Monday, December 8, 2008

The Other Side

Last night I posted a blog entry on the trope of “magic” in popular music, a word used, so I argued, to name various physical and/or emotional effects, from pheromonal sexual excitement to psychotropic drugs. Serendipitously, in this morning’s Los Angeles Times, an article appeared titled “Ghosts, aliens and us” by David Klinghoffer discussing popular belief in the occult and supernatural which, admittedly, is not precisely claiming that there is a popular belief in magic, but it is close enough. Citing various polls to suggest how widespread beliefs in the supernatural are, the author refers to “the impressive diversity within what psychologist William James called ‘the reality of the unseen,’ or Puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather called the ‘invisible world.’” The author also claims that further evidence of such beliefs is provided by the popularity of George Noory’s “Coast to Coast AM” radio show, which draws 3 million listeners and is dedicated to the sharing of all types of experiences with ghosts, aliens, and garrulous spirits inhabiting the noosphere. Discussing Noory’s Coast to Coast AM, Klinghoffer writes:

Listeners call up, one after another, with personal narratives of what Jewish mysticism would describe as the “other side” of existence. Sure, I’m skeptical about crop circles, conspiracy theories and cryptozoology. However, I’m also sympathetic to the late conservative philosopher and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk, who valued the paranormal for its suggestion that reality consists of more than mundane material processes. I get the persistent sense that something profound is affirmed by the eerie accounts on Noory’s show.

Eventually, one learns what the author means by “something profound”: “the human need to believe in the unseen world.” Another name for this impulse for the “something profound,” I think, is “faith,” but in yesterday’s blog, I chose to refer to it as “magic.” Popular music gives expression to this “unseen or invisible world.” Simon Frith has observed:

It should be apparent by now that people do hear the music they like as something special: not, as orthodox rock criticism would have it, because this music is more ‘authentic’ (though that may be how it is described), but because, more directly, it seems to provide an experience that transcends the mundane, that takes us ‘out of ourselves’. It is special, that is, not necessarily with reference to other music, but to the rest of life. This sense of specialness, the way in which music seems to make possible a new kind of self-recognition, frees us from the everyday routines and expectations that encumber our social identities, is a key part of the way in which people experience and thus value music: if we believe we possess our music, we also often feel that we are possessed by it. Transcendence is, then, as much a part of the popular music aesthetic as it is of the serious music aesthetic. . . . (“Towards an aesthetic of popular music,” 144)

In other words, the more mundane and unfulfilling one’s daily existence—work, labor, the narrowing range of options our everyday life offers us—the more attractive “the reality of the unseen,” the sheer potential of transcendence, becomes. “You Can Do Magic” the song by America avers, but perhaps that expresses more of a wish or hope than a valid option “life offers.” Is it a song about faith? You decide. Here’s the opening lyric: “I never believed in things that I couldn’t see/I said if I can’t feel it then how can it be/No, no magic could happen to me/And then I saw you.”

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