Let Me Be Self-Indulgent
Jerry Lucky Commentary March 2016
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2016 All Rights Reserved
It is March…Spring is in the air here where I live…and it’s time to share a few thoughts with you. Fill up you glass with your favorite sophisticated adult refreshment and let’s get started. It’s a path I’ve gone down before, but this time I focus on a slightly different aspect of this rather “prickly” subject.
I’ve been having a little back-and-forth with a friend of mine over the term “self-indulgent”. I’ve written about this in the past on a number of occasions detailing why I don’t feel it’s an appropriate term to use when describing music. In the old days critics used to rip into Progressive Rock by calling it “self-indulgent” and I always took offence at this. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to dissect the term and see that its use in the context of music was indeed wrong.
As my buddy rightly pointed out, by strict dictionary definition, the term “self-indulgent” does indeed come with a somewhat negative connotation. In the past for reasons perhaps of being provocative, I’ve suggested that was over-reaching and that there was no actual pejorative aspect to the word. For taking that stand I was severely taken to task by one reviewer of my book who suggested I clearly did not own a dictionary! That did sting a bit. None-the-less getting back to my more recent conversation, my friend in a moment of sheer brilliance, went on to point out that the term is one that can be applied to a person who may be self-indulgent but not to something like music which is an artificial construct. It was an angle I hadn’t thought of before and I had to agree with him on this point 100 per cent. While we humans can and do, do many things that might be considered self-indulgent, the music we create cannot be labeled as such.
But let me try to explain where I’m coming from SPECIFICALLY in the context of the creation of music. I believe that to some degree the use of the term “self-indulgent” as it applies to music makes a category mistake. A category mistake (or category error) is a logical fallacy that occurs when a speaker (knowingly or not) confuses the properties of the whole with the properties of a part. Another words while the term “self-indulgent” can have many proper negative applications for different types of human behaviors, it doesn’t have a proper application in the arts since the arts are a wholly subjective human endeavor and so use of the term fails in the test of context. (i.e. “self-indulgent compared to what?”) I mean if you’re going to suggest that a certain piece of music is “self-indulgent” then you must be comparing it to something that is not “self-indulgent”. Or…are you simply comparing it to something that is different?
The problem in using a label such as “self-indulgent” to music is one of context. When you say that this composition or that song is “self-indulgent”, what exactly are you comparing it too? Music is, for lack of a better term, an artificial construct that exists within its own historical context. If you say something is self-indulgent it presupposes that there is some universal yardstick by which you are measuring this. In making such a claim it begs the question: what should be changed to make the music less-self-indulgent? And then the follow-up question would be: “who are you to say?”
So once again in the context of the creation of music…we can either create music that pleases and satisfies the self or we can create music that is intended to please a commercial enterprise. Here I would suggest that music that comes from the self is more sincere and honest a musical statement than music that is solely created to satisfy the demands of the pop charts and be a hit song. When we say that a song was from the heart we typically mean it speaks about something that was or is important to the composer personally. They are expressing a part of their “self” or to put it another way they are indulging-the-self, the music created is by definition self-indulgent. It would be nice if a song was both from the heart and a hit but that’s not always the case. Too often today the mechanics of constructing a song to be a pop hit are quite formulaic. This obviously leads to yet another conversation about the term “contrived” but I’ll save that for another day.
So again in the context of music, just to wrap up here…I tend to feel that all music that comes from the heart, from within, from the self could rightly be labeled as “self-indulgent” and I do not think for a minute that should be construed as a bad thing. Sadly the negative connotations so easily associated with the term means that we should probably avoid using it entirely when talking about music. Understand…creativity is a subjective art, not bound by some higher set of construction or compositional standards. We may argue for something like that but it ain’t going to happen. Fortunately many of the new music critics don’t come with the same-old cliché’s of what “rock music” is supposed to be. As a result they seem to be giving Progressive Rock a far more respectful hearing. At least that’s what I think.