Friedrich Nietzsche on Pop Music

Nietzsche piano

In the second instalment of our new series, Chloe Mayne looks at legendary German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his thoughts on popular music:

What’s the role of music in our lives? More importantly, how do our current listening habits compare with the potential music has to enrich us? This is a problem that Friedrich Nietzsche both directly and indirectly attempted to grapple with for much of his philosophical life.

As a staunch atheist, Nietzsche argues that music (and art in general) fills the gap left by the decline of religion. Obviously, this is no small pair of shoes to fill. In Human, All Too Human Nietzsche writes that:

Art raises its head when the religions relax their hold. It takes over a host of moods and feelings engendered by religion, lays them to its heart and itself grows more profound and soulful, so that it is now capable of communicating exultation and enthusiasm as it formerly could not… Wherever we perceive… higher, gloomier colouring, we can assume that dread of spirits, the odour of incense and shadows of churches are still adhering to them.

Art enables us to undergo a sort of spiritual ‘spring-cleaning’ by allowing us to experience and enjoy religious sentiment without falling prey to its doctrine or its additional responsibilities; we can hang out in heavenly bliss beside the record player without having to don our Sunday clothes and gnaw a chunk of stale bread in return for our satisfaction. Nietzsche argues that it is music that harbours this religious sentiment above all other art forms. He uses the example of listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to describe the almost terrifying elation that good music is able to generate:

… [it] will make him feel he is hovering above the earth in a dome of stars with the dream of immortality in the heart: all the stars seem to glitter around him and the earth seems to sink further and further away…

If art is really a substitute container for religious sentiment, then this means that the position of the artist is somewhat like that of the priest or prophet – and indeed, Nietzsche says that in the ‘cult of genius’, it is. In this way, we (knowingly or not) award artists the ability to see the true nature of the world and believe that, through their exceptional vision, ‘they are able to communicate something conclusive and decisive about man and the world without the toil and rigorousness required by science’. Despite the incisive boredom that most art theory classes induce, in a broader sense the immense power that we give to both artists and their art in the cultural imaginary makes a critique of them important and necessary.

The artist that Nietzsche himself most enjoyed verbally crash-tackling was the German composer, conductor and theatre director Richard Wagner. As a young man, he was actually rather infatuated with Wagner, touting him as the redeemer of Greek tragedy, as a musical genius, as creating art that had a positive effect on contemporary society. At the time, the opera was among the more accessible of the arts, enjoyed by the wider public – not dissimilar to mainstream pop music today. As Wagner’s popularity grew, the quality of his work seemed toIMG_2397 crumble; in this, Nietzsche felt as though his favourite musician had betrayed him. It’s a common concept; after all, how many of our most beloved bands’ second albums feel like a bit of a flop compared to the first?

Nietzsche’s criticism was a very serious one; that the original genius of the music had evaporated and that Wagner was thus treating his audience like a bunch of idiots, tickling their fancy with shiny things rather than challenging them. It no longer sought to enrich the listener, only temporarily excite them with entertaining flourishes; ‘for’, as Nietzsche writes, ‘it is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful’. In approaching his audience this way, Wagner allegedly enacted and furthered the already present decline of human existence in modernity by means of promoting consumerism and decadence. He is accused of exploiting the religious sentiment found in artistic appreciation for the benefit of his own fame and power, throwing grandiose yet meaningless shrouds over the eyes of his audience rather than treating them as intelligent and responsive individuals the way that he should have. In essence, Wagner sold out.

What, then, can Nietzsche teach us in an age of MTV, Billboard charts and glitzy, factory-manufactured pop stars? Mostly, that we should tread their glittering red-carpet fields with caution. While it’s no terrible act to indulge in the popular music of our era, sometimes it’s wise to take a step back and make sure that we aren’t being treated like a dumbass/condescended in the process.

Chloe Mayne


Words by Chloe Mayne.