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It is late at night. We are listening to music with friends. Our imaginations drift into the worlds of song stories. Gradually, our responses spill into conversation. The lyrics seem to be getting at something we have been thinking about. The phrases help us find words to express ourselves.
Most of us have done serious late-night discussions about the implications of some phrase that seemed enormously significant at the time. Those conversations really were important. The music of our lives is worthy of careful attention.
The 1960s represent an essential chapter in the story of rock music. That era represents a shift in the role of popular culture in the shared experience of the spiritual imagination. Those affected by the legacy of that decade have participated in cultural shifts fueled by the creative powers of songwriters. Poets have always been guides in times of radical change. One of the many gifts of the period was how popular music became significant literature.
Songs can be transformative. They affect a person's inner life and worldview in ways that can last a lifetime. It is worth our time to consider how and why the music of the sixties, especially the Beatles, has had such a lasting personal impact. The hits of that era became some of the best-known melodies on the planet. It seemed as if we were all united by some mysterious alchemy done in recording studios. The lyrics took on weightier topics than those that came before.
The words are now so familiar that we might have missed some wisdom hiding in plain sight. The mythic imagination is the power of metaphor to transmit greater meanings beyond an image or story. It is the use of fiction to get at profound truths. Taking a mythic perspective on pop music is an opportunity to explore hidden elements that influence our perspectives. A wellcrafted ballad can put us in touch with unseen beauty. The brief stories deal with tough personal issues. The narratives touch on the same universal qualities as high art forms, like opera or drama.
Such condensed emotional expressions can speak to us in several ways at once. The practical aspects of our personalities appreciate the assistance for navigating life. The playful child-like energies find songs to be great fun. The quiet, spiritual side is grateful to have the experience of reflection.
It is crucial to have a new cultural revelation periodically, to restore our shared connection with transcendent energies. The emerging levels of awareness can break through in unexpected forms. Some compositions are so fresh that a new vitality emerges. The talents of the sixties' musical avant garde provided just such an opening. The impact of the song-weavers of that time, led by the Beatles, represents a significant event in contemporary religious history. Noticing significant religious themes in pop music reminds us that the holy is not the private property of theologians. Yearning for connection with the sacred is spontaneous in people from all walks of life. Spirituality is not confined to houses of worship. It is as likely that a profound experience will come to those hearing a poignant ballad as to the faithful listening to a choir. The ideas of Carl Jung demonstrated how inspiration does not always descend from the heavens. Illumination can also seep up from beneath. That is, archetypal energies can rise from the commonplace to become a powerful current for renewal.
Sometimes, popular culture goes through periods of remarkable spiritual renewal. A vanguard of a new consciousness is revealed in the music of the sixties. This parallels the rise of generations of seekers who chose the adventure of self-discovery. For those on a path, key phrases can provide hints for coping with various inner lessons. They provide opportunities to learn about our deeper selves. Directions to invisible portals can be conveyed by such poetics. A songbook can be a seen as a kind of mystery school.
Seekers are often looking for the meaning of life. Joseph Campbell thought what we really need is the experience of being alive. Music is a vital way to be immersed in an artistic expression of emotion. We are drawn directly into feeling something meaningful. Some of the most memorable sixties lyrics have spiritual underpinnings. This aspect has strong appeal to those with any level of interest in the life of the soul. Music infused with archetypes represents a kind of wisdom literature. Great songwriters respond to the same timeless questions as the ancient sages. Reaching us by way of beloved tracks, the mythic imagination gives us profound guidance through everyday life.
One great human universal is that we all yearn for something beyond ourselves. For some, it is a calling. For others it is something religious. For many it is love. Those who have experienced childhood trauma might have a deep need to belong. Perhaps we all hope to be accepted. It might be that we just yearn to be acceptable. Is safe to say we all want to belong. Most people want to feel like their life is worthwhile. Popular music, especially writers given to philosophical moments, speak to these large concerns.
Art rich in symbolism can provide insight into wide range of emotional tasks. Mythic perspectives nourish something in us. We reconnect with universal patterns that move the human heart and soul. In some new way, we see the rich beauty of ordinary life. When we enter the world of the song, we are participants. We are the narrator yearning for acceptance and love. We can even see ceremonial elements to being a devotee. Going to hear a favorite performer in concert can be like a pilgrimage. Many fans count it as a major life event. It can be a momentous occasion to gather with thousands of kindred seekers.
As a psychologist, I tend to value any opportunity for self-discovery. It can be valuable to revisit key memories. Sometimes, the exploration enters dimensions we never noticed before. A useful contemplative exercise would be to ponder song you loved years ago. Noticing details you had not caught before might show how you have changed. You might be surprised what will surface for you. Looking ahead, the same lyrics may well be guides through upcoming challenges.
When we come back to the same story after a time, it will tell us new things. This unpredictable element keeps the encounter lively. It mirrors how we are all caught up in currents that are larger than ourselves. Even such obvious powers as the flow of history, family dynamics, and life-stage transitions take us to places we do not entirely choose. The more we can know about the impact of these and other forces, the better chance we have of making the best of our adventures.
Daydreaming during such a review is the unconscious at work, reminding you of the personal meanings and guidance the memories hold for you. The hidden dimension we enter by way of dreams and fantasies includes the sublime qualities of everyday reality. You could see pop music as the soundtrack for the movie of your life. These songs may represent the poetry of the inner world. The tunes we heard at formative ages helped us form an identity. They still help us sort out our emotional lives.
Music helps us mark the stages of the journey. For many people, adolescence was a challenging part of the journey. There are twists and turns of new emotional experiences. Popular hits often reflect teenage hopes and dreams. For many of us there was a time when the songs on the radio seemed to mirror the deepest concerns of our inner lives. Those brief compositions were layered with emotion. The feelings were important. They seemed to hold something larger than the sentiment expressed in the stanzas.
We have our setbacks at various points, especially in our youthful years. The first day in a new school is a gauntlet. Fitting into community can be difficult at any age. The first time at everything is hardest because we don't yet know what we're doing. Our first successes are often hard won. Failures can be devastating. Dramas with friends are highly charged. Rising to these challenges is the initiatory process of becoming who we are meant to be.
Early romance can be marked by intense highs and lows. The longing for love can feel overwhelming. Lost love can bring devastating pain. On reflection, it might feel like we lose ourselves. Maybe that is what some of the longing in the words is all about. We lost track of ourselves somewhere along the line. In the end, the drama might not be about the object of desire at all. A lot of it might be longing itself.
Music can help us express what we are going through. Listening can also be like having a supportive friend. The songs provide company, reminding us someone, somewhere, understands what we are feeling. The poetry consoled us when we were lonely. They encouraged us when we lost our nerve.
At certain stages in the journey, the records are like mentors. Wise guidance is essential during difficult transitions. Themes of struggle and endurance in musical stories can represent the process of claiming and developing inner strengths. In earlier times, the bards and mystics were often poets. Today, our most influential poets are often minstrels and balladeers. The words work on a psychological level partly because they include mysterious qualities. Unexpected developments in the narratives remind us life is not always orderly. Rude events can launch us into something larger. As we listen, surprising leaps into the unexpected can seize the imagination. Gradually, we can learn to allow the uninvited to speak to us, and stir personal revelation that shift how we look at our adventures.
Sometimes, the through-line of the narrative will turn. Maybe the tale starts with great sorrow, and then by the end it is lifting you up. Perhaps a note of keeping faith enters in, with a message about not giving up. This echoes the transformation described in the initiatory adventure Joseph Campbell called The Hero's Journey. The process begins with a call. Usually there is some major difficulty. Then a departure takes us into new learning. Finally, we return changed forever.
Art of all kinds allows us to glimpse what is going on inside ourselves. It helps with emotional learning and growth. Like high culture, popular music can shape us. For example, a balled can be a master class in the mysteries of romantic love. Falling in love can be the call. It is simultaneously a wonderful event and a wild ride. Hearing a well-rendered tale of heartbreak helps us get through romantic disappointment. Singing the blues makes us feel better. There's the implication that we are somehow going to make it through.
Favorite lines may even evoke courage to carry on in the face of devastating difficulties. At some point, we all reach bottom. This is the dark night of the soul when all seems lost. It can be a crisis of faith in the seeker's life. This is like a baptism from hell. If we survive this ultimate ordeal, we will likely be able to face anything else fate throws in our faces. We gain a depth of character by having seen the worst. It is tempting to wish awful things had not happened, but that would miss the lesson. In the end, the rough sections are the most valuable parts of the journey.
It is during troubles that we are transformed. The new confidence and skills that will serve us for the rest of life's journey are gained by way of the toughest challenges. The last stages of the initiatory journey are celebrated in songs of joy, triumph, and survival. There is a soundtrack for every part of the quest.
There are moments when poetic phrases express emotions that have not quite found their way into words yet. These can be as varied as confidence, grief, hope, or desire. It is helpful to get access to these feelings that have been lurking below consciousness. Songs can also help us glimpse our aspirations.
Like ancient uses of ritual and chanting, playing music can help us shift consciousness. We call it a change of mood, but it might be a larger breakthrough. Sometimes, an upbeat tune just helps us relax and not think about our troubles. A catchy track with a strong beat can conjure a party atmosphere. We can sing along and have a good time. This can recharge a bad day while softening the anxious need for control. Moving into a playful mood can open us to more of our resources, like creativity, and the wisdom of the body. Sharing favorite music helps bind us together. Significantly, being drawn into unity is also a key function of religion. The rhyming narratives can provide archetypal frameworks for our projections. Sometimes, the brief dramas closely mirror our inner dynamics, giving us a chance to learn what is happening in our own hidden places. We are all part of the story. This is your journey. You have lived with these compositions. They are still in the part of your inner world where the treasures are kept.
This was and is the poetry of our time. It alludes to the source of our deepest yearnings.
People say, "You can always remember a song you fell in love to."" Maybe part of what we fell
in love with was the song itself, and our own capacity to feel such things.
As you ponder the deeper significance of popular music, you may start seeing mythic
patterns everywhere. It is not a fantasy. The clues were there all along.
Jonathan Young, PhD Psychology
Founding Curator, Joseph Campbell Archives
Santa Barbara, California