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'Pop' Psychology: Putting Rock and Roll Music on the Psychoanalytic Couch

'Pop' Psychology: Putting Rock and Roll Music on the Psychoanalytic Couch

Psychiatric Times
June 2005
Vol. XXII
Issue 7


The wild world of rock and roll music is typically associated with the likes of Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison strutting their stuff before raucous crowds. It most likely does not readily bring to mind the visage of a grim-faced Sigmund Freud contemplating the dark secrets of the unconscious mind while ponderously smoking his analytic cigar. Yet, while seemingly inhabiting disparate worlds, the biggest names in rock history can be meaningfully linked with the biggest star of psychoanalysis' past because they have all been concerned with the same sorts of stuff--the free expression of id-drenched feelings and images. When Jagger snarls to his audience that he "can't get no satisfaction," or when Morrison sings of wanting to kill his father and possess his mother, or when Iggy Pop's expressions take a turn toward the perverse in I Wanna Be Your Dog, who would have understood better the inner forces at work than bearded old Uncle Sigmund?

The term rock and roll is itself, of course, a reference to sexual intercourse that Freud would have well appreciated. However, the similarities between rock music and psychoanalysis go deeper than their shared early preoccupations with sexuality. Both disciplines evolved in similar directions from their early erotic obsessions, expanding their focus to more varied and nuanced experiences, encompassing such themes as vulnerability, loss, self-esteem needs and even the nature of reality. Whereas psychoanalysis branched out from Freud to D. W. Winnicott, Ph.D., Heinz Kohut, Ph.D., and Wilfred Bion, Ph.D., rock evolved from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Nirvana. Rock and psychoanalysis, seemingly universes apart, can in some ways be a match made in heaven. The former provides the perfect vehicle for free creative introspective expression, while the latter provides the ideal framework for understanding and decoding what those expressions are all about.

While Freud mostly ignored musical topics in his own writing, it is likely even he would have acknowledged that the rock album format has many advantageous features for facilitating the expression of the intrapsychic experience (Brog, 2002). Music itself has long been recognized as carrying the power to instill deeply felt feeling states in the listener. These emotions may invite the listener to share in the artists' emotional world or feel more forcibly thrust upon the listener. These communications can be considered to function as a projective identification (Brog, 1995). Additionally, music, in its composition and arrangement, can take the form of a variety of intrapsychic defensive constellations. For example, a peaceful melody may repeatedly cover over an underlying disturbing musical rhythm, thereby conveying a form of defensive suppression. An endless variety of expressions relating drive, defense and affect can be embodied into the composition and arrangement of a song.

The addition of lyrics and an album format naturally adds further communicative potentialities. Lyrical expressions exude enhanced emotional presence when resonating with musically conveyed feelings. Music, as a powerful conveyor of emotions, can serve to clarify, amplify or even contradict the emotional elements suggested in the accompanying lyrical narrative. Artists attuned to the creative possibilities inherent in the intertwining of words and music may use their songs as a vehicle for the expression of inner experience, the depths and complexity of which can transcend what the words or music could individually convey.

Additionally, stringing together songs in an album format (with the addition of the album cover and inner packaging) adds numerous associative possibilities to the mix. The arrangement may imply an inchoate storyline, as in the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or the Who's Tommy. The sequence of songs allows the listener to identify overarching themes and their variations across an album. As with an analysand's free associative productions across a session, we would expect the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts in an effective rock album of thematically linked songs. Many gifted performers have fully voiced their introspective creative expressions using these features. The richness and vividness of these albums creates an undeniably evocative and affectively charged listening experience--one that to this modern-day follower of Freud compellingly invites psychoanalytic investigation.

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