When beginning creative music projects such as songwriting or composition, I often find myself just thinking about what I want to hear. It isn’t until I write something, leave it, reflect on it and realise that it might cause a certain reaction/emotional response from the audience. Sometimes, I completely bypass the reflection phase and go straight to the feedback phase. However, after researching aesthetics and affect and the interconnectedness between the two philosophies I realised that it might actually help my creative process if I consider the affect I hope to elicit out of my audience. Recently I’ve been writing lyrics within the framework of intertextuality, and have decided to use the TV series Stranger Things (2016) as my other text to reference. To dig deeper during the creative process, I asked myself the following question:
How will I aesthetically craft a piece of media in order to elicit fear from an audience?
To begin answering this question, research started with how the aesthetics of fear works to mediate emotion. In order to assist in this research and illuminate the effect of aesthetics and affect I looked at a few examples in music. I found that musical works (such as songs) that draw on the fear of the unknown often do so by disembodying and/or misinterpreting what’s already known. The aim of this research is to not only answer the question, but steal techniques from those who have successfully elicited fear in audiences and utilise them in my own musical projects.
The Musical Outkasts
Criticisms are evidence of music’s ability to elicit fear in those who see music, or a particular type of music as a tyrannical force of rebellion to the status quo. Music such as blues and metal were met with harsh criticisms due to their choices in lyrics and instrumentation. Legend says that delta blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the “preternatural ability to play the guitar” (Gioia, 2011, p. 14). In the song lyrics of ‘Me and the Devil Blues’, Johnson sings:
“Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
Until I get satisfied”
Johnson’s blatant reference to domestic violence in his lyrical content makes it easy enough to conclude why blues music was considered the devil’s music. Other sub genres of the blues played with similar musical elements, the only big difference is the lyrical content. African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson refused to sing the blues in order to not cross between the “sacred and secular modes”, but was considered by many to be a fantastic blues singer (Murray & Devlin, 2017, p.41). Therefore, using lyrics that draw on the taboo parts of culture to elicit fear, or ‘chills’ (Figure 1), can be a powerful tool in creating emotionally impactful art.
Figure 1. Comment on Robert Johnson’s song ‘Me and the Devil Blues’
Similarly, heavy metal music:
“denotes a variety of musical discourses, social practices, and cultural meanings, all of which revolve around concepts, images, and experiences of power. The loudness and intensity of heavy metal music visibly empower fans, whose shouting and headbanging testify to the circulation of energy at concerts. Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations. The visual language of metal album covers and the spectacular stage shows offer larger-than-life images tied to fantasies of social power, just as in the more prestigious musical spectacles of opera. The clothing and hairstyles of metal fans, as much as the music itself, mark social spaces from concert halls to bedrooms to streets, claiming them in the name of a heavy metal community. And all of these aspects of power provoke strong reactions from those outside heavy metal, including fear and censorship.”
(Walser, 2013, p. 22-23).
This power that fans received put fear into audiences, and when critics weren’t trying to argue for metal’s promotion of violence (Hattemar & Showers, 1995), they were discussing it in terms of its aesthetic value. Metal musicians were taking classical music and reworking them, and many critics saw these reworkings as “travesties” (Walser, 2013, p. 114). However, this debate was slowly disseminated by academics who called upon the work of critical theorist Adorno to argue for metal’s positive impact on art. It could be argued that metal music’s interpretation of Bach’s music was loyal to Bach’s music in the fact that it was disloyal (Walser, 2013, p. 114). The intense loudness, the new instrumentation, the vocal screaming style evidently dissatisfied, caused fear and an up roar for many. It's the ability to take something known and transform it into something else entirely new that empowered people, and this empowerment is what put fear into those who were possibly afraid of change, social reform, individual thought, ‘thought crimes’, etc.
Creators like delta blues writers and metal musicians made the decision to create art they knew would either elicit fear to some, and empower others. The blues artist Johnson spoke about domestic violence in a way that can be interpreted as eliciting violence rather than preaching sacred religious themes. Or, depending on your view on art, could be seen as a powerful tool in showing the regressive nature of keeping certain social behaviours taboo, thus empowering audience members to think. Metal music embraced the anger and any other dark contrasting elements compared to other popular forms of music to empower its fans angry with social injustice and the mainstream. This elicited fear in those in the mainstream and/or ‘high culture’ saw it as a transgression, and a bad influence on the younger generation.
In my own creative process I hope to try and better understand the disease that has tormented many in my generation, and many close to me: depression. I don’t know how, but through research and conversations with those around me I hope to better understand how I can articulate the struggle that does not have concrete or consistent answers for its cure or prevention. Depression has become less taboo in my time growing up, but it is still something that I have seen as being quote “pathetic” and “an excuse”, and this cultural attitude is not helpful in regards to better understanding and empathising with the problems that surround my generation. After reading about blues and metal, I believe that by bringing depression into my creative process and work individuals will gain a sense of autonomy and empowerment. In doing so, I will ultimately drive fear into those trying to suppress, discriminate and devalue people of my generation.
Philosopher Plato recognised that music listening could invoke affect on individuals and groups and thus needed regulation in order to control a society (Garofalo, 2011, p.725). Using musical examples I have demonstrated just what Plato may have feared; the autonomous, and what could be argued subconscious responses to music. Musicians/Artists have demonstrated that through taking what is known and altering and/or re-interpreting it, they have successfully affected audiences. In doing so, they have altered the listener’s perception of certain musical aesthetics and thus the world around them. I will take these compositional techniques from delta blues and metal into consideration when creating in order to engage and hopefully connect with audiences.
Hattemer, C., Showers, R. (1995). Heavy Metal Rock and Gangsta Rap Music Promote Violence. Legislation/Policy Analysis. United States of America.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1993). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, (pp. 120-167). New York: Continuum.
Garofalo, R. (2011). Politics, Mediation, Social Context, and Public Use. In P. N. Justin & J. Sloboda (Eds). Handbook of Music and Emotion (pp. 725 - 754). Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Gioia, T. (2011). The History of Jazz 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press. New York.
Murray, A. (2017). Stomping the blues. University of Minnesota Press.
TheDeuceWithin. (2013, July 18). Robert Johnson - Me And The Devil Blues With Lyrics [online video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYsnRc09csQ
The Duffers Brothers., Levy, S., Cohen, D., Holland, C., Wright, B., Thunell, M., Gajdusek, K., Paterson, I., Gwinn, C. (Executive Producers). (2016 - present). Stranger things [TV series]. 21 Laps Entertainment; Monkey Massacre; Upside Down Pictures.
Walser, R. (2013). Running with the devil : Power, gender, and madness in heavy metal music. Wesleyan University Press.