Pop music criticism begins with Plato; he criticized everything that was popular. To him, all art—music, poetry, sculpture—should idealize human conduct, and in his dialogues he uses the historical Socrates as a mouthpiece to take a hostile but ironic stance against poetry. To understand this ironic hostility, it’s helpful to consider an analogy: the works attributed to Homer are to the classical era of ancient Greece as the Judeo-Christian biblical texts are to Western civilization of the last 1000 years. That is, each literary entity was/is considered a guide for, misappropriated in the name of, and revered or denigrated depending on an individual’s opinion of, what is good and right. For example, when a modern politician cites the Bible in defending or attacking some point, she polarizes her constituency into groups who either accept or reject the Bible as relevant. While there are infinite shades of gray in such biblical controversies, those shades are indeed defined by how people align with the source. And such was the way with Homer in the time of Socrates.
So when Socrates banishes the poets from his proposed utopian kingdom in the Republic, and when he intellectually decimates the great Homeric rhapsode of his day in the Ion, I suspect he does so in order to illuminate the power of poetry, something often taken for granted as a cultural luxury. Surely we can’t take him at face value when he says that “the imitator knows nothing worth mentioning about what he imitates.” Can we? This disturbing question is why I decided to cut out the middleman (Plato), and talk to Socrates myself.
HESIOD JAMES: How’s the coffee?
SOCRATES: Black and strong.
HESIOD: Good. So’s mine. What do you know about the music of the Beatles?
SOCRATES: My dear Hesiod, you get right to the point. Would it not be wiser to begin with whether it is possible to know anything about the music of the Beatles?
HESIOD: Sure, whatever.
SOCRATES: Young Hesiod, your soul is kindled with strife. You would defend the music of the Beatles, would you not?
SOCRATES: If it’s pop music you want to find, then let’s search for it. You remember my dialogue with Ion, the great speaker of Homer?
HESIOD: I remember very well. In a nutshell, you claimed that Ion’s admiration of Homer’s poetry was not known but only inspired, and you likened that process to magnetism, right?
SOCRATES: I did.
HESIOD: And you said that “a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer in him.” Correct?
SOCRATES: According to Paul Woodruff’s translation, yes.
HESIOD: And you claimed that to have knowledge about a poet’s work is to have knowledge about all poets’ work, that there is “an art of poetry as a whole.”
SOCRATES: You picked up most of the main points, I think, in reverse order, but you saved the most important for last.
HESIOD: How so?
SOCRATES: First, for the sake of your interest in the Beatles, let’s talk about poetry as it relates to songwriting and songs. If there is an art of songwriting as a whole, then it should be possible to know something about that art in the same way it’s possible to know something about the art of building tables. Do you agree?
SOCRATES: And if it’s possible to apply knowledge of building tables to make a table sturdier and stronger, should we not be able to apply knowledge of songwriting to make a song sturdier and stronger?
HESIOD: Yeah, totally.
SOCRATES: But now we’ve reached a new question. If it is possible to have knowledge of and apply knowledge to each art, and since we already established that a poet or songwriter must lose her intellect in order to write a song, then, if the analogy holds, mustn’t the tablemaker also lose his intellect in order to make a table?
HESIOD: Good question. Making a table seems strictly utilitarian.
SOCRATES: But then, it’s not trivial that a table must have at least three legs to stand up, right?
HESIOD: Not entirely, I suppose.
SOCRATES: Or that each leg must be the same height in order for the top to be flat.
HESIOD: Sure, that requires some discovery, at least for the first person to ever successfully make a table.
SOCRATES: So there is for the tablemaker the necessity for some level of divine inspiration.
HESIOD: Yeah, I mean, you could call it that. People on this side of Einstein like to call that intuition. Zeus didn’t give us relativity.
SOCRATES: Nor did Einstein. He discovered something that existed for all time.
SOCRATES: Regardless, we have deduced that all arts are achieved by some combination of knowledge and intuition, which means that the art of songwriting is both a rational and irrational process, which means, for the sake of our conversation, it is possible for us to know something about the music of the Beatles.
HESIOD: Splendid. So, Socrates, early Beatles or late Beatles?
SOCRATES: Hesiod, you assume we agree on the precise meanings of the terms early and late.
HESIOD: Aw, come on, Socrates. You know what I mean. Early Beatles is fun, exciting rock ‘n’ roll through traditional song forms, while late Beatles is bloated, overwrought experimentation through the whims of a few guys who could do no wrong in the eyes of the fanatical.
SOCRATES: By the fanatical, you mean a contingent of mostly Western white people who liked the kind of music we call rock ‘n’ roll, and who faithfully regarded the Beatles as the best purveyors of that medium.
SOCRATES: And the early, fun and exciting Beatles lay roughly between the albums Please Please Me and Revolver, 1963-1966.
SOCRATES: And the late, bloated and overwrought Beatles began with Sgt. Pepper’s and culminated with the final recording, Abbey Road, 1967-1969.
HESIOD: I’m down with all of that, Socrates.
SOCRATES: But surely, Hesiod, they did not switch from fun to bloated as if by activating an airbag. Was the transition not more or less gradual?
HESIOD: Sure, sure. They started smoking weed, and then they went a little farther out. Rubber Soul and Revolver could count as a middle period. Still, those records are great.
SOCRATES: Is Abbey Road not great?
HESIOD: No. I mean, yeah, of course it’s great. It’s Abbey Road—it’s an icon. It’s just that… You know, it’s overwrought.
SOCRATES: What do you mean by overwrought?
HESIOD: All of the parts are so orchestrated that the listener doesn’t get to participate in the experience. Listening to Abbey Road is like wearing a bib, sitting in a high chair, and getting fed with a spoon. It’s fixed, rigid—the experience never changes.
SOCRATES: Must all music be negotiable?
HESIOD: The best music is.
SOCRATES: Radiohead’s OK Computer?
HESIOD: Okay, I’ll give you that one.
SOCRATES: Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music?
HESIOD: Ugh, good one.
SOCRATES: Pet Sounds, Dark Side of the Moon, all of Steely Dan, Prince—
HESIOD: Okay, okay, there’s lots of good stuff that’s framed up pretty carefully.
SOCRATES: Besides, it seems odd to me that you describe all late Beatles with the blanket term “overwrought.” The “White Album” is as far from that as can be. So is Let It Be.
HESIOD: Alright, Socrates, I got it. I’m biased. The difference between early and late Beatles isn’t a matter of quality.
SOCRATES: Hesiod, you speak of quality as if we could analyze such a thing. To do that would be like calling one man greater than another. Where would we begin?
HESIOD: Defining virtue.
SOCRATES: Exactly, which is a job beyond my intellectual capacity.
HESIOD: To do so would mean no less than finding God. It’s outside the scope of human experience, I get it. But let’s go back to the table analogy. A sturdy table is better than a table that wobbles, right?
SOCRATES: I think so.
HESIOD: Without getting too specific (we’ll save that work for Aristotle), how do the Beatles as tablemakers measure up to the other tablemakers, rock ‘n’ roll tablemakers?
SOCRATES: That is a silly question?
HESIOD: Oh, come on. It’s 2012. The Mayans have a gun to your head.
SOCRATES: Okay, Hesiod. In my time, Homer was the standard by which all poetry was judged. In your time, the Beatles are probably the same for rock ‘n’ roll.
HESIOD: Aha! So, Socrates, since you’ve shown me how great the Beatles are in every respect—not just according to my own preferences—would you be willing to recant what you said in the Republic? Do the poets get to live in your imaginary utopia?
SOCRATES: Absolutely not.
HESIOD: What? You’re kidding!
SOCRATES: The Beatles have damaged the moral fortitude of every person who ever listened to them.
HESIOD: Wha… How?
SOCRATES: Regarding subsequent songwriters, fans of the later Beatles shun tradition in favor of the expressive and indulgent. Fans of the early Beatles shun complexity in favor of the simplistic and stupid. Songwriters who are fans of the entire catalogue are stifled under the shroud of their influence, and now those writers can only aspire to facsimiles of what has already been done. Writers who disregard the Beatles altogether have no ability to please anyone, because indeed the Beatles’ influence is too pervasive in current taste. McCartney trivialized the meaning of love with his naive portraits of attraction. Lennon plumbed the depths of morbid self-interest with his sardonic negativity. George had no sense of humor, and what’s worse, no sense of irony. And Ringo, while he is both underrated and overrated as a drummer, can not be taken seriously as a songwriter in comparison to the other three. And this band is considered the best of what music or poetry had to offer us for the last fifty years? In the parlance of your times, young Hesiod, the Beatles didn’t do us any favors.
HESIOD: If I had hemlock, I’d pour it right in your coffee.
SOCRATES: Alas, I have already finished my coffee. (He rises to leave.)
HESIOD: You’re a sandbagging trickster, Socrates. Everybody knows it. I mean, everybody perceives your sandbagging trickster ways subjectively, but that subjective experience is shared by all who perceive it and thus it becomes knowledge… But in the Theaetetus you said true knowledge with a logos is still not quite adequate for… For… I’m talking to myself again. Stupid Plato.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.