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Pearl Jam: Restoring Idealism to Rock and Roll

September 21, 2009 Leave a comment

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)

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The Church of Rock

Categories: Art Tags: , ,

Exploring the Architecture of Happiness

July 28, 2009 2 comments

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)

Categories: Art Tags: ,

The Church of Rock

July 22, 2009 1 comment

The Church of RockFrom 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”:

I We It
1st-person 2nd-person 3rd-person
Art Morals Science
Consciousness Culture Technology
The Beautiful The Good The True
Buddha Sangha Dharma

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.

Categories: Art, Spirituality Tags: , ,

Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop

July 22, 2009 2 comments

Deconstructing Niggy

There is much talk in America these days around the issue of race. With Barack Hussein Obama as the elected President of the United States, we have begun to collectively reflect upon our relationship with race and racism—and the conversation seems to have polarized into two radically different positions. On one hand, Obama’s viability as a presidential candidate across a wide range of demographics prompts liberals to proudly declare that, finally, we live in a “post-racial” America, no longer tethered to the racial divisiveness that has infected our political systems since the country’s inception. On the other hand, a great number of people are still asking the question “are we ready for a black president?,” which itself seems to indicate that a genuine “post-racial” America is still on the horizon of human evolution. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between, or beyond, these two extremes—we have certainly made some tremendous strides in our collective attitudes toward race and racism, but we cannot confuse our accomplishments with outright victory. There can be no singular victory over racism, but like peace itself, it is a victory that must be won again and again, perpetually into the future.

Niggy Tardust is about what it means to look at history and the present as a whole, as opposed to running away in disgust or bowing one’s head in guilt—saying ‘yes’ to all that has been, in full acknowledgement; saying ‘yes, all of those things convene in me….’” -Saul Williams

In furthering the dialogue on race and racism, Hip Hop culture offers a fascinating means of exploring the subject, as racial identity has always been at the front and center of the art form. Just as in any genre of art, Hip Hop is capable of reflecting the entirety of the human condition—all of our beauty, all of our misery, all of our scars and scabs, all of our boundless creativity and limitless potential. Consider the wide range of conscious depth as expressed through Hip Hop—developmental studies have consistently shown that human beings develop through several distinct stages of consciousness and identity: from ego-centric consciousness (“me”), to ethno-centric consciousness (“others like me,” in terms of race, religion, nationality, etc.), to world-centric consciousness (“all of us”), to Kosmo-centric consciousness (“all of existence”).

Each of these broad stages of human development open us to radically different ways of perceiving ourselves and the world around us, with our entire sense of identity being the interface between the two. And we can find all of it within Hip Hop—from the power-driven thug mentality of ego-centrism, to the rivalries, racism, and misogyny of ethno-centrism, to the more conscious expressions of world-centrism often found in underground Hip Hop, to the rare but remarkable few who, like Saul, are using the art as a genuine means of embodied mysticism and Self realization.

Hip Hop culture includes all of these very different attitudes and altitudes of consciousness, which has made it one of the most controversial art forms in the modern world, and especially frustrating to those who want to either idealize it, demonize it, or dismiss it altogether. With roots extending deep into the core of African-American oppression, Hip Hop offers us a fascinating glimpse into the problems of race and racism in the world, as well as a means of overcoming our limited perceptions of reality by simply opening ourselves to all of the different voices the genre has to offer, and integrating these perspectives into a cohesive understanding of ourselves and each other. From this integration we can begin to see the subtleties that exist between, for example, the well-known Hip Hop groups N.W.A. and Public Enemy, the former offering a 1st-person account of life in the ghetto from an ego/ethnocentric point of view, and the latter offering a more 3rd-person view of the ghetto from a largely world-centric perspective. Both accounts are necessary for a full picture to emerge, which Hip Hop culture is more than happy to serve up.

While studying the Integral model, it can be easy to mistake “race” as a notion which, once we move past the ethno-centric stage of development, is something we no longer need to concern ourselves with. (Speaking in the context of the U.S., this is probably more true for whites than minorities, simply because minorities often report being subtly reminded of the color of their skin on a daily basis, simply from living in a white-majority mainstream culture.) But it is important to remember that even if we have moved beyond our exclusive identity with our own racial heritage, that aspect of our identity does not simply vanish, but instead becomes even more textured and nuanced than ever before. We also have the ability to more deeply explore other racial identities, cultures, and heritages, further enriching our own, and slowly peeling back many of the residual filters we unconsciously place over our perceptions of reality. The goal is not to be color-blind, as our politically-correct society often tells us to be, but to allow ourselves to see the entire spectrum of color, much more vividly than ever before. From this integral vantage point, we can see that our similarities are where we find Truth, our differences are where we find Beauty, and navigating between the two is where we find our Goodness.

A shamelessly self-indulgent photo of me and Saul, just to show you all how cool i am.

There aren’t many artists in the world today who more fully exemplify this integrative consciousness in Hip Hop than Saul Williams. His capacity to so fully engage the “language of the mystics” of the spiritual realm, to pull it down through the sounds and visions of the mental realm, and to push the transcendent clarity of consciousness through your entire body, is absolutely unparalleled. And while he is pushing spirit all the way down through our souls, through our minds, and into our feet, he is simultaneously pulling some of our darkest shadows up through consciousness, using art to disarm much of the fear and resentment that has prevented our collective dialogue around race and racism from moving forward for decades. I highly recommend you pick up his latest album, a collaboration with Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, titled The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.

Here is a short clip of Saul and Ken Wilber discussing race and racism from an Integral point of view:

A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop

Hip hop is a natural evolution of 20th century music, which is itself considered by many to have been derived almost entirely from the legacy of black music and culture. In the early 1950′s, much of America was becoming fascinated by the new sounds they began to hear on local radio stations around the country, which were playing an exciting mix of black music, including gospel, blues, and boogie-woogie. In 1954, Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Records, was searching for someone who could translate these new sounds into something he could sell to white people. Despite the remarkable influence black music was having upon American culture, the Civil Rights movement had yet to hit its stride, and there was still as of yet no place for black artists within the newly-emerging mainstream of popular culture. To be blunt, black culture was simply not marketable. So Sam found the perfect man to help bring black music into the larger culture—and that man was Elvis Presley.

Remaining one of the most controversial figures in modern music, Elvis has been accused on the one hand of “stealing” black music and diluting it to the point where it was finally acceptable to the sensibilities of white America. Elvis himself is quoted as saying “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them.” On the other hand, Elvis is credited as being a genuine step forward for black and white culture alike; as Little Richard said: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”

Whether or not we perceive Elvis as a thief or as an innovator, one thing remains certain—almost the entire legacy of Rock and Roll can be attributed to his magnificent wake. Rock music itself became the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movements in the late fifties and sixties, and its unique confluence of black and white art may have actually contributed to the culture of racial equality that was beginning to emerge at this time.

Fast forwarding through five decades of music culture, it isn’t hard to see the natural progression of black music through many different forms of music, wildly mutating and undulating into almost as many different sorts of sounds as the human ear is capable of hearing. Blues and boogie-woogie became Rockabilly in the 1950′s, which became Rock and Roll in the late 50′s and 60′s, branching out into soul, funk, R&B, and disco in the 70′s. It was here that Hip Hop began to take its roots, naturally evolving out of Rock and Roll into an utterly novel genre of music—even though Rock and Hip Hop continue to share some very deep similarities, most notably in the verse-chorus-verse song structure and predominantly 4/4 timing (so much so that it might be said that the primary difference between them is in overall aesthetic directionality—while many prefer to Rock from side to side, Hip Hop moves your inner b-boy up and down….)

The massive success of Hip Hop as a global art form causes many people to proclaim Hip Hop to be the return of Rock and Roll to the people who created it in the first place. At the same time, Hip Hop has already escaped these sorts of ethnocentric notions of cultural ownership, and is currently blossoming as a genuine global art form. There are much-debated statistics that report 70% of Hip Hop sales coming from white people, one of the most significant examples ever of this sort of cross-pollination of perspectives through popular culture. But this is not as idyllic as it may sound, and continues to cause much uneasiness in black culture. Adding to the complexity of race in Hip Hop, many of the more “conscious” Hip Hop artists report a largely white turnout at live shows—which isn’t a bad thing from a world-centric perspective, but can be very frustrating for black artists trying to convey a message to their own culture. At the same time, criticism from within black communities has also been leveled against certain so-called “Gangsta rappers” who, far from keeping it real, are creating larger-than life personas and exaggerated theatrics based upon negative stereotypes, for the sake of selling music to white people. This, these critics argue, perpetuates those stereotypes in much the same way the racist “minstrel shows” of the 19th and early 20th century did, in which whites and even blacks would wear “blackface” and perform extremely racist skits, acts, and songs. In fact, the parallels between much of mainstream Hip Hop and minstrelsy can be summed up in this quote from Wikipedia:

“Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was at the core of the rise of an American music industry, and for several decades it provided the lens through which white America saw black America. On the one hand, it had strong racist aspects; on the other, it resulted in the first broad awareness by white Americans of aspects of black folk culture.”

But let us not forget all those artists who, like Saul, continue to bring genuine artistry, creativity, and spirituality to the art, despite the fact that the radio is dominated by the same shallowness and superficiality that dominated the 80′s music scene. While “conscious” Hip Hop artists like Saul, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, and many others are pushed to the wayside of a mainstream which once reflected our stream-of-collective-consciousness—but has now been reduced to lowest-common-denominator marketing—let’s also remember that the music industry’s grasp over mainstream culture is beginning to crumble, creating more and more ways for these more enlightened artists to bring their art to the masses.


Originally published on Integral Life: Introducing Niggy Tardust (w/ Saul Williams and Ken Wilber)

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