Listening back: a response to Chal Ravens

Because I delight in this sort of dorkery, I’ve been thinking a lot about Chal Ravens’ tweet with regard to identifying the musical equivalent of a philosophy student’s relationship to Hegel — that Hegel is something one “revisits”. The assumption Ravens reckons with is that every salt-worthy philosophy student should already have a working knowledge of Hegel. Undisputedly, Hegel’s significance is paramount to the discipline of philosophy. So one does not read Hegel; one rereads Hegel. There is a professional embarrassment implicit here, too. Nobody is willing to admit that they’re reading Hegel for the first time. Hegel isn’t something that you simply stumble upon.

What is the musical equivalent of this? Who could be contemporary music’s Hegel? My first response was Dennis Wilson’s solo material, which got a laugh. This is certainly something that no seasoned music snob would want to cop to never having heard before. Sure, it’s rife with debaucherous, even murderous, lore. But after careful deliberation, I concluded that it’s not quite right for this exercise. Wilson is the sort of guy that rock snobs enjoy educating other snobs about. And his solo output was too meteoric — legendary, but not prolific enough to be canonical.

I gave it some more thought and decided that things like The Beatles or Bob Dylan were automatically out. Few of us can honestly remember a time of not knowing who they were. Even a Pink Floyd or a Velvet Underground was too obvious. And people like Wilson were too obscure for consideration. One could legitimately “discover” Pacific Ocean Blue without losing face (although the proper term in this instance would be to “rediscover” Pacific Ocean Blue).

The perfect analog to retreading Hegelian ground for the haute-musique crowd would be something along the lines of Robert Wyatt, or Kate Bush, or Harry Nilsson, or King Crimson. These artists hit that sweet spot of rock snobbery. Nerds universally consider them to be foundational cornerstones of great music — legends with lifelong oeuvres that influenced subsequent generations, across myriad genres. Yet they are also esoteric enough to be something senior rock snobs could strategically drop into a sentence to raise some eyebrows.

Thus, one does not “listen to” Robert Wyatt, or Kate Bush, or Harry Nilsson, or King Crimson; one “revisits” them. Bonus marks for citing a certain period or record: ergo, “I’ve been reconsidering Peter Sinfield-era King Crimson”, or “I’ve been listening back to Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, and wow, Lennon destroyed that poor bastard!”

As a post-script, I have never read Hegel, and I’m a goddamned doctor of philosophy. But I have read Žižek. So I feel like I’ve at least read a lot of someone else who hasn’t really read Hegel either.

Update: The American philosophy prof Robin James has argued in this tweet that The Beatles is indeed the correct analog to Hegel. But I’d like to stake my claim a little more clearly. (I’ve obviously already spent far too much time thinking about this, thanks Chal, but what’s a little more?)

It’s not just about assigning a musician or band to a philosopher of equivalent popularity or influence. It’s also about how we approach their works, or more importantly, how we say we approach them. Like Plato or Aristotle for philosophy, The Beatles are ever-present in pop music, so there is no need to “revisit” them. One could simply say, “I was listening to Sgt. Pepper’s the other day” and that would be a perfectly plausible and acceptable thing for a music snob to announce. Moreover, just as a philosophy student, when asked how they spent their summer might reply: “I read The Republic for the first time”, it would not be verboten to admit to never having listened to, say, With The Beatles, yet still be well aware of the Beatles’ discography.

Hegel, on the other hand, is foundational but not ubiquitous. So there is a need to go back to it every now and then. Of course, every philosophy student encounters Hegel for the first time (or in my case, never encounters Hegel), but it’s not about the admission of encounter. It’s about the reluctance of that admission. Therefor, as Chal points out, even when reading Hegel for the first time, one always “rereads” Hegel.

The four artists I proposed — Robert Wyatt, Kate Bush, Harry Nilsson, and King Crimson — are similarly “formative” but not necessarily omnipresent. So the music snob would have difficulty divulging to their music snob friends that they had never heard In The Court of King Crimson. The music snob could instead safely say something like, “I’ve been revisiting In The Court of King Crimson.” They might even add a little flourish like “… and I never noticed before how significant Ian McDonald’s contributions were!” just to lend a little extra plausibility.

Take me, for example. I’ve never actually listened to Kate Bush. But I wouldn’t be caught dead admitting it! So I’m going to go “reevaluate” The Sensual World now.