What Pop Music Can Teach Philosophy

Pop music may seem like silly medium, associated with hormonal school girls and bizarre behavior.

By contrast, philosophy has a reputation for being deeply serious and impressive, a way to understand ourselves and transform the world through ideas.

But since the 1960s, philosophy has stalled and pop has conquered the world. It is now a leading medium for the articulation of ideas on a mass scale. If it is to survive, philosophy must study pop.

1. Pop teaches us about charm. The great pop songs are bewitchingly, dazzlingly charming in the manner in which they get their messages across: they know exactly how to wear away our defenses and enter our imaginations with easy grace. It’s a reminder that it isn’t enough for ideas to be correct. For them to become powerful and deliver on their promises, they need to know how to win over an audience. Pop is the most seductive force the world has ever known. It is more deeply loved, more trusted, and a more constant companion in our joys and sorrows than any other art form.

2. Pop understands the division of labor. Those who can sing and hold the crowd may not be the same as those who know how to write music or arrange instruments. Pop combines the most beautiful face with the finest voice, the best score and the best instrumental arrangement. Pop has overcome the Romantic hangup about the unique creator, it knows that the most intimate, heartfelt result may be the outcome of large-scale institutional collaboration.

3. Pop teaches us too about compression. It knows our lives are busy and has an extraordinarily ambitious sense of what could be achieved in under three minutes. Like all other art forms, pop is trying to communicate ideas, but it bypasses the more resistant intellectual parts of the mind. All the usual obstacles to reaching another person are stripped away in the name of visceral intimacy.

4. Like religion, pop knows that repetition is key. It works its effect through being heard again and again. It would prefer to grab three minutes from you every day, than three hours every two months. Like religious incantation, it is interested in working upon our souls cumulatively.

5. Pop is intelligent in not being afraid of simplicity. It knows that our emotional needs are in essence obvious: to be encouraged, to be held, to be cheered up, to be reassured when we are alone, to be told something beautiful and uplifting. It doesn’t suffer from high art’s addiction to subtlety. It accepts that the core of our minds may be astonishingly basic in its structure.

6. Pop masters collective euphoria. It possesses what churches and politicians would like, but are so rarely able to secure. It has worked out how to generate shared moments of deep emotion about important things.

Philosophy needs to learn from pop, but pop also has a lot to learn from philosophy. Pop currently touches on the big themes but doesn’t, as yet, properly take up many of the opportunities that lie its way. In the future, we need pop musicians to take up the challenge of investigating the deepest truths, of getting behind transformative concepts and of making these into the things we’ll sing about in front of the bathroom mirror with our hairbrushes – so that they become the background sounds of our inner lives. The world waits for a redemptive synthesis between philosophy and pop.