The Sublime in Popular Music
Romantic music critic E.T.A. Hoffman once said, “Mozart’s pieces were more an imitation of the infinite.” This quality, contemporary music author Richard Taruskin argues, was what rendered Mozart’s work “sublime” rather than just merely beautiful. Indeed, Taruskin asserts that this ability to transcend time and space was a defining characteristic of the sublime sound of early Romantic composers. Along with the ability to transcend and transport, another quality of the sublime in Romantic music was its autobiographical nature; composers like Chopin imbued their pieces with their own personal stamp. The purpose of their music was as much to reflect the composter’s style as it was to write a new piece; listening to Chopin’s music is like listening to a biography of his life because his compositions wholeheartedly exude Chopin-ness.
Songs that contain the essence of being sublime are rare but present in today’s American popular music scene. While Mozart’s music transcends time and space, and Chopin’s music seemingly tells the story of his life, popular artists today cultivate the sublime by genre-bending. Frank Ocean, a twenty-six-year-old artist, created his latest album Channel Orange with the intention of defying conventional norms of genre and instead infusing singer-songwriter, rap, rhythm and blues, soul, and jazz elements into his album. The result is that his songs are absolutely sublime and very quintessentially Frank Ocean. However, while Mozart and Chopin were lauded and hailed as geniuses for cultivating the sublime in various ways, Frank Ocean and other popular artists today are criticized for doing the same. Fans are often confused by the amalgamation of genres in their favorite artists’ music; they protest this kind of experimentation, viewing it as an unsuccessful departure from what artists should stick to, namely one style and one genre. In this essay, we will explore the sublime in popular music today as compared to that in Romantic music, and we will understand why this quality is condemned so much in one musical period but revered in the other.
Eminent historian Elaine Sisman describes the sublime in the eighteenth century as “an aesthetic category that usually appears as a component of the elevated or grand style of rhetoric." In other words, the sublime in Romantic music is a category reserved for pieces that are not simply beautiful, but transcendent of that which is immediately available to the listener, namely time and space. The audience feels moved in a way they cannot understand when listening to such pieces due to the heightened compositional style and ability to transport the listener metaphysically. The composer who best demonstrates this quality in music, Sisman asserts, is Mozart, calling upon his “Jupiter” Symphony to illustrate her point. Indeed, “Symphony No. 41 in C Major” contains an “elevated language and elevated style” that “transports” the listener to an emotionally magnificent place. The fourth movement in particular brings together all five themes, previously unveiled in the first three movements, in a spectacularly overwhelming, moving, and organized flourish. This section is indeed so compositionally complex that it is almost impossible for audiences to understand, hence a potential explanation for the nickname “Jupiter;” the name implies that only divine beings can fully appreciate the music.
Whereas Mozart is hailed as the master of the “elevated rhetoric,” as articulated by Sisman, Chopin is the epitome of a composer with a personal stamp. Very frequently, Chopin incorporates rubato into many of his pieces, and his music is known for having an ambiguous, dream-like quality. For instance, his “Mazurka in A Minor” is extremely repetitive in melodic content, and yet there is something unclear or ambiguous about the tone, particularly because the piece sounds like it is in F Major. Additionally, his “Ballade in G Minor” evokes a dream-like nostalgia; Chopin alternates between big heroic chords that connote eventfulness, and smaller, less grand chords that convey sadness. These compositional techniques are typical of Chopin, whose pieces have a very quintessential sound, so much so that Schumann channels Chopin’s style in his “Carnaval, Op. 9: No. 12, Chopin.” In this piece, we hear a dream-like quality, several long scales, and an ambiguous tone color, all of which are present in so many of Chopin’s own pieces. While Schumann’s piece itself is not sublime, for it is simply an “imitation” of the sublime, his tribute serves to further demonstrate that Chopin did indeed have a very recognizable personal compositional style and a specific sound that was exclusive to his music. Thus, his music is sublime.
Like Chopin, who successfully establishes a personal sound, and Mozart, who displays an elevated rhetoric in his pieces, many popular artists today cultivate the sublime in their music. They exhibit tendencies similar to those of Chopin and Mozart by genre-bending. More and more popular musicians today incorporate elements from multiple genres into their albums, for the sake of diversity, experimentation, and personal sound. As a result, their music is often times compositionally complex, a little hard to understand or comprehend, and incredibly moving. The music has the ability to transport listeners to an emotional place outside the realm of their immediate time and space. In other words, the music is sublime. One artist who is successfully cultivating the sublime in his music today is Frank Ocean.
Frank Ocean’s latest album Channel Orange is a compilation of melodies, rhythms, and tones from many different genres; lyrically, he sings and raps about love, family, his childhood, drugs, and religion. The song that represents the sublime most fantastically is the ten-minute masterpiece, “Pyramids.” Lyrically, “Pyramids” is ostensibly set in ancient Egyptian times; Ocean assumes the persona of a man in love, yet terrified, of Cleopatra. However, upon closer listening, we hear that the descriptions of this love affair with Cleopatra are in fact an extended metaphor for the owner of a strip-club (which is called The Pyramid and located in Las Vegas) who falls in love with one of his employees. Her stage name is Cleopatra. The piece is in f minor, and the first half of the song describes an empty throne. Pharaoh Cleopatra is not in her chambers; she is missing. The narrator describes how “cymbals crash inside the Pyramid, [and] voices fill up the halls;” he begs for someone to “set the cheetahs on the loose” to go and find her “bring her back to [him].” Harmonically, the piece revolves around the VI chord, connoting a sense of confusion and fear. About a third of the way in, the narrator has “found [his] black queen Cleopatra…layin’ down with Samson and his full head of hair.” Cleopatra is with another man, at which point the narrator is jealous and shocked; the “serpent” has killed her. The serpent is of course a metaphor for a man, a play on the fact that Cleopatra was supposedly killed by a snake.
Until now, Frank Ocean (who produced this piece himself) uses a steady upbeat bass, funky synth sections, a melodic motif that repeats throughout, and something very intangibly rhythm and blues in his production. The tone of the piece is charmingly dramatic; Ocean is simply telling an alternate version of how Cleopatra was killed. The description is innocuous and fictitious. However, like Chopin’s “Ballade in G Minor,” which switches between grand heroic chords, quick upbeat scales, and smaller, slower, more melancholy notes, four minutes and twenty-seven seconds into “Pyramids,” the piece suddenly slows down greatly. Synth scales reverberate consistently, and an electric guitar slowly strums a few harrowing chords, generating a very unsettling feeling for the listener. Frank Ocean returns to the tonic, alternating with the median, and he sings about waking up to a girl, “for now let’s call her Cleopatra,” who is getting ready because she is “working at The Pyramid tonight.” He describes his motel room, similar to the way he describes Cleopatra’s throne, and he conveys the same sense of longing and unrequited love. Instrumentally, the piece has shifted away from the upbeat, rich melody and instead makes use of minimal accompaniment. The piece ends with Frank Ocean crooning about how Cleopatra’s “love ain’t free,” and a guitar solo closes out the song.
“Pyramids” is a sublime, ten-minute, rhythm and blues knockout. The piece often moves listeners inexplicably to tears due to its lyrical metaphors, lengthy two-part melodic structure, and most significantly, the fact that it is impossible to describe what genre the piece falls into. “Pyramids” is in 4/4 time, and yet there is something jazz-like about the rhythm, especially during the second half of the piece, for Ocean plays with tempo and utilizes rubato. Additionally, the frequency of the synth lead, combined with Ocean’s warm falsetto, showcases the electronic-psychedelic-soul influence in the song. As Time editor Melissa Locker writes, “the track is a ten-minute history of R&B, arcing from club thumping beats to a sultry drawn out jam with Ocean’s voice veering from a velvety croon to an endearingly creaky falsetto. The beats alternate between spacey and sexy; driving and drawn out. Despite the length of the song, the track easily holds your attention.” “Pyramids” transcends the genre of rhythm and blues, and both the lyrics and the production draw out an incredible amount of emotion from the listener, in an almost terrifying manner. Elaine Sisman writes that “sublime terror is actually a source of aesthetic delight, but only when the terror is at a certain remove: one music not be in danger oneself.” Sisman describes the terror one can feel while listening to Mozart’s Idomeneo, and she asserts that the ability to feel such terror is a testament to how sublime the compositions are. While “Pyramids” is not a terrifying song, and we do not feel fear while listening to it, it does convey a strong sense of being uncomfortable. We are unsettled when hearing Ocean sing about Cleopatra’s disappearance because we know that this story is a metaphor for something darker. We are uncomfortable when realizing Cleopatra is actually the fake name of a stripper, and we are pained listening to the narrator lament his unrequited love for her. These negative feelings, as Sisman argues, are in fact a sign of extreme, genuine connection and enjoyment to the song, a demonstration of the sublime.
To reiterate, “Pyramids” is a quintessential example of the sublime in popular music today because it demonstrates Frank Ocean’s personal style, incorporates genre-bending, and evokes a sense of “terror” (or in this case, feelings of unsettlement and emotional discomfort). As Taruskin’s writings illustrate, Mozart and Chopin are praised for cultivating the sublime through an elevated, sophisticated rhetoric and a defining personal compositional style. Both composers are hailed as masters of the their craft, and we study their music so thoroughly; we are in awe of their brilliance. Furthermore, authors of Rhythm and Blues: A Life in American Music, Jerry Wexler and David Ritz, hail early rhythm and blues artists like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin as geniuses for genre-bending and being masters of their art. Indeed, they write, “‘genius’ is the word. Clearly Aretha was continuing what Ray Charles had begun—the secularization of gospel, turning church rhythms…into personalized love songs. She remained the central orchestrator of her own sound, the essential contributor and final arbiter of what fit or did not fit her musical persona.” Wexler and Ritz praise Aretha Franklin’s commitment to creating a personal sound and for bending the conventional structure of gospel music and turning it instead into rhythm and blues music.
This kind of praise for Mozart, Chopin, and Franklin does not exist for popular artists like Frank Ocean. Modern day manifestations of the sublime, namely through genre-bending, are not praised or revered in the same way today. A couple music critics and a few thousand fans here and there appreciate and recognize the genius of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. In general, however, the album is highly underrated and often received with confused comments about what Ocean is trying to do. Audiences often remark that they find it impossible to say what genre Frank Ocean belongs to and that his music simply depresses them. The implication with these two statements is, firstly, that popular artists today should belong to just one genre, and secondly, that feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable by a song is not desirable or sought after in pop songs. Fans avoid listening to Frank Ocean for these two reasons; they shy away from the sublime because perhaps, it terrifies (using the aforementioned Sisman-ian definition of the word) them a bit too much.
Focusing more specifically on genre-bending and the level of experimentation that comes with it, Kanye West is another artist who has received criticism for attempting to branch out. Five of his eight studio albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Watch The Throne), which were released between 2004 and 2011, are generally known among fans to be West’s greatest records. It is no coincidence that Kanye West raps the most on these albums and that they fall, indisputably, into the genre of hip-hop. In contrast, his three albums, released between 2008 and 2013, that are not as popular (808s and Heartbreak, Cruel Summer, and Yeezus) feature West singing with auto-tune, talking, and rapping only minimally. In addition, he experiments greatly with his production, incorporating electronic, rhythm and blues, and dancehall elements into his songs. These albums are not as clear-cut in terms of genre; they are not undeniably hip-hop albums, and they are not known to be classic Kanye West material. The result is that they sold significantly fewer copies worldwide than his other five albums did, and they were received with severe criticism. In other words, the moment Kanye West attempts to cultivate the sublime by veering from his designated genre and instead choosing to genre-bend, he loses much of his fan-base.
Frank Ocean and Kanye West demonstrate the fact that the sublime in popular music today is not nearly as respected, desirable, or praised as it was during the Romantic era or more recently, in Motown and music of the 1960s. With Frank Ocean, listeners are confused by his genre-bending, and they choose to avoid his music due to its heightened rhetoric and emotion. With regards to Kanye West, fans are disappointed by his most recent musical endeavors because they represent a departure from the familiar. In other words, popular music fans today develop personal connections with artists’ music based on its designated genre. They hold an expectation that all of an artist’s albums should fall into one category, and they feel betrayed, confused, and bored when artists experiment. When Frank Ocean and Kanye West push the boundaries of rhythm and blues and hip-hop respectively, very few of their fans appreciate their work or recognize their efforts in cultivating the sublime. Author of Popular Music: Topics, Trends & Trajectories Tara Brabazon provides a possible explanation for this:
“[Hip-hop] deserves both an understanding of its history and a recognition of its dynamism and volatility. It captures, at its most trivial, a way of dressing and, at its most serious, a model of thinking about the past and present. It includes quotations, versions, samples and remixes that circulate and recirculate past sounds through recycling, repackaging and remixing. Hip-hop acknowledges its history and past through old skool raps and samples. It offers provocative reclamations, revisions and reconsiderations of both Americanism and blackness.”
While Brabazon writes that hip-hop is a volatile, constantly evolving genre, she asserts the recycled nature of rap. In other words, hip-hop is not volatile because it extends into other genres; in contrast, it is a flexible because it builds on itself. Hip-hop artists take advantage of the genre’s history to incorporate older samples and “old skool raps” into their music. It is therefore understandable, if not regrettable, that fans bemoan experimentation with other genres; they consider this a departure from hip-hop rather than an enhancement or hip-hop. Frank Ocean and Kanye West’s inclusion of other genres into their music causes fans to believe that these artists are not being true to their art form. While artists experiment to cultivate the sublime, fans view this instead as a musical failure. Perhaps it will take a more thoughtful listening approach, a more open mind, and a more active move away from single-genre preference to understand and appreciate the fact that the sublime exists, through genre-bending, in popular music today and should be praised the way it was in the past.