Every now and again, pop culture is forced to reinvent itself. Like an epic drama among Hindu deities, our collective tastes are born, destroyed, and reborn again, swinging like a massive pendulum from one aesthetic extreme to the other. As a new cultural niche becomes more and more popularized, what typically begins as fierce artistic independence eventually devolves into reckless overindulgence, and creative novelty slowly bleeds away until all that is left is a formulaic husk used to manufacture tomorrow’s next fads. It is usually at this point, when a particular scene becomes so over-saturated that it can no longer support the weight of its own excess, that the entire scene will die an often-humiliating death, bloated and alone on an unflushed toilet.
In the 1980′s, the music scene in America was dominated by the glut and theatrics of “glam metal.” For nearly 10 years, most of popular music was defined by sex, drugs, and machismo-in-drag, and an entire generation of youth nearly lost themselves within a cloud of hairspray. There was a void in the cultural heart of the musical mainstream that was dying to be filled—an utter lack of artistic interiority, emotional depth, and authenticity. Untold millions were craving artistic substance, and were only offered artificial decadence.
Then along came grunge, taking the entire world by storm in the early 90′s. From the rain-soaked streets of Seattle emerged a new voice for American youth. In much the same way that punk music arrived just in time to offer salvation for our Disco-era sins, grunge music promised to completely cleanse our cultural palette, placing an aesthetic imperative upon more simplicity, more spontaneity, and more sincerity. And so bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam came into the mainstream, forever changing the landscape of American music. From behind a tsunami of massively distorted guitars, hallowed vocals, and countless acres of flannel, appeared an unmistakable return to introspection and idealism—even while cloaked by themes of angst and despair, the natural result of our collective interiors being ignored for almost a decade.
Few bands of the era embody this move toward introspection and idealism as strongly as Pearl Jam. As the grunge scene continued to explode, it was becoming apparent that the inherent iconoclasm of the scene was ill-suited to handle the immense pressures of fame, and many artists found themselves circling the drain of inevitable self-destruction—for many, Kurt Cobain’s suicide was a morbid reminder of what can happen when artistic ideals are reduced to mere currency for the status-sphere. One by one the originators of grunge began to fall away, and an impossibly huge body of talent was forever lost to suicide and drug addiction.
Few bands survived as the industry began churning out the newest grunge-inspired fads, marketed (ironically) as “alternative rock.” Pearl Jam was one of the few who did make it through this period of intense commodification. Unlike most others from the Seattle era, they were able to prevent themselves from being crushed by the enormous pressure that their celebrity brought to their personal and professional lives. While they did in a sense try to distance themselves from their own fame, they were also simultaneously using their celebrity as a platform for their idealism, soon finding themselves fighting “on all fronts” for initiating real change in the world. From their famed battle with the corruption of the Ticketmaster venue monopoly, to publicly berating the policies of George W. Bush, to expressing pro-choice sentiments in concert, to promoting awareness around Crohn’s disease—Pearl Jam was helping to return rock and roll to its roots, in terms of both the profoundly personal and the deeply political. And they continue to do it to this day, over 18 years since the band first formed.
In this dialogue Stone Gossard leads us through the story of Pearl Jam’s iconic rise, as well as his own experiences in the early grunge scene, long before any of us had ever known what “Teen Spirit” actually smelled like. Stone and Ken also discuss the current state of the music industry, some of the key problems it needs to come to terms with, and the role of record labels in the future of music. Stone’s story is one that is truly aligned with the essence of Integral Art, which attempts to restore Beauty to it’s rightful place within the human condition—emphasizing creativity instead of deconstruction, idealism instead of apathy, depth instead of sensationalism, authenticity instead of irony—and always reflecting the fullest expressions of both artist and audience alike. We hope you can join us in this fascinating exploration of artistic idealism and creative reverie….
To listen to a free interview between Stone Gossard and Ken Wilber, click here.
Originally published on Integral Life: Pearl Jam: Restoring Idealism to Rock and Roll. Part 1: From the Birth of Grunge to the Death of an Industry (w/ Stone Gossard and Ken Wilber)
Our consciousness is inextricable from our environment. Colors, angles, textures, and lights all conspire to sway our moods and shape our experiences; molding our conscious and unconscious minds according to the prevailing social norms and cultural trends of the time. We can feel this every time we walk into a room, a very subtle but noticeable reaction to our surroundings—perhaps a sense of calm and spaciousness, or of creativity and energetic vibrancy, or of anxiety and claustrophobia. You can feel this right now as you read this, your immediate habitat inescapably affecting the sound, feel, and meaning of every word. There is no simple mathematical equation to make sense of the connection between consciousness and environment, as the same surroundings can elicit entirely different reactions from psyche to psyche, culture to culture. Adding to the complexity, we often surprise ourselves by naturally surrounding ourselves with environs that dramatically contrast our interior states:
“Very often people think that people are like the environments that they choose to build or go to. But it’s not so much that we are like them, it’s more that these things capture our aspirations. So the person that lives in a minimalist New York loft probably isn’t a very calm person—that’s why they need the loft so badly! The person who builds in a very gaudy and expensive way, it’s not so much that this person feels rich—in fact they feel very poor, that’s why they had to go in for all this conspicuous display. So there’s kind of an element of opposites at play whenever you look at people’s tastes.” -Alain de Botton
Architecture, like every other form of art and science, has evolved a great deal over the past several thousand years. As humanity grows through increasing waves of consciousness, care, and complexity, our buildings have grown right along with it. Visualize the great architecture of the world: the iconic teepees of the Plains Indians, painted with two-dimensional scenes of tribal warfare. The animistic totems of the Northwest, symbolizing the people’s relationship to nature. The ruined City of the Gods in the basin of Mexico, reflections of heaven carved in stone. The enormous structures of Egypt, monuments to permanence in a morbidly transient world, gold-capped pyramids to house the eternal ego of Pharaoh. The majestic columns of Ancient Rome, proud and dignified, supporting order for western civilization for over a thousand years. The awe-inspiring monasteries, mosques, and temples of the Medieval age, built to both rouse and humble all who enter. The intricate designs of the European Renaissance, emphasizing beauty, humanism, and the cult of the individual, as science and technology began to tease apart the roles of architect and engineer. The sleek minimalism of Modern architecture, industrialized efficiency and unadorned utilitarianism, antiseptic steel scraping the residue of myth from the clear blue sky. The crumpled-paper buildings and surreal designs that mark the postmodern return to “wit, ornament, and reference,” rejecting conventional notions of form and function, using bizarre aesthetics and perspective-bending angles to emphasize themes of pluralism, contextualism, irony, and paradox.
These are all so much more than hollow structures or dead artifacts—each image carries with it a piece of our collective history, snapshots of the human soul as it slowly matures through time. These buildings are alive with living memory, a sliding calculus of perspectives, circumstances, and social priorities that became codified into architectural design. Our constructions continue to construct us, imprinting our personal and collective identities in subtle but powerful ways—landmarks of experience that are always coloring our perspectives, housing our visions, and sheltering our dreams.
We define ourselves by our architecture, every building we see emphasizing varying combinations of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth according to the changing aesthetics, values, and technologies of society. Each architectural design represents the individual’s image of society, as well as society’s image of itself—a gateway between interior and exterior, between culture and consciousness, and between the past and the present. Each style represents a unique alchemy of ever-deepening form, function, and meaning, balancing masculine and feminine design elements in very distinctive ways from building to building, culture to culture, epoch to epoch.
Originally posted on Integral Life: Exploring the Architecture of Happiness (w/ Alain de Botton and Stuart Davis)
From indigenous shamans invoking the elements through rhythm and dance, to the ancient cult of Pythagoras seeking the ever-elusive “harmony of the spheres,” to Sufi dervishes whirling their way to enlightenment, to the hallowed tones of sacred hymns echoing through secluded monasteries—all throughout history, music has always been an important part of spiritual life. It has been used as an instrument of worship, appreciation, and fellowship; a channel for inspiration and illumination; and a gateway to both sensual embodiment as well as radical self-transcendence. Music has often been thought to mirror the elusive mysteries of creation itself: all melodies reflecting the mathematical patterns of the universe, all rhythms echoing the primordial heartbeat of God.
Such metaphors, however, seem to find little resonance in today’s world. Magical and mythical approaches to reality have been largely supplanted by the skeptical gaze of rationality, while purely metaphysical descriptions of existence have been almost entirely deconstructed by postmodern thought. A great many people have abandoned the myths of the past—exchanging blind faith for calculated reason, agrarian religion for industrial secularism, and the certitude of moral absolutism for the shifting sands of moral relativism. None of this is bad in itself—quite the contrary, it is an indication that the evolutionary engine continues to chug along in this corner of the universe, continuously adding new layers of depth and complexity to the spectra of consciousness, culture, and technology.
We can think of the entire human condition—everything that we are, all of our accumulated experiences, relationships, and knowledge, the essence of humanity itself—being reflected back to us in three dimensions or “value spheres”:
|The Beautiful||The Good||The True|
Prior to the European Enlightenment, these value spheres had existed in a state of undifferentiated fusion, until our newfound capacity for rational empiricism allowed these three dimensions of knowledge to be teased apart at last. The transition from myth to reason prompted an explosive advancement of human knowledge—the previously conflated realms of art, morals, and science became distinct branches of knowledge, each with its own methods of observation, discovery, and enactment. Freed from the spooky shadows of superstition, decoupled from doctrine, dogma, and dread of fundamentalist persecution, and guided by the inner aurora of logic and reason, humanity began to emerge from its collective adolescence.
From the archaic backwaters of magic and myth to the modern miracles of rationality and pluralism—as truly momentous as this advancement was, it was certainly not without its own casualties. As more and more people became critical of traditional approaches to religion and began to shift into more contemporary worldviews, something precious was being almost entirely left out of the picture: our sense of spirituality, our connection to the Mystery, and our recognition of the world around us as sacred. Spirituality itself became confused with mythic belief—and while religion is certainly capable of acting as a “conveyor belt” of human development that helps people develop through magic, mythic, rational, and pluralistic stages of psychological and cultural growth, the vast majority of religions have remained stubbornly embedded within the mythic worldview, and so more often than not the baby of spiritual awakening gets thrown out with the bathwater of religious fundamentalism.
But of course, spirituality does not evaporate from our lives simply because our modern and postmodern worldviews cannot account for its presence or explain its purpose. Scientific materialism tends to strip subjective meaning from the universe by reduce all our experiences to physical interactions, while postmodernism deconstructs our notions of universal truth and replaces it with an endlessly sliding chain of relative truths. As such, it can be easy to feel something like a spiritual nomad, wandering aimlessly through the desert of the Real, searching for some palm-shaded oasis of meaning. When the world cannot make room for it, spirituality has no choice but to become covert—to go underground, to disguise itself in the cultural accoutrements of the times, to find a way to smuggle itself into our modern lives. Spirituality, in other words, has become a game of Kosmic cloak-and-dagger.
There have been few safe havens for spirituality in today’s world, and none so amenable to God’s modern and postmodern plight than within the arts. The realm of Beauty has become a natural asylum for spirituality in the 21st century—perhaps it is because art is allowed to remain so completely unhinged from convention, or because recognition of beauty is such a deeply subjective experience; or perhaps it is because the creative process of inspiration and self-expression is itself so damned inexplicable. Whatever the reason, the fact remains: upon the vanity table of today’s world, art has become Mystery’s most admired mirror.
There are certain aspects of spiritual awareness that are infused within each and every one of us, regardless of our familiarity with the trappings of spiritual life. For example, almost every musician has had some sort of flow state experience, a sense of being “in the groove” or, in athletic parlance, “in the zone”, often described as moments of effortless creativity, spontaneous improvisation, rapturous inspiration, peak performance abilities, powerful feelings of bliss, love, and openness, experiences of self-transcendence and oneness with the music, the band, the audience, the universe, etc. These flow states have very much in common with the spiritual states cultivated by traditional contemplative practices from all the world’s religions—whether meditation, prayer, or otherwise. But it’s not just the artists having these experiences, but the listeners as well—we form intimate relationships with music that can be deeply personal as well as profoundly transpersonal, using our music collections to both shape our identities and transcend identity itself. It is very possible for music to invoke these same flow states simply by listening deeply, becoming fully absorbed in the song, lost in the music, hearing the pregnant silence behind every tone. When listening to a really good song, there is an opportunity to actually feel creativity come alive—the very same creative force that ignites the stars and breathes life into dust, unraveling itself in the timeless moment, as if it were being played right in front of you for the first and only time, never to be heard again.
We all seek meaning. We all seek relationships. We all seek communion with the world around us. We all seek happiness, pleasure, and sensual embodiment. And at one time or another, we all seek change, transformation, and self-transcendence. These are all distinctly spiritual impulses, and, for many people around the world, are being fulfilled through the temple of iTunes more than any other source, religious or secular.
And so—to every artist bobbing for muses by dunking his head into the murky waters of the Mystery; to every listener who uses the song to hear the silence behind every sound; to every stadium-sized congregation of faithful frenzied fans; to every rhythm, melody, and flavor of noise ever to seduce the human ear: you are all part of the Church of Rock! Where Spirit no longer needs to hide—where we can all see God dancing in the math, in our relationships, and in our hearts—and where together we slowly awaken to the universe as it always already is: a Uni-Verse, One Song, forever rippling through the eternal silence behind this and every moment.