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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tuesday Night Music (and Philosophy) Blog

Law review authors occasionally use rock song lyrics to make a point. Alex Long has written insightfully about their tendency to do so.  (And I am guilty of it in this recent article on First Amendment law and virtual reality).

This led me to wonder what happens when things work in reverse: Which law review articles are cited the most in rock music?  Are the same law reviews that are highest in court and scholarship citation counts – according to the Washington and Lee rankings – also the most frequently cited in angst-ridden rock lyrics? 

Unfortunately, it seems that rock lyricists have so far found little worth quoting in our scholarship.  Or perhaps they are simply too embarrassed to admit to their fan base just how much they love and read law review articles (and thus go to lengths to hide all of their musical footnotes about legal scholarship with hard to decrypt back-masking or subliminal message techniques).

In any event, I was determined not to come up empty in this project and so have hastily broadened my focus beyond the narrow disciplinary boundaries of modern academia – to all references I can think of in rock music to philosophical thinkers, texts, and occasionally to words or phrases I’ve decided to erroneously assume are about philosophical thinkers, texts, or themes.  Below is my list so far.  Please feel free to add to it in the comments section.


Elliott Smith’s album – Either/Or (title borrowed from the book by Soren Kierkegaard).

Elliott Smith – Miss Misery (also a reference of sorts to the book, Either/Or).

Elliott Smith – Strung Out Again (I wouldn’t be shocked if the imagery of owls flying over a floating body was inspired at least in part by Hegel’s famous Owl of Minerva line.  That seems even more plausible for the alternate lyrics played at some live performances).

R.E.M. – Moral Kiosk.

Dump Truck – Ethics.

Spoon – Utilitarian.

Timeblind  -- Ontological Ground of Being.

The Celibate Rifles’ album – The Turgid Miasma of Existence (Happening Sounds for the Modern Degeneration).

Sheryl Crow – Every Day is a Winding Road (“I’ve been wondering if all the things I’ve seen.  Were ever real.  Were ever really happening”).

Beck – Volcano (“I don’t know what I’ve seen.  Was it all an illusion? All a mirage gone bad?”).

Juluka – Simple Things (“The stars are dead and all you see are shining lies”).

Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, What I Am (“Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks.”).

The Angry Samoans – Unhinged (“Pure consciousness comes to the tuned out mind.  An empty, lucid, self-illuminating ride . . . This world’s illusion.  Get unhinged.”).

We are Scientists – The Nature of Empirical Truth.

The Last Shadow Puppets – Only the Truth.

David Gilmore – Let’s Get Metaphysical.

Phanton Limbs – Dead Language (“You don’t have to get metaphysical baby”).

The Super Furry Animals – Some Things Come From Nothing.

The Able Tasmans – The Big Bang Theory (“The universe’s final hours.”).

The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize?? (“Do You Realize - we're floating in space”) (Despite legislative opposition, this is – by the Governor’s executive order – now Oklahoma’s official state rock song.).

The Buzzcocks – I Believe (“I believe in perpetual motion . . . my relative motion is just an illusion from stopping too fast.”).

Unbunny – Nothing Comes to Rest (“Hey Charlie, nothing comes to rest.  On the chests of those always running.  I’m tired of living from the wrist.  And leaving all decision to coincidence.”).

Pink Floyd – Time (“You run and you run to catch up with the sun.  But it’s sinking.  Racing around to come up behind you again.  The sun is the same in a relative way.  But you’re older.”).

The Buzzcocks – I Believe (“I can’t feel the future and I’m not certain there’s a past.”).

Super Furry Animals – Frisbee (“The past was eagle-eyed.  The future’s pixelized.”).

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Tokyo Storm Warning (“We’re only living this instant.”).

The Police – Spirits in the Material World.

The Police album – Ghost in the Machine.

The Buzzcocks – Autonomy.

Rush – Freewill (“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”).

Wire – 40 Versions (“I never know which version I’m going to be.  I seem to have so many choices open to me . . . I’ve got 40 versions all dying to get the part.  And so with a change of mind comes a change of heart.”).

The band, Masters of Reality.

The Solipsistics – Any Requests? (“I clasp the crooked handle of my one idea.”).

Robyn Hitchcock – The Man Who Invented Himself (“Well that loneliness is nothing.  Just imagine how he feels.  He’s the only person in the world.  Who still believes he’s real”).

The Beatles – Nowhere Man (“He’s a real nowhere man.  Sitting in his nowhere land.  Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”).

M. Ward – Epistemology.

The Replacements – I Don’t Know.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Beyond Belief.

Rod Stewart – Reason to Believe (originally by Tim Hardin).

Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker (USS) – Laces Out (“Direct your eyes to the obvious proof.   And puppy dog lies won’t sweeten the truth.  I whisper and scream but I can’t refute.  It’s absolute.”).

Coldplay – Proof.

Coldplay – Twisted Logic.

Supertramp – The Logical Song.

Super Furry Animals’ album – Fuzzy Logic.

Patricio Rey y Sus Redonditos de Ricota – Superlogico

Hayley Westenra – Quanta Qualia.

The Forms –  Knowledge in Hand.

George Michael – Faith.

The Tall Dwarfs’ album – Dogma.

Marnie Stern – Plato’s F****d Up Cave.

The Grateful Dead – Terrapin Station (“While the firelight’s aglow.  Strange shadows in the flames will grow.   Till things we’ve never seen.  Will seem familiar.”)  (Possibly about the experience of those in Plato’s cave watching shadows of things they can’t see, but that’s not the interpretation in The Annotated Terrapin Station.).

Leonard Cohen – Heart with No Companion (“For the soul without a king”) (Could conceivably be referring to Plato’s tripartite model of the soul, in this case, minus a competent Charioteer.  But the main reason it’s here is I wanted some Leonard Cohen lyrics on my list and this was the first one that came to mind.).

Kareem Salama – Aristotle and Averroes.

Andrew Bird – The Naming of Things.

The Thirteenth Floor Elevators – She Lives in a Time of Her Own (“She lives.  No Fear.  Doubtless in everything she knows. . . You have always heard her speaking.  She’s been always in your ear . . . She lives in a time of her own.”) (This could easily be about Lady Philosophy as Boethius encountered her in his prison cell).

Band of Horses – St. Augustine.

Roger Miller (The Mission of Burma member, not the country singer) –  The Age of Reason.

The band, Descartes a Kant.

The Tall Dwarfs – Cant.

Propagandhi – Nailing Descartes to the Wall.

The Looking – Spinoza.

The Faintest Ideas – Dear Leibniz.

The Laughing Clowns  -- Law of Nature.

Bikini Kill – In Accordance to Natural Law.

The Vandals – Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government).

John Stuart Mill (= John Schmersal from the band, Brainiac).

Stiff Little Fingers – Suspect Device (“They take away our freedom.  In the name of liberty.”) (As I’ve already said in earlier post, I interpret this line as being about a government doing what Isaiah Berlin warned against and invoking positive freedom to eliminate negative freedom.  There are no footnotes to Berlin in the song.  But that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking with it!).

Belle & Sebastian – Marx & Engels.

Don McLean – American Pie (“And while Lenin read a book on Marx.  The quartet practiced in the park”).

Gang of Four – Capital (It Fails Us Now).

Gang of Four –Contract.

Ivy Green – Slide Machine (“Alienation”).

Philip Boa & The VooDoo Club – For What Bastards (Do They Work) (“Atomize the dreams of economy and output, economy and output”).

Scritti Politti – Hegemony.

The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death (“The people who grinned themselves to death.  Smiled so much they failed to take a breath.  And even when their kids were starving.  They all thought the queen was charming”).

Gang of Four – Why Theory?

The Dandy Warhols – Nietzsche.

George Elliott – Nietzsche & Me.

Robyn Hitchcock – Nietzsche’s Way.

Paula Cole – Nietzsche’s Eyes.

Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Ed Kuepper – Also Sprach, The King of Euro-Disco.

The Jean Paul Sartre Experience – Spaceman (“I try to find a way to be free.  Of anything that’s troubling me.  But freedom’s such a fickle thing.”).

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Rattlesnakes (“She reads Simone De Beauvoir.  In her American circumstance.”).

Sufjan Stevens – A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens has an Existential Crisis.

The band, Angst.

Scritti Politi – Jacques Derrida. (“I’m in love with Jacques Derrida.  Read a page and know what I need to.  Take apart by baby’s heart.”)

Tracy Chapman – Why? (“Amidst all these questions.  And contradictions. There are some who still seek the truth.”).

The Moody Blues – Question (“Why do we never get an answer. When we’re knocking at the door.”).

Manu Chao – La Vida Tombola (“La vida es una tombola.”= Life is a raffle) (He’s possibly singing about the assumption that John Rawls makes in A Theory of Justice that “the parties are situated behind a veil of ignorance . . . no one knows his class position in society or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets or abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.”  He’s also singing about, and to, Maradona.)

Pearl Jam – W.M.A. (“He won the lottery. When he was born.”) (same as above, without the Maradona part.)

Richie Havens – 23 Days in September (“On the floor, pages torn from books she reads.  Ancient ones and new magic and philosophy. Hopeful, she tries every one. Soon leaving them undone.  They seem to hold nothing at all she can believe”) (originally by Davie Blue).

Monty Python – The Meaning of Life.

Hair (The Musical) – Where Do I Go?  (“Where is the something?  Where is the someone?  That tells me why I live and die?”).

Andrew Bird –  A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left (“We had survived to.  Turn on the History Channel.  And ask our esteemed panel.  Why are we alive?  And here’s how they replied.  You’re what happens when two substances collide.”)

Frank Sinatra – The Good Life.

Stanhop –  Seek the Welfare of the City.

Ministry –  I Prefer.

PreFab Sprout – Appetite (“I’m a simple slave of appetite.  I’m a poor slave of appetite.”).

The Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – I Hope You’re Happy Now.

R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People.

The Celibate Rifles – Compared to What? (“And she’s doing just fine.  (Compared to What?)  Just above the bread line.).

The Celibate Rifles –  Wonderful Life (“I’m upwardly mobile.   My life is truly blessed.  I’m a moderately depressive Gold American Express.   I’m so appropriate, response and reply.  Cholesterol is low.  Expectations are high . . . Got solar heating in my sauna and spa.  I’m into tennis, Zen, and shiatsu. Here I am.  And there you are.”).

The Celibate Rifles – Wild Desire.

The Churchills – Too Much in Love to Hear (Must be a reference to Ulysses and the Sirens.  At least the lyrics are more interesting that way.).

Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses.

Franz Ferdinand– Ulysses.

No Man is Roger Miller – The Promised Land (“tie me to a boat that’s going to nowhere”)

Styx – Come Sail Away.

Papercuts – Future Primitive (“Well we crossed the river once.  And we’ll do it once again. The valley will open.  And the mountains fall to their knees.”).

Cerberus Shoal – A Head No Bigger Than a Man’s Cloud

Deerhunter – Adorno.

The Shins – Young Pilgrims (“This modern thought can get the best of you.”).

Joy Division – Failures (“He no longer denies.  All the failures of modern man.”).

Morphine  -- You Speak My Language (“Everywhere I go no one understands me.  They look at me when I talk to them.  And they scratch their heads.  And go what’s he trying to say?. . . Kabrula kaysay Brula Amal amala senda Kumahn Brenda. Kabrula kaysay Brula Amal amala senda Kumahn Brenda. Kabrula kaysay Brula Amal amala senda. Kabrula kaysay Brula Amal amala senda. Kumahn Brenda. Kumahn Brenda.  But you.  You speak my language!”).

Laurie Anderson – Language is a Virus (title borrowed from William S. Burroughs).

Ben Folds Five – Philosophy.

And since it's not that far afield from the above list, here are some allusions to heavy Russian novels (or their themes):

The Verlaines, -- New Kind of Hero (“Alexander the Great?  Maybe Fyodor Dostoevsky?  I’m going back to my cell.  I’m sorry I’m neither of those. (And the tension begins to grow).  A new kind of hero.”).

White Skull – Grand Inquisitor

This Kind of Punishment – Ivan Fyodorovitch

Magazine – Song from Under the Floor Boards (“I know the meaning of life.  It doesn’t help me a bit . . . This is a song from under the floor boards.  This is a song from where the wall is cracked.”).

Super Furry Animals – City Scape Sky Baby (“She came in around dawn. Took her coat off.  Burdened down by the Russian winter . . .  Wash away imminent disaster.  Thinking through her today.  And the murder of the bailiff and land owner.”).

Joy Division – Dead Souls

The Police –  Don’t Stand So Close to Me (“Just like the old man.  In that book by Nabakov.”).

Game Theory’s album – Lolita Nation

Posted by Marc Blitz on June 2, 2009 at 11:33 PM in Music | Permalink


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Posted by: Luc Tromb | Jun 20, 2009 7:21:45 AM

philosophical poetry blog

Posted by: Erik | Jun 10, 2009 8:58:54 PM

Joseph, Howard, Paul:

Thanks for all the additions! Based on the evolving criterion for what should count, I'd also add:

1. On Galileo & other scientists:

Super Furry Animals -- If You Don't Want Me to Destroy You ("Gravity. You just hold me down so quietly. You just pull me down to earth.").

Super Furry Animals (yet again) -- Hermann Loves Pauline ("Marie Curie was Polish-born, but French-bread. Hah! French Bread! She ended up dead from radiation. Slow, invisible suffocation.").

2. On university life:

Indigo Girls -- Closer to Fine ("I went to see the doctor of philosophy. With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knees. He never did marry. Or see a B-grade movie. He graded my performance. He thought he could see through. I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind. Got my paper and I was free.")

Again, thanks.

Posted by: Marc Blitz | Jun 4, 2009 1:30:25 PM

You listed three Gang of Four songs, which is great, but I would add this expression of Marxist materialism from their fantastic song "We Live as We Dream (Alone)":

"Men and women need to work / It helps us define ourselves / We were not born in isolation / But sometimes it seems that way."

Yes, that is the actual lyric.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 4, 2009 9:31:01 AM

Well, if it can be merely academic: Steely Dan, "My Old School" is all about Bard College.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 3, 2009 2:22:14 PM

Dar Williams's song Southern California Wants to Be Western New York has a lovely line about lusting after a SUNY student with mousy brown hair.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 3, 2009 2:18:02 PM

Indigo Girls, "Galileo" ("How long 'til my soul gets it right?")
Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime" ("And you may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'")

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 3, 2009 1:26:25 PM

Mid-70s Sparks rules.

Does Kahlil Gibran count as a philosopher? If so, David Bowie mentions him in his song, "Width of a Circle": "So we asked a simple black bird, who was happy as can be / And he laughed insane and quipped "Kahlil Gibran."

And does Edward De Bono count as a philosopher? If so, the unfortunately obscure but brilliant John Cooper Clarke has the following line in his "The Bronze Adonis":

She's reading Edward de Bono under the palms
He sprays OdoroNo under his arms
I was to say the least alarmed
when the bronze adonis got her...

And in his accent, "palms" and "arms" rhyme.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 3, 2009 12:00:16 PM

Thanks! That works much better than my own false Kant reference (spelled "Cant"), but I had to find some place on the list for The Tall Dwarfs. I definitely have to become more familiar with the Sparks.

Also, if you come up with any good criteria for what counts as a philosophical insight or reference in a song, let me know. I just used my own highly unreliable intuition, as well as some free associating through my song library (along with some much-appreciated help from my colleague Mike O'Shea on the Scritti Politti examples).

Posted by: Marc Blitz | Jun 3, 2009 10:44:19 AM

Also from the Sparks: in their song "La Dolce Vita," the lyric "Life isn't much, but there's nothing else to do" kind of sums up my layman's image of existentialism.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 3, 2009 10:40:40 AM

Sartre, that is.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 3, 2009 8:34:04 AM

This is an excellent post, not least because it will certainly cause me to procrastinate later. I'll have to think about what counts as a philosophical insight, but off the top of my head, here's a song that actually mentions Kant in the lyrics:

"Hasta Manana, Monsieur," the Sparks ("You mentioned Kant and I was shocked, so shocked / Where I come from none of the girls have such foul tongues").

And when Nick Cave sang "People They Ain't No Good," that's basically Satre, right?

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 3, 2009 8:33:21 AM

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