And of course it’s an incredibly romantic song, like the song is actually very, very similar when you look at it, to things like Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude,, because the story that it tells basically, is of somebody who grew up with dreams, who grew up with ideas in their head and a vision of the world and a dream of happiness, which was formed in their childhood, and then later on was disappointed by the failure of the real world to live up to those dreams, and so you had this picture of a world just full of struggle and strife, you know, a world that is almost insurmountably bad.

And the last part of the song is the kind of epiphany where the hero not quite redeems himself, but where he begins to understand how he might be saved and how other people might be saved. And the way he says he’s going to do it, is by looking inside himself. He says, I’ve found what I need to survive in the world, and it’s my heart, it’s the thing that lives inside of me. I started to realise just how far the Romanticism and the rhetoric of Romantic philosophy had permeated popular culture, and I think a lot of it got there through rock ‘n’ roll.

SONG: My Chemical Romance – Welcome to the Black Parade

Reader: So we’ll go no more a-roving

So late into the night

Though the heart be still as loving

And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself at rest.

Though the night was made for loving,

And the day returns too soon,

Yet we’ll go no more a-roving,

By the light of the moon.

Kyla Slaven:We’ll go no more a-roving by the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Byron was one of the most well-known people in 19th century Europe, and his infamy was as much due to his good looks and debauched lifestyle as it was to his poetry.

But these days, in the Western world at least, it’s not poetry that young people recite in their bedrooms late at night, but song lyrics.

Craig Schuftan: I did find it interesting in reading about the origins of poetry and particularly lyric poetry, which was kind of the Romantic poet’s specialty, you know, the poems about spontaneous eruptions of feelings turning diverse, you know, and people talk about the origins of lyric poetry which of course is the same word root as the word ‘lyre’, it was poetry that was recited to music. And the rhythm of music is part of the way that poetry is structured, and part of the way it should be listened to. And so it’s kind of weird that poetry and music started out together and then became separated, to the point where they were sort of separate genres entirely.

And so sometimes I wonder if now we’ve just kind of got them back together again. You know, Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy, which is this great book about the roots of tragedy in the Greek theatre and the Greek world, about this business of where poetry comes from. He talks about how a lot of poets, he mentions Schiller, talk about a musical mood that their poetry starts with not a set of words or images that they would like to describe, but a beat, a certain set of tones that they’re hearing in the head. And then after that rhythm has kind of established itself, then the words start to come, and they’re just words that fit the thing, and before you know it, you have a poem, and it’s described something.

And you know, it was really interesting to me reading that because working at triple J, I hear a lot of interviews with musicians and there are a lot of questions put to musicians which are a variation of Where does it come from? Where did your words come from? You know. And this is always incredibly hard for musicians to answer because a lot of the time, the way that the thing was written is very, very similar to the thing that Nietzsche describes in The Birth of Tragedy. These days, it’s not uncommon for a band to just jam out a piece of music, and then the singer will sit there with headphones on and listen to the thing on a loop, and just start going blah-blah-blah and la-la-la, you know and pretty soon, la-la-la turns into you and me or what happened to me yesterday or this feeling I have about an image that’s in my head. So I don’t know that it’s too much of a stretch to describe rock’n’roll as poetry.

SONG: Weezer – Butterfly

Craig Schuftan: The interesting thing about Weezer and that album in particular, Pinkerton, is that it got me thinking about the limits of Romantic philosophy, because really Rivers Cuomo on that album hits a wall with it.

Kyla Slaven: So just to explain, so after this album came out, the band then renounced it because they were embarrassed by it; it was a bit too much like overshare?

Craig Schuftan: Yes, it was definitely overshare. I mean overshare is a great word for to Pinkerton, it is by definition oversharing. There was definitely a level of embarrassment there, you know, he really felt as though he exposed himself and that he’d been hated for it at first, because the album was so poorly reviewed. You know and one of the things that really helped me to understand 18th century Classicism and Formalism was Rivers Cuomo’s project in the very late ’90s, what he called his Encyclopaedia of Pop, where he was reacting against the emotional extremes of Pinkerton, and decided that he was going to make music that had nothing to do with emotions, but everything to do with form. So he became a student of classic rock form. He studied the classics, he looked at the songs that had been great hits by Oasis and Green Day and even hits that he’d written, you know which had been huge hits, he wanted to find out what the formal traits were that they all had in common. And by synthesizing all those things together, create perfect rock songs, you know and that became his project over the next couple of albums.

You can argue that some of them are about nothing, but then Louie Louie is about nothing, you know, and that’s a great song. This comes back to the thing we were talking about earlier, about what poetry is in rock ‘n’ roll. The poetry in those songs is the sound and the delivery. But that was never going to satisfy Pinkerton, fans who wanted real emotional content. Whereas Cuomo specifically didn’t want that any more. The interesting thing about that is that it just shows how even though part of my thesis with this book is that rock is incredibly romantic, it can be incredibly formal sometimes, too, you know. It has all of those arguments living within it, all that see-sawing between the extremes of Romantic expressiveness and formal perfection that happened in the 19th century too, they’re happening today.

SONG: Weezer – Troublemaker

Craig Schuftan: If your goals, if the things that you’re striving for are somehow outside of the world, that’s beautiful, of course that’s poetic and dreamy, and a fantastic thing to believe in but it tends to lead to despair. And it also got me thinking about Schopenhauer who is really one of my favourite discoveries in writing this book was learning about the philosophy of Schopenhauer. And one of the things I really like about him is that the younger Schopenhauer seems to me to be very EMO. If you met him today you know, you would say there is an EMO, because this is a guy who had a pretty good upbringing and education and did the Grand Tour and saw the world and came back and got a pretty good job in an office. But as soon as he got there he kind of sat there and went, You know what? Life is pointless. I’ve seen what is supposedly the best that life has to offer and I don’t think it’s that good. In fact I’m pretty sure that all I can expect from life from this point on is more struggle and sorrow and misery and disappointment.

Kyla Slaven: And also boredom, to top it off, boredom.

Craig Schuftan: Boredom, that’s right. You know, Schopenhauer, because he thought a lot about boredom because he had this dumb job, he realised that boredom wasn’t just a – one of the great things about Schopenhauer is that he never takes anything for granted. He’s a really good philosopher in that way. He looks at this thing, boredom, you know which we all live in, and says, Well why is that? Why do we get bored? And for Schopenhauer boredom was the proof that life is pointless. Like he said that that thing that happens in Weezer’s song Butterfly, you know where we strive for satisfaction, we strive towards some sort of goal, and as soon as we get there, it seems not that important and we already have a new goal, and that that feeling of striving is replaced by the feeling of boredom. He says that that’s proof that life is pointless. If our goals always evade us and if all we are left with is the feeling of boredom, what is live for?

And the amazing thing about Schopenhauer is that he sustained that piece of philosophy until the day he died. I think there’s something really heroic about that you know. Again, most Romantics don’t really go the distance, they tend to kind of –

Kyla Slaven: Especially when they’re young, they have the feelings and then they start to ease up on the world a little.

Craig Schuftan: Yes, you might say start to lead happy lives, maybe they have kids or you know find some satisfaction in their work, or learn to get along with people or you know discover that maybe living in society with others is not that bad. But none of that was for Schopenhauer.

But there is something really lovely in his philosophy where he says that you could say to Schopenhauer you’re a pessimist, and he’d say, Yes, I’m a pessimist, but really look at it historically: pessimists cause much less trouble in the world than optimists. All the trouble in the world has been caused by people saying, You know what? I think I know what’s wrong with the world, let’s go out there and fix it, you know. And that was not for Schopenhauer, he said Really our only hope is to be more compassionate to one another. Which I think is lovely.

Kyla Slaven: You were talking before about how Schopenhauer managed to sort of maintain a view of life as meaningless and boring and painful throughout his whole life; one of the people we haven’t talked about yet is Goethe, who didn’t maintain that same Romantic idea throughout his life. So, what happened?

Craig Schuftan: No, that’s right. Well Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was an incredibly controversial book in its day, and the thing is when I describe the story of his book to you, you’re going to think it’s nothing, because really all it is, is a semi-autobiographical story of a young man, an artist, arriving in new town, falls in love with a girl at a dance, decides she’s the love of his life, then he finds out that she has a fiancée and she’s being married, and then he does nothing. He remains in love with her and tragically in love, and he kind of hangs around the house being mopey and piney, and as the book continues, it becomes winter, and Werther actually says you know ‘as it becomes autumn outside, it becomes autumn with me’. So the seasons reflect my feelings. Again, Romantic as.

And the trajectory of the story is basically down from then on. He gets to the point where he realises that there is no way out for him. You know, everybody says to him, Oh, why don’t you just be reasonable, and look at the situation objectively? Be sensible, walk away from this and maybe you’ll find happiness somewhere else. But Werther is an archetypal Romantic, because he won’t listen to that kind of thing, you know.

Again with your Romantic, big feelings automatically have moral significance. So you can’t tell Werther that his feelings are wrong. This is how he feels. He loves her, so he has to stay and see his love to the end.

And the end for Werther is exactly the end. He kills himself. And the moral of the story seems to be that if you feel something intensely enough, that’s what you should do, it’s right to die for feelings, you know.

Kyla Slaven: But also if he got over it, it would mean that he didn’t love her, it means that his feelings weren’t real.

Craig Schuftan: That’s right. It would mean that his feelings were inauthentic and the young Goethe, because this is such an intensive autobiographical book, the young Goethe just couldn’t accept that, accept that idea at all. Anyway so again, that story doesn’t sound so remarkable today, and it’s the story of an awful lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs, you know there’s an awful lot of songs where people die for love, or they express a wish that they might. But in its day, it was very shocking, because this was the end of the 18th century, the tail-end of the Enlightenment; of a time when the mood philosophically, at least intellectually, as very optimistic, you know people tended to believe that reasoning and science and logic, could solve people’s problems.

Kyla Slaven: And that the world was getting better, too.

Craig Schuftan: And that the world was steadily getting better, and Goethe’s book refuted all that in a very short space of time, along with a few other philosophers and writers who came up with him, the early German Romantics. This is when Romanticism was born essentially as a reaction to the French philosophers of the 18th century, the optimists, the Enlightenment philosophers.

Kyla Slaven: So is this book prominent within the culture in the same way that, say a David Bowie album is or has been in more contemporary time?

Craig Schuftan: It reminded me straight away of the fuss surrounding The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance because, I don’t know if you remember, there was a huge kind of media beat-up about that album as the tour was making its way around the world. Because even before this happened, but certainly after a young My Chemical Romance fan committed suicide in England, there was all the usual brou-ha-ha about suicidal messages in music, and what are the messages that these singers are implanting in kids’ minds, are they convincing them to kill themselves?

And you know, it’s a fair enough question, because again, as I was talking about earlier, you know really, if you accept the idea that the The Black Parade is a movement, and then you ask yourself what does the movement represent, then in a lot of ways it does seem to say the world is – life is pointless. But I don’t believe that’s the only message of the album. As Gerard Way the singer has pointed out quite a lot of times and as you read the lyrics of the whole record, it is a story with a kind of redemptive ending, because at the end of it, it accepts that living is impossible, but it says that we have to do it anyway. It’s almost existential.

And I think the fans understand that, you know, in various ways when the question was put to them in the media interviews when they organised their day of action in London and the news crews descended down there to find out what the EMOs were getting so upset about. They all said a variation of that thing. They said This album inspires me to keep on living, because no-one else would accept what I feel is true; my parents, my teachers, you know the people on TV, none of them will agree with me when I say that life is pointless, but I really feel that and Gerard Way does too. And he accepts it, but then he gives me a reason to keep going.

Kyla Slaven: This is The Philosopher’s Zone. And this week we’re discussing with Craig Schuftan the links between the Romantic movement and a certain strain of rock music. And right now you can her some of the teenage protesters who gathered in London a few years ago to defend My Clinical Romance against media claims that their lyrics sparked depression, and even suicide amongst young listeners.


Kyla Slaven: When Goethe’s book came out there were said to be a number of copycat suicides too, weren’t there?

Craig Schuftan: That’s right, yes. I mean there were a lot of parallels there that people said that Goethe had created a sort of youth cult. You know that you could recognize the young people who had read Goethe, who might have a copy of it in their overcoat pockets, because they had this certain expression on their face, this kind of gloomy, downcast, you know tired-of-life expression which you’re not used to seeing on 20-year-olds. You know, what happened to them, what got to them? It was this book, you know. And then there were some stories of copycat suicides which as you can imagine bothered Goethe a great deal, and were incredibly confusing for him, just as the same sort of stories were for Gerard Way.

And you know, Goethe reacted against the intense Romanticism of his earlier work quite a lot. It’s kind of ironic that he is thought of as the father of German Romanticism, because in later life, he became a kind of Classicist. And again, this is one of the things that tends to happen to Romantics as they get older, they fall out of love with the cult of feelings, because they realise that there’s something hopeless about it, you know, that it doesn’t lead to happiness necessarily.

And so you know, as far as their art is concerned they start to look to different models, you know, especially if you’re finding that people are expecting you to mine your depression for art, which Goethe must have felt and which Rivers Cuomo from Weezer definitely felt. You know, part of the reason why he reacted so strongly against Pinkerton was precisely because it had so many fans. At first because it was embarrassing to him, and it was critically panned, but then later even after it became popular and created a new community, in some ways he hated that more, he hated the idea that these people expected him to be sad for their sake.

SONG: Wagner – Tristan and Isolde (Act 3, Scene 3)

Craig Schuftan: Wagner was the name that I found more than any other 19th century composer in rock literature, and particularly as a way to describe a certain kinds of heavy metal but also really operatic pop. And it has a lot of things in common with rock’n’roll I think, because Wagner was obviously a Romantic, his work in some ways represents Romanticism pushed to its furthest extreme. And one of his most famous operas is Tristan and Isolde, and Tristan and Isolde is kind of a tragic love story, like it seems like a tragedy at the beginning because it’s about lovers who you know, who die in each other’s arms. But there’s this great book about Wagner by Michael Tanner, the British academic, and he talks about how in a lot of ways Tristan and Isolde isn’t a tragedy at all, it’s actually a religious drama, based on a religion that didn’t exist when Wagner was writing the opera, and that religion was the religion of romantic love. Which is really just a consequence of Romantic thought, you know the lovers turn their back on the world which can go to hell for all they care, because they have their unique, pure and true feeling for each other, which again, Romantic, it automatically has a moral weight because they feel it a lot. And because the world can’t offer them satisfaction, they reject it entirely, they dismiss it as a dream. They say, Reality is a dream and our love is the real world. So there’s no reason for them to live in the real world. They die.

Kyla Slaven: Let’s finish with Nietzsche then because you wrote about how he was particularly influenced by Romantic composer, Wagner, and philosopher, Schopenhauer, and how those two produce something quite different in Nietzsche, and something a bit Romantic, even though he wouldn’t have seen himself as Romantic as well.

Craig Schuftan: That’s right. I mean you know Nietzsche is kind of the end of Romanticism. He was influenced, as you said, by two of the greatest Romantics, but he found that he had to find a way out of it, because he saw Romanticism as a dead end.

But yes, I mean Schopenhauer was very, very important for Nietzsche, because, and I love the story about him discovering Schopenhauer, that he walked into a second-hand bookshop and just bought this little book, which apparently nobody bought because the book was a terrible flop, like it sold no copies and nobody ever heard of Schopenhauer. But Nietzsche picked this thing up and went home and sat on the sofa. You know, he was a moody, intense young man, he loved Lord Byron, he loved Beethoven, you know, and thought a lot about his emotions. He wrote the autobiography of his emotional life nine times before he turned 13, just books about his feelings.

Kyla Slaven: He’s so EMO.

Craig Schuftan: He’s so EMO. And so he says that he just sat up on the sofa all night, he didn’t sleep that night, just reading this book, because he felt like Here was somebody who finally understood me. And again that’s a good example of that thing that the My Chemical Romance fans talk about in action, because if anybody ever said ‘Life is hopeless’, it’s Schopenhauer. But for Nietzsche that was the most exciting revelation of his life, that gave him the strength to do almost everything that he did with the rest of his life, and he did a lot.

But the interesting thing about Nietzsche is that right from the beginning, when he writes about Schopenhauer’s world as will, he writes about it in very different terms, because for Schopenhauer, the world as will is evil, the force that pushes life along is essentially destructive, and can come to no good. But Nietzsche, right from the beginning, sees it in slightly different terms, like he talks about seeing a lightning storm on a hill, and that was a real epiphany for him. He realised when he saw the lightning that that’s how life should be, that for him is life, you know, it’s free, and it’s powerful and it’s amoral and it’s destructive and it’s fierce. And that became his project in various ways, through the rest of his life, was to work out a philosophy based on that idea.

Kyla Slaven: But then Nietzsche was also a big music fan, so how did Wagner come into it?

Craig Schuftan: Music was very, very important for Nietzsche, because you know, he played music and actually wrote a bit of music as well. As a young man, he used to stay up quite late, playing Tristan and Isolde on piano, you know, just hammering out those big emotional chords, it was really important for him. And his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, which we were talking about before, is ostensibly a kind of treatise on Greek drama, and anaesthetics in the Greek world, but then the last four chapters are given over to a discussion of Wagner and why his music is the future of music in Europe, and Germany, which is such a funny thing to do. Like the Wagner thing comes out of nowhere, like Why are you talking about this now? But of course he was a fan, you know. In some ways this was the end of Nietzsche’s academic career because Wagner was popular but not cool, it was seen as music for kind of over-emotional young girls, so it was not the kind of thing that you wrote your academic treatise on.

But of course what came out of it was this very intense bond with Wagner and they talked a lot about ideas in music and all those things, but they parted, because of Nietzsche’s changing attitude, well they parted for a few different reasons but you could say that one of them was Nietzsche’s changing attitude to Romanticism. He realised in a lot of ways that it was a dead end and that it tended to lead to religion or to decadence and he wasn’t having that, he wanted something stronger.

Alan Saunders: Craig Schuftan, author of Hey Nietzsche, leave them kids alone, talking to Kyla Slaven.

Kyla also produces the show, with sound engineer Charlie McKune. I’m Alan Saunders, I’ll be back next week.

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Craig Schuftan
Author, Hey Nietzsche – Leave them kids alone.
Broadcaster and Producer, triple J, ABC Radio


Title: Hey Nietzsche – Leave them kids alone
Author: Craig Schuftan
Publisher: ABC Books (2009)


CD title: The Black Parade
Track title: Welcome to the black parade
Artist: My Chemical Romance
Composer: My Chemical Romance
CD details: Reprise Records (2006)

CD title: The Red Album
Track title: Troublemaker
Artist: Weezer
Composer: Rivers Cuomo
CD details: Geffen (2008)

CD title: Pinkerton
Track title: Butterfly
Artist: Weezer
Composer: Rivers Cuomo
CD details: Geffen (1996)

CD title: Tristan and Isolde
Track title: Act 3, Scene 3
Composer: Richard Wagner


Alan Saunders


Kyla Slaven


Kyla Slaven

This entry was posted in Alt Rock/Indie, Pop Culture Issues.

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