Critical Musicology Journal

A Virtual Journal on the Internet

PULP PHILOSOPHY: Nietzsche and the Transvaluation of the Popular [1]

Steve Sweeney-Turner

1: Popular Bifurcation

"We like music that kicks butt!" - Beavis and Butthead.[2]

ridendo dicere severum - Friedrich Nietzsche.[3]

Nietzsche may not, on the basis of a first reading, be the most obvious philosopher to bring into the field of a discussion on popular music. After all, he is most closely associated with the debates surrounding the High Romantic music of Richard Wagner - notoriously and problematically shifting from a pro-Wagnerian position in his early work to an anti-Wagnerian position later on. Indeed, it will be this later writing which occupies most of our time here.

Moreover, Nietzsche's politics are often taken to be more than a touch anti-popular, couched as they are in assaults on what he was pleased to call das Gesindel - the `riffraff', or `rabble'.[4] For example, in Der Fall Wagner (1888), Nietzsche repeatedly denigrates Wagner by associating him with the ostensibly non-musical art of drama on the one hand and `the rabble' on the other:

The theatre is a form of demolatry in matters of taste; the theatre is a revolt of the masses, a plebiscite against good taste. - This is precisely what is proved by the case of Wagner: he won the crowd, he corrupted taste, he spoiled even our taste for opera![5]

So for Nietzsche, the theatre - the public site of representation - is a place of popular legislation against good taste, a chamber in which a plebeian referendum results in demolatry (worship of the people), the sign of bad taste.

From this, we can gather that Nietzsche's concept of the popular in this passage is very much a sociological-cum-political construct rather than an aesthetic one, and this is often followed through in his use of the word populär itself:

Whatever of Wagner's music has become popular also apart from the theatre shows dubious taste and corrupt taste.[6]

It is clear, then, from Nietzsche's comments about Wagner, that this social sign of the popular is the sign of an aesthetic negativity, a sign of bad taste in all its forms.

Yet, while Wagner's popularity is tainted for Nietzsche by its association with the ignorant masses of a beer-swilling, anti-Semitic Germany,[7] there is also a concept of the popular at work within Nietzsche's text which suggests a more positive collectivity. To be sure, the anti-popular sentiments which Nietzsche demonstrates in connection with Wagner's followers are undeniable. Nevertheless, within his entire corpus of writing, there remains a constant (if not, perhaps, consistent) trace which leads him ever closer to a certain conception of the popular within music which increasingly insists on its philosophical primacy over the classical.[8]

Specifically, Der Fall Wagner is not only about Wagner himself, and, particularly in the three supplements to the essay which Nietzsche later felt compelled to add, we find that there are indeed two faces to the sign of the popular within Nietzsche's thought. While Wagner's popularity is inscribed with a certain negativity here, it is also true that even on the first page of Der Fall Wagner, Nietzsche views the popular associations of Bizet's Carmen with an over-riding positivity:

This music seems perfect to me. It approaches lightly, supplely, politely. It is pleasant, it does not sweat. `What is good is light; whatever is godly moves on tender feet': first principle of my aesthetics. This music is evil, subtly fatalistic; at the same time it remains popular - its subtlety belongs to a race, not to an individual.[9]

Within this passage, we can discern a more resonant conception of the popular: one which begins to move Nietzsche's usage of the term into a more properly aesthetic field. If Carmen's popularity is not so much to be measured in terms of audience sizes but in terms of its affective and (anti-)moral powers, then simultaneously, the possibility of the popular as an aesthetic rather than sociological category is opened. This is music which `does not sweat' - it is has a different physiological power, a different affective mode, a different aesthetic composition. And further, while Nietzsche chastises Wagner's ostensibly Christian shift in Parsifal, Bizet's opera is characterised as evil (böse) - while Wagner is criticised for being `the heir of Hegel', criticised for making a music which attempts to escape corporeality and rise into the realm of the Ideal, Bizet is praised for the very corporeality of Carmen..[10] In all of this, of course - Carmen's lightness, fatalism, and evil corporeality - Nietzsche sets Bizet up as a truly Dionysian composer. Further, Nietzsche increasingly associates Wagner with the Apollonian moment in art - not least due to the fact that, with his emphasis on the dramatic aspect of Wagner, and his claim that Wagner makes music the ancillary `handmaid' of drama (ancilla dramaturgica), he effectively accuses Wagner of a logocentrism as well as an Idealism, an accusation which again contrasts with the corporeality of Bizet.

But what of the figure of the popular within this framework? How exactly is the popular inscribed within Bizet's Carmen, which is, after all, normally thought of as a classical opera rather than a piece of popular music?

2: Classical Deceptions

In order to begin an answer to this question, we must provisionally read Nietzsche's theorisation of the classical. Der Fall Wagner, while ostensibly being an attack on Wagner, nevertheless takes a broader view. Indeed, particularly when we read the later addenda, it becomes nothing less than an attack on high art music in general. Nietzsche's specific term for this is the `great style' (großen Stil), and within this concept, we find once more a certain strategic bifurcation:

Everything in music today that lays claim to a `great style' either deceives us or deceives itself. This alternative gives enough food for thought... `Deceives us': most people's instincts protest against this - they don't want to be deceived - but I myself should still prefer even this type to the other (`deceives itself'). This is my taste. - To make this easier to understand, for the benefit of the `poor in spirit': Brahms - or Wagner. - Brahms is no actor. - A goodly portion of the other musicians may be subsumed in the concept of Brahms. -[11]

In this characteristic passage, Nietzsche's assault on the `great style' contains a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, he accuses Brahms of deceiving himself when he attempts to pass himself off as `the heir of Beethoven'[12] - for Nietzsche, Brahms's conservatism is a self-delusion which attempts to escape history and return to a previous moment. On the other hand, he accuses Wagner of deceiving his audience when he attempts to pass himself off as the leader of the new avant-garde, since for Nietzsche, modernity itself is a false and devalued moment. So Wagner deceives us, while Brahms deceives himself. Nevertheless, Nietzsche avows a philosophical preference for Wagner within these terms, even if he also claims that Wagner `gives his name to the ruin of music'.[13] For Nietzsche, Wagner is at least successful in his deceit, and is, moreover, not self-deluding to boot. Further, if modernity itself is corrupting and false, then at least Wagner is unashamedly of his time when he too corrupts and lies.

So for Nietzsche, the high classical tradition - the `great style' - has become a force of deception, with Wagner on the one hand being imaged as an evil magician, and on the other, Brahms being imaged as an innocent fool. Nietzsche lists the corruption of modern music as follows:

What Wagner has in common with `the others' - I'll enumerate it: the decline of the power to organize; the misuse of traditional means without the capacity to furnish any justification, any for-the-sake-of; the counterfeiting in the imitation of big forms for which nobody today is strong, proud, self-assured, healthy enough; excessive liveliness in the smallest parts; excitement at any price; cunning as the expression of impoverished life; more and more nerves in place of flesh.[14]

These, then, are the sins of the classical for Nietzsche - the modern in music has become too diffuse, and can no longer justify the use of traditional large forms in an age when such forms are no longer fully understood. As Nietzsche goes on to say: "What can be done well today, what can be masterly, is only what is small. Here alone integrity is still possible."[15] In this, we begin to move a little closer to Nietzsche's prioritisation of a certain conception of the popular over and above his conception of the classical. Further, in his claim that the modern `great style' promotes `more and more nerves in place of flesh', we find a return to the issue of the corporeality of the figure of the popular with which he contextualises Bizet's Carmen. For Nietzsche, Carmen represents a music of the flesh, rather than a music of the nerves. Indeed, it is at this point that he brings in another example along the same lines when he praises `the overflowing animal vitality of a Rossini'.[16] Moreover, elsewhere - in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886) - Nietzsche had already effectively constructed his own canon of fleshy music which `does not sweat', whose last truly great genius was Mozart:

The `good old days' are gone, in Mozart they sang themselves out - how fortunate are we that his rococo still speaks to us, that his `good company', his tender enthusiasm, his child-like delight in chinoiserie and ornament, his politeness of the heart, his longing for the graceful, the enamoured, the dancing, the tearful, his faith in the south may still appeal to some residue in us![17]

Following on from this passage - which is so close to his praises of Bizet in Der Fall Wagner - Nietzsche praises Mendelssohn for his `lighter, purer, happier soul',[18] while condemning Schumann for his `Saxon' soul, his `fundamentally... petty taste' and his `drunkenness of feeling'.[19] Indeed, it soon becomes obvious what Nietzsche objects to most within German music, this time taking Schumann as the model: "in him German music was threatened with its greatest danger, that of losing the voice for the soul of Europe and sinking into a merely national affair."[20] In fact, the question of a European rather than merely German sensibility is crucial for Nietzsche in this respect, and central to his move away from Wagner and Schumann is his move towards Bizet:

there exists in France an understanding in advance and welcome for those rarer and rarely contented men who are too comprehensive to find their satisfaction in any kind of patriotism and know how to love the south in the north and the north in the south - for the born Midlanders, the `good Europeans'. - It was for them that Bizet made music, that last genius to perceive a new beauty and a new seduction - who has discovered a region of the south in music. [21]

Indeed, in Der Fall Wagner, Nietzsche repeats this regional claim over and over again, yet this appeal to a pan-European identity takes its cue from the south with his slogan `Il faut méditerraniser la musique' (`music should be mediterraneanized').[22] In this, Nietzsche echoes the similar calls made in the C18th by Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he privileged the idea of southern melody over northern harmony, the effect being a return to pastoral simplicity. What distinguishes Nietzsche's position from Rousseau, however, is the former's refusal to allow music to become the servant of language - Nietzsche was quite aware of the links between Rousseau's logocentrism and Wagner's. But Nietzsche's appeal to the south is also more geographically extreme than Rousseau's was in practice. According to Nietzsche, Bizet's southernness exceeds Europe altogether: "This music is cheerful, but not in a French or a German way. Its cheerfulness is African... How soothingly the Moorish dance speaks to us."[23] Here, Nietzsche indulges in a certain exoticism in his view of Carmen, and, one could argue, this exoticism is the basis for his praise of the opera's corporeality and, simultaneously, its `popular' aesthetic. With the image of the south, and specifically the image of the African Arab, we are presented with the idea of the dance. In opposition to Wagner's logocentric idealism, Nietzsche presents Bizet and the Arabic culture which he associates with Carmen's Gypsy identity as an inherently bodily affair - and in this, no doubt, his reading of Carmen falls into a quite standard reading where the exotic and the erotic combine in the European mind as it gazes intently upon the body of the dark-skinned feminine other.[24]

3: The Laughable

However, even if this is the problematic root of Nietzsche's conception of Bizet's `popular' aesthetic, it should not divert us from our main task here. What remains far more problematic in this context is that the figure of the popular within Nietzsche's work on Bizet remains a classical representation of the popular, and not the popular "as such". Indeed, there is something almost condescending about Nietzsche's conceptualisation of the popular, if it were not for the subversive strategies with which he deploys it.

The basics of Nietzsche's argument can be read along the following lines: the `great style' is a lie, and our choice within it is between Wagner who lies to us and Brahms who lies to himself. Our only real option today is the music of Bizet, which has popular roots, and which does not have the pretension of Wagner's or Brahms's. In other words, Bizet knows his place. But the argument pro-Bizet becomes even more problematic under closer scrutiny.

Nietzsche describes the experience of hearing Carmen for the twentieth time as a `triumph over my impatience',[25] and further, Bizet himself is described as an `innocent' (although not an innocent fool).[26] Throughout Der Fall Wagner, one cannot help but get the impression that Nietzsche views Carmen as an essentially trivial piece. However, it is precisely this triviality - so intimately related to its `popular' aesthetic - which constitutes the philosophical seriousness of the piece. As the Latin epigraph to the essay states: `ridendo dicere severum[27] - `through what is laughable say what is sombre'. Thus, it is the innocent, trivial, even laughable, simplicity of Carmen which Nietzsche poses against the heavy Germanic seriousness of composers such as Wagner, Brahms and Schumann. According to Nietzsche:

Really, every time I heard Carmen I seemed to myself more of a philosopher, a better philosopher, than I generally consider myself: so patient do I become, so happy, so Indian, so settled. - To sit five hours: the first stage of holiness!... Finally, this music treats the listener as intelligent, as if himself a musician... I actually bury my ears under this music to hear its causes. It seems to me I experience its genesis - I tremble before dangers that accompany some strange risk; I am delighted by strokes of good fortune of which Bizet is innocent. - And, oddly, deep down I don't think of it, or don't know how much I think about it. For entirely different thoughts are meanwhile running through my head.[28]

For Nietzsche, then, Carmen not only seduces but also provokes mirth - unlike the music which belongs to the `grand style', it allows the listener to retain a feeling of superiority over itself, rather than vice-versa (ie. Wagner). At the same time, it can function as a backdrop to other thoughts - it can become, effectively, wallpaper music, accompanying the philosopher's thoughts while they wander elsewhere. This is the mark of its superiority to the music of the `grand style' - the very fact of its triviality constitutes its greatness, and earns it the title of `masterpiece' in Nietzsche's somewhat inverted use of that term.

But to argue for the greatness of the trivial is a problematic manoeuvre. On the one hand, it can be read as a deconstructive turn which Nietzsche strategically deploys against his real target - Wagner. No doubt, this deconstructive reversal of the aesthetic opposition between the great and the trivial has its radical edge, since, beyond its deployment against Wagner, it also challenges one of the most basic tenets of classical music aesthetics as they appear under modernity. And as Nietzsche states:

`What is good is light; whatever is godly moves on tender feet': first principle of my aesthetics.[29]

To utilise this argument within popular musicology today would be to seriously undermine the traditional analytical and aesthetic assumptions which lie behind traditional musicological views of popular music. However, the problem is that, as with all deconstructive manoeuvres, it might be said that it nevertheless retains too much of the structure of what it deconstructs - even if the trivial is granted a philosophical priority over the serious, it still remains the case that we are accepting the traditional view of the popular as inherently trivial. Perhaps Nietzsche's deconstruction does not go far enough (alternatively, perhaps deconstruction itself can never really go far enough). Indeed, on the other hand, it can be read as a perverse and highly problematic conceptualisation of the popular, further problematised by the fact that in Bizet we are actually dealing with a classical mediation of the popular and not `the popular itself' (whatever that might turn out to be).

Nevertheless, it opens a space in which a certain aesthetic prejudice against the alleged triviality of popular music can be discussed and potentially displaced, transvalued. And let us not underestimate the weightiness of this rather silly problematic - if proof were needed of the importance and pervasiveness of this issue throughout our own century's debates around popular music, one need only think of Adorno's Modernist dismissals of popular music as trivial and regressive,[30] or of Andrew Chester's neo-Adornian attempt to construct a serious-trivial opposition within popular music itself between Progressive Rock on the one hand and chart pop on the other.[31] Further, many popular musicians themselves often use arguments which suggest that the low-culture status of the popular is an aesthetic verity - after all, as Mick Jagger once sang, `I know it's only rock `n' roll, but I like it.' It seems that for musical modernity to exist at all, it is always necessary to demarcate an oppositional ontology with a `high' form of music on the one hand, and a `low' form on the other, even if different theorists locate the dividing line between these two categories at different levels within the overall high-low continuum.

4: In(-)Conclusion: Triviality Rules

What is at stake here is certainly the question of a specific and widely-thought definition of the popular which invokes a certain negativity. Equally, the centrality of this aesthetic trope within musical modernity cannot be underestimated. Yet, for Nietzsche, it is this very negativity invoked at the level of style which potentially leads to a philosophical positivity, a partial aesthetic reversal of the high-low opposition which marks so much thinking about music in the last two centuries. To trace through the Nietzschean transvaluation of this core component of modernity is to embark upon a course which ultimately promises to lead towards a deconstructive possibility not only of oppositional reversal, but also of displacement of the very foundations of such an opposition.

Ultimately, perhaps, Nietzsche's argument might be seen as an instrumentally anti-logocentric theory for a music of the body - an argument which is as much against the idealism of Hanslick's apparent (but failed) assault on the logocentric moment within music[32] as it is against the oppressive idealism of Wagner's musical logos. In moving away from logos towards the corporeality of the popular, Nietzsche, along with Beavis and Butthead, channel-surfing on the postmodern couch, might today say that Wagner sucks, Brahms is a buttmunch, and Bizet kicks ass.


[1] This paper was first read in the Critical Musicology Group session of the British Musicology Conference at Kings College, London, April 1996.

[2] Beavis and Butthead poster, MTV Networks, 1994.

[3] Epigraph to Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Fall Wagner, in Sämtliche Werke in Zwölf Bänden (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1964), Vol.VIII, p.145.

[4] cf. (amongst other places) `Of the Rabble' in Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp.120-122.

[5] Der Fall Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufman, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner (New York: Vintage, 1976), p.183.

[6] ibid., p.171.

[7] Nietzsche on the German masses (and by implication, the followers of Wagner): `how much beer there is in the German intellect!' - Twilight of the Idols, trans. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p.61. And perhaps more interestingly, with regard to the stock accusations against Nietzsche on the question of anti-Semitism:

`Let in no more Jews! And close especially the doors to the East (also to Austria)!' - thus commands the instinct of a people whose type is still weak and undetermined, so that it could easily be effaced, easily extinguished by a stronger race... [rather] it would perhaps be a good idea to eject the anti-Semitic ranters from the country... - Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p.163.

While Nietzsche often inscribes his hatred for the figure of the Jew in theological terms rather than racial terms (and as such, it is linked intimately with his hatred of the Christian figure), this passage is remarkable in its specific determination of the Jew in overtly racial terms, and, moreover, for the fact that he evidently privileges the Jew over the anti-Semite.

[8] Of course, we are already into a territory in which the stability of concepts such as `popular' and `classical' are being undermined, and, as we will see, their ontology will not cease to be interrogated.

[9] The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, p.157.

[10] Elsewhere, in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886), Nietzsche presages this passage: `Foreigners are astonished and drawn by the enigmas which the contradictory nature at the bottom of the German soul propounds to them (which Hegel reduced to a system and Richard Wagner finally set to music).' - trans. Hollingdale, Beyond Good and Evil (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p.156. No doubt, in Nietzsche's mind, the possibility of a Hegelianism within Wagner's music coincides with his deep mistrust of speculative dialectics in general.

[11] The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, p.188.

[12] ibid., p.188.

[13] ibid., p.186.

[14] ibid., p.187.

[15] ibid., p.188.

[16] ibid., p.188.

[17] Beyond Good and Evil, op.cit., p.157.

[18] ibid., p.158.

[19] ibid., p.158.

[20] ibid., p.159.

[21] ibid., p.168.

[22] The Case of Wagner, p.159.

[23] ibid., p.158.

[24] Another odd ethnic connection is opened, however, in Nietzsche's claims for an "African" component to Carmen's erotic affectivity, when we consider that the Habanera as a genre derives not simply from Spanish culture, but from the Spanish colony of Cuba, replete as it was with a post-African population alongside its colonial masters. In this, the Habanera takes on a doubly (triply?)-exotic character, tracing another conception of the south as displaced and other in more ways than the immediately obvious. Such is the nebulous direction in which a post-colonial critique can carry us - distinctly away from the concept of simple origins or unproblematic identities.

[25] ibid., p.157.

[26] ibid., p.158.

[27] ibid., p.145.

[28] ibid., pp.158-9.

[29] ibid., p.157.

[30] Amongst other places, see Aesthetische Theorie, trans. C. Lenhardt, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge, 1986), p.170.

[31] cf. Andrew Chester, `Second Thoughts on a Rock Aesthetic: The Band', in New Left Review, 62, pp.75-82.

[32] Given that Hanslick's argument pro-instrumental music (sonos over logos) nevertheless has recourse to the logocentrism of the Ideal - logos at a higher metaphysical register.