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


Music as a creative expression can rouse emotions. Sometimes, music can be used as a means of exploring those emotions and making a connection between musician and listener. Two examples, the Beatles' White Album and the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, show how music can do more than soothe the savage beast--it can also tell us something about ourselves.

Psychiatric Times

June 2005


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.

Take, for example, the contributions of John Lennon to the Beatles' 1968 White Album (Brog, 1995). These songs were written and recorded in the aftermath of the group's failed trip to India to gain spiritual guidance from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was widely reported that during that pilgrimage the band had come to the rather painful conclusion that the Maharishi was something of a fraud, causing them to leave India in bitter disappointment in this person that they had previously so publicly admired (Brown and Gaines, 1983). Lennon's contributions to the album can be viewed as representing his varied reactions to this disappointment, which in analytic lingo we might call his failed attempt at making an idealized self-object connection with the Maharishi. These include rage at the Maharishi (portrayed as the humiliating seductress in Sexy Sadie); the inclination to ridicule pompous figures (Bungalow Bill); depression (Yer Blues and I'm So Tired); and reawakened longings for connections with lost objects (the haunting plea for connection with his deceased mother in Julia). What little loving feelings he has left to express (the tender Goodnight), he appears to disavow by allowing someone else (Ringo) to sing them for him. It is as if he needed to protect his remaining loving feelings from his own rage by splitting them off and putting them into someone else. The album's most disturbing track is Revolution 9, which is less a song than it is an overly long, discordant collection of jarring, spliced-together sounds. With this meandering unmusical anomaly, Lennon jolts the listener into feeling disoriented, intruded upon and bewildered (imagine the feelings provoked by having a Beethoven symphony unexpectedly interrupted by a heavy metal number and you get the idea). Beatles fans, for the most part, hated this "song." By disappointing his own worshipping fans, has Lennon succeeded in getting his listeners to take possession of his own bewildered and disappointed feelings for the Maharishi (which we may consider a turning of passive into active or even projective identification)? Let the listener decide.

It is interesting to compare Lennon's contributions to this album to those of Paul McCartney, which suggests differences in their personality structure. While having gone through many of the same disappointing experiences as Lennon in India, McCartney's contributions to the album betray hardly any reaction at all to these events. Instead, he mostly gives vivid expression to his sexual preoccupations, with id-driven songs like Why Don't We Do It in the Road, Helter Skelter and Birthday; along with many more sublimated expressions of the same id drives, including the love ballads I Will and Martha My Dear.

Rocky Raccoon is a particularly clear expression of conflict relating to sexual impulses. The song tells the story of the gunfighter Rocky who seeks vengeance against a rival who has stolen the affections of the woman he desires, Nancy. He angrily bursts into a room where the two are dancing (the primal scene, we may say), only to be wounded by his rival, who turns out to be the better fighter. While losing Nancy, Rocky is not left empty-handed, for upon returning to his hotel room, he receives consolation by coming across Gideon's Bible, which will presumably teach him to give up revenge and envy in favor of higher ideals. I imagine Freud might see the song as describing the resolution of Rocky's Oedipus complex, where his unobtainable love object is relinquished out of threat of bodily injury from a better fighter. At the same time, moral values become consolidated as a kind of consolation prize.

Sometimes, the producer of an album can help facilitate a band's free expression, with a resultant deepening of an album's contents. A prime example of this is the Talking Heads' acclaimed 1980 album Remain in Light (Brog, 2002). Producer Brian Eno approached the album by encouraging the musicians to emphasize instinct and spontaneity in their song-writing. He urged them to come to the studio without preparation, experiment with their instruments, and capture and utilize mistakes in their song-writing (Gans, 1985). Eno, in a sense, can be considered to have functioned as a psychoanalyst for the group, encouraging a process of free association and later providing shape and coherence for their primary process material.

The resultant album is remarkable in a number of respects. Singer David Byrne's lyrics possess a striking free associative feel and, throughout the album, suggest themes of lost, submerged, split and disintegrating identity and the struggle to maintain a cohesive sense of self (the album's disturbing cover, depicting portraits of the four band members blotted out by depersonalizing computer-generated masks, mirrors these themes of identity disturbance). Several songs appear to lyrically describe psychotic and schizoid experiences in ways that uncannily resemble the writings of Bion and Harry Guntrip, Ph.D. Most remarkably, the album utilizes music in ways that suggest it is serving defensive and compensatory functions in relation to these disturbing experiences.

In Cross-Eyed and Painless, the vibrant movement-inducing beat appears to be utilized to provide a container function that may hold at bay the self-disintegration expressed in the lyrics. In The Great Curve, the propulsive rhythm strengthens the non-psychotic parts of a psychotic personality. Listening Wind suggests the use of sound and music as a transitional object that provides an experience of being in the comforting presence of another. In the album's most well-known song, Once in a Lifetime, a schizoid submergence of true self is conveyed musically in the song's shimmering, hypnotic background soundscape, which threatens to entrance the listener into a dreamy state of obliviousness.

Of course the Beatles and the Talking Heads are merely two among many bands who have effectively used the rock album form as an effective vehicle for the free expression of their evocative intrapsychic experiences. With careful listening, many albums can be well-appreciated as artistic expressions worthy of psychoanalytic exploration. So the next time you go to play your favorite album at home, turn down the lights, relax in a comfortable chair, pour yourself a glass of wine (or perhaps even light up a Freudian cigar) and listen with an analyst's free-floating attention to the words and music emanating from your speakers. You may be surprised at what you find.

Dr. Brog is a faculty member in the adult division of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.


Brog MA (1995), The phenomena of Pine's "four psychologies": Their contrast and interplay as exhibited in the Beatles' "White Album." Am J Psychother 49(3):385-404.

Brog MA (2002), "Living turned inside out": the musical expression of psychotic and schizoid experience in Talking Heads' Remain in Light. Am J Psychoanal 62(2):163-184.

Brown P, Gaines S (1983), The Love You Make: An Insider's Story of the Beatles. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gans D (1985), Talking Heads. New York: Avon Books.

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