For decades, parents have worried that the lyrics to rock music are corrupting their children and poisoning their minds. But what of the many pearls those lyrics may express? In his new book, Rock ´n´ Roll Wisdom: What Psychologically Astute Lyrics Teach About Life and Love, Barry Farber, a Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University´s Teachers College, analyzes rock lyrics for their psychological truths.
"Rock lyrics, I believe, can be a lighthearted but engaging means to think about some profound issues of living," Farber writes. "Specifically, I have looked for lyrics that illustrate in particularly insightful ways common human longings and concerns."
A response to what Farber terms a lack of appreciation for "the psychological acumen of individual artists or songs," Rock ´n´ Roll Wisdom groups lyrics in basic thematic categories, including love and friendship; pain; ways of coping, aging and growing; and the inevitable troika of sex, drugs and money.
A chapter titled "Identity," for example, begins with a line from Joni Mitchell´s "Woodstock": "I don´t know who I am, but life is for learning."
"´Who am I?´ is one of the great questions of life, pondered by philosophers, artists, psychologists, and yes, songwriters," Farber writes, noting that although the rocker Meatloaf "made fun of such existential questions, he also noted implicitly that these are just the kind of things that many think about a good deal."
And in a chapter on death, which weaves together discussion of Aerosmith, Jackson Browne, Simon and Garfunkel, John Prine, Billy Joel, and Bonnie Raitt, Farber notes that in rock lyrics, "nostalgia seems to have two competing sides. One side pushes toward sweetening the past, the other clings to old regrets."
Farber even includes a chapter on the 50 Best Rock Lyrics (in his opinion).
They include several selections from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, among many others. The list, which is presented in alphabetical order rather than by rank, begins with the Beatles´ "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make" and ends with U2´s "We´re one, but we´re not the same/We get to carry each other."
On each of these topics, Farber argues, rock, in our culture of CDs, iPods and ringtones, has the potential for broader reach than the printed word, particularly when it comes to capturing the interest and attention of that golden target audience, young people.
"The better lyricists within the rock tradition tell stories about life and use creative phrases and imagery to do so," he says. "Like other artists, great songwriters offer the virtue of a more palatable way of learning than through the often-tedious pages of textbooks."
Farber doesn´t dispute that the writings of great authors and psychologists go far deeper than rock lyrics. He admits, too, that many rock devotees don´t really listen to the lyrics. Still, he would like to see the "words" part of rock given more attention and serious consideration.
Rock ´n´ Roll Wisdom does just that, giving an entirely new meaning to the phrase "pop psychology." It´s not typical of Farber´s oeuvre, which runs more to titles such as "The therapist as attachment figure" and "Clients perceptions of the process and consequences of self-disclosure in psychotherapy," but you get the sense he could do equal justice to the psychology of Fifty Cent, L´il Kim and Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Rock ´n´ Roll Wisdom is published by Praeger, with a forward by Dr. Judy Kuriansky. It will be widely available in book stores in September.
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