Since ancient times, wise people have recognized music’s power to influence our morals. Plato, in his Republic, advocated musical training in the education of the young. This great thinker believed that such training would encourage gentleness and inner harmony.
However, what about the opposite tendency, the ability of (some) music to warp us for the worse?
In recent years, this conception of music has got a lot of attention from the media. Such attention tends to blend the influence of artist/musician’s image with that of his/her music.
One notorious example is comprised of the accusations leveled at Marilyn Manson in the wake of the Columbine school shootings. We might say that Manson’s abrasive music and shocking, spectral appearance made him a natural target for negative attention, and accusations for being a bad influence on youth. However, once it was discovered that the young shooters were Manson fans, Manson suddenly had to deal with being considered an instigator of their crimes. For a less violent, more mainstream example, consider the widely held opinion that acts like Britney Spears or the Pussycat Dolls encourage the sexualization of very young girls. Go a little further back, and find the beginning of the controversy of Parental Advisory labels slapped onto supposedly “obscene” records.
However, if we go still further back into history, we will see how truly great music can sometimes end up linked to absolute evil. We speak here of Richard Wagner. Wagner’s music will, unfortunately, continue to be associated with Nazism. Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. Though Wagner actually died a few years before Hitler was even born, Wagner’s immediate descendants ended up being favorites of the Führer. Furthermore, some critics have pointed out to some intellectual common ground between Wagner and Hitler. Both were anti-Semitic, and hoping to restore the glory of Germany, for instance. Nietzsche, a philosopher considered one of the major forerunners of German fascism, considered Wagner to be one of the very few cultural figures of his day who understood his ideas about nationhood and the relations between them. Even if we cannot hold Wagner truly responsible for Nazi atrocities, it is hard for our enjoyment of his music not to be tainted by what some of his fans did.
Figures like Wagner and Nietzche inspired Nobel-winning author Thomas Mann when he wrote his novel Doktor Faustus, in which the music is literally diabolical. Here, Mann’s protagonist is an avant-garde composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for musical brilliance.
What is it, then, that makes some pieces of music morally or ideologically suspect? The most obvious criteria are, of course, the lyrics. Sexual explicitness, profanity, bigotry, and violence in lyrics have all been reasons to call songs bad, or a bad influence. However, not even instrumental and/or wordless pieces are safe from moral judgment. Certain types of musical forms or sounds can actually be thought to be oppressive, fascistic, etc. (Blame Theodor Adorno, the famous neo-Marxist, if you must.)
For some of us, all this moral labeling of music seems nonsensical. Does it not make more sense to say that music can never really be good or evil? However, to insist that music is just a matter of beauty vs. ugliness is also to disrespect its power. If we say that music cannot be diabolical, we are also saying that it cannot be sublime.