State of Art

Yuga Cohler

Yuga Cohler is a 28-year-old conductor whose mission is to revolutionize musical culture.

Ariana Grande is Absolute

I’ve been listening to a lot of Ariana Grande recently. I apologize not; I feel no shame. Her sophomore album, My Everything, is excellent.

I listen to AG’s music in spite of her articulatory deficiencies, which others have noted as well. All of her vowels are the letter “o”; her consonants are the phonetic equivalent of “must rubbery cheese.” Even if we could understand what she was saying, it’s not clear how much we would stand to gain. The bridge to one of her most popular songs, “Break Free,” runs as follows:

I only wanna die alive
Never by the hands of a broken heart
Don’t wanna hear you lie tonight
Now that I’ve become who I really are

The lyrics are evocative, but almost confrontational in their absurdity: I imagine a zombified Ariana Grande being strangled to her second death by the cardiac organ which brought about her first death, presumably through the use of its own inexplicably developed appendages. She also abandons her ability to conjugate correctly, although to be fair, there is already precedent for that.

A perusal of AG's catalog reveals that her combination of vague diction and inscrutable lyrics renders many of her songs meaningless. Simply put: we have no fucking clue what she is singing about. Her songs are tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Yet, she is far from an idiot. Her songs are expressive and transfixing. How is this so?

AG's music must be an example of absolute music: music that is not explicitly "about" anything, music that makes no reference to anything outside of itself. The concept was prized as an ideal amongst 19th-century German romantics, because it promised the possibility of an art form that transcended language and culture. As the music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote:

Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.

The term was often used in association with Beethoven, whose symphonies were viewed as the height of  musical achievement. Although some (Richard Wagner, most notably) disagreed with its merits, absolute music was considered by many to be the only "pure" form of music that granted listeners access to a higher realm of spiritual fulfillment. The lack of explicit meaning in absolute music implied for its proponents an ineffability about it that was sacred. A lot of classical music carries that heft to this day.

What is remarkable about My Everything is that it is absolute music even though it has lyrics. Her use of words is sonic and not semantic: they contribute to the listener's musical experience without telling him/her what that musical experience is about. Consequently, the listener's enjoyment of My Everything must be derived from the music itself - its form, rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and colors. This is a fascinating fact at a time when we identify songs primarily by their lyrics.

 The Chorus

The Chorus

Actually, we can go further, because Ariana Grande is not unique in this regard. Popular music as a whole is often criticized for its daft lyrics, and one might even argue that the entire genre of EDM has no words of substance. But millions of people enjoy listening to this music, and don't seem to notice or care that it doesn't mean anything outright. Even if these genres  are not pathways to a "higher realm," they are nevertheless examples of  absolute music.

Maybe we've been living in an era of absolute music this whole time. And that is the state of art.