Although not unheard of, it is unusual to find precise philosophical and intellectual references in pop music. The realms of fine art, intellectualism, pop, and dance music, while they have intersected at specific moments in history, generally tend to draw their boundaries rather decisively. However, music is most interesting when these boundaries are able to intersect and merge.
Scritti Politti, and in particular their frontman Green Gartside, brings philosophy directly into relation with music through lyrical references to philosophical concepts, famous works, and philosophers themselves. Gartside’s integration of philosophy into his lyrics is most successfully realized in 1982’s Songs to Remember. This album dedicates songs to Derrida, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Lacan, providing the bridge between high and low culture and bringing philosophy and pop together. In critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s famous essay “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” he condemns pop music as advertisement, brainwashing, and simply a tool of capitalist propaganda.
In direct opposition to Adorno, we argue that pop music lends itself to discussing philosophical concepts and demonstrates the ingenuity with which Scritti Politti achieves this boundary-crossing on Songs to Remember. This album should be considered one of the most important in musical history for bridging the gap between two long-separated disciplines: pop and philosophy.
Gartside makes specific references to texts, concepts, and authors in his lyrics. For instance, the first song on the album, “Asylums in Jerusalem”, refers to the asylums built for self-proclaimed saints and prophets that had travelled into the deserts near Jerusalem, a topic that Friedrich Nietzsche addresses in 1881’s Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. While these may appear as passing references, there is certainly a deeper significance to glean. In the passage which mentions the Jerusalem asylums, Nietzsche is really making an argument about the necessity of madness for greatness, change, and social upheaval. Only madmen can really shake up the world, which bears the unruly question: are world-changing musicians mad?
This might bring to mind the seemingly mad and heady musicians of the late 20th century—David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Kurt Cobain, to name a few. The post-punk era, in particular, has long fascinated interviewers and journalists due to the intellectual nature of a lot of bands that fall within this category. Scritti Politti played supporting gigs for Joy Division and Gang of Four in 1979 and 1980, respectively, confirming its place in that much-celebrated scene. In the post-punk era, bands like the Raincoats and the Talking Heads were questioning the simulacrum of modern life in their songs. Suddenly, the lyrics were getting more speculative and wordy, forcing the listener to ask: what are they really singing about? Gartside took this desire to its ultimate peak in his clever combination of swinging pop hits and philosophical musings. He had to be a bit of a madman to reach this point.
Gartside’s wide-ranging political involvements, intellectual interests, and singular vision for Scritti Politti suggest a single-mindedness akin to madness—an energy he poured into making Songs to Remember. From joining Communist organizations to squatting in London— with half the other famous British musicians of the ’80s—the social context and history of the band informs its lyrics. Involving himself in the London scene also informed the band’s sound, which needs to be discussed in the context of cultural exchange and appropriation.
Scritti Politti derives much of its sound from Black Soul, reggae, and early rap. A number of white, primarily New Wave ’80s bands experimented with rap and included rap sections in their songs, on Blondie’s 1980 album Rapture, for example. Although often the bands were on good terms with Black musicians at the time, they still play a part in the history of the suppression and appropriation of Black music. In a positive reading, Gartside’s enthusiasm for Black music seems transparent rather than appropriative, and he means to be citational, like his philosophical references. For example, he cites the influence of Black reggae musician Gregory Isaacs and does not hide or deny the musical inspiration behind his tunes. His respect for reggae and soul can be heard in the sounds he and numerous credited musicians produced on Songs to Remember.
Another strong (and rather hegemonic) influence on Gartside was the Beatles. Their seemingly straightforward lyrics demand an answer to the polemic ‘She loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah/ You think you’ve lost your love’. Is love present or absent? Who has it, and who feels it? Gartside poses the questions once more, attempting an answer on the hit single “The Sweetest Girl”. With guest prog rock and psychedelic jazz musician Robert Wyatt, Gartside created this lover’s rock reggae and romance song from Songs to Remember.
A mixture of sugary love and philosophical ennui, “The Sweetest Girl” situates the “girl” within a philosophical and political context. Gartside practices the Derridian concept of deconstruction, trying to dismantle words to take away their power and reveal their alliances. The sweet lyrics quickly turn to malaise ‘The sweetest girl in all the world/ His eyes are for you only”, follows up with “The sweetest girl in all the world/ His words have died before me’. What’s romantic about dead words? You can re-use an old love poem again and again, or you can take apart its words and dissect them revealing an arbitrariness that their unity had earlier obscured.
Gartside almost explicitly references both deconstruction and what could be interpreted as Wittgenstein’s theory of ‘hinge propositions’ (no, not the dating app)— that there are certain words and phrases that betray that we only live and exist inside of language, which hints at an ‘outside’ that does not really exist: ‘The weakest link in every chain/ I always want to find it/ The strongest words in each belief/ Find out what’s behind it’ Gartside wants to get to the bottom of how one uses words and what they are for—provoking the question: what kind of political power emerges when philosophical words are sung in pop tunes? This song also demonstrates the difficulty of aligning theory and practice for political ends. In the end, the sweetest girl ‘left because she understood/ The value of defiance’. Although deconstruction and theoretical analyses of language are Gartside’s best tools, the girl in the song ends up choosing direct political action over theorizing—a decision that Gartside also struggled with.
The School of Creative Arts at Leeds Polytechnic was one of Scritti Politti’s and Gartside’s proving grounds. While at Leeds, Gartside became immersed in the conceptual side of art-making, abandoning painting for dense prose and inviting ridicule from his teachers and some of his peers. However, he was a good organizer and staged invited lectures on art at the school and in local pubs. His political and philosophical/artistic interests occasionally worked against each other, although he continually tried to bring them together in his music.
The intellectual background acquired by Gartside, augmented by his exposure to critical and cultural theory in art school, is crucial for the story of Scritti Politti. Not only do the songs reflect Gartside’s political influence, but so, of course, does the band’s name. He arrived at ‘Scritti Politti’ through the influence of the Italian Marxist political philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s thought was highly influential in cultural circles during the late 1970s, and the band’s name is derived from the title of a work by Gramsci: ‘Scritti’ meaning writings or works, and ‘Politti’, a hybrid form of ‘politici’ or political; hence, political writings.
As Gramsci put it, hegemony is the political leadership of a fundamental class over the other classes, enforcing a dominant worldview through educational, social, and other means. Gartside actively fights against a hegemonic understanding of pop music—that it is only for fun or shouldn’t be taken seriously—making pop both fun and intellectual. In addition, his daily life as a squatter also shaped his class consciousness and will to fight hegemonic structures. His attempts to bring political and philosophical concepts into his music while struggling with the everyday reality of being a DIY musician—album costs, the life of a squatter, bandmate, and label trouble— is a reality that pervades Songs to Remember.
The DIY scene that Scritti Politti was part of in London was obsessed with not-selling out and would even compete over which band could function on the smallest budget. Scritti Politti’s debut album, which ultra-DIY bands might consider a sell-out, was released on Geoff Travis’ Rough Trade label in 1982. Songs to Remember enjoyed a short but intense run on the UK charts over the period of September to December, peaking high at number 12 nationally, the best showing for a Rough Trade album at that time, and staying in the top 20 for three weeks, and on the charts for seven weeks in total. Although this reception is not outstanding in comparison to other UK bands at the time, its palatability to audiences, given the nuanced philosophical readings and overt political statements contained in the lyrics, inspires hope in leftist listeners and musicians to this day.
Gartside combines a diligent Marxism with an affectionate and playful use of deconstructive strategies on the third track of the album, “Jacques Derrida”. Along a backing track of bouncy vocals and drums he uses Derrida both as an aesthetic object and a philosopher worthy of critical study, singing ‘I’m in love with a Jacques Derrida/ Read a page and know what I need to/ Take apart my baby’s heart’. He loves Derrida as the nouveau philosopher who is charming and incredibly intelligent, a darling of leftist circles. Although Gartside’s profession of love might seem embarrassing, he follows it up with the slightly less loving phrase ‘take apart my baby’s heart’.
If Derrida is indeed his baby, then this means that he needs to turn deconstruction on itself— to start picking apart language and find the sources of linguistic powers and social structures that define the self, and intentionally use words with this in mind. Gartside’s active Marxist leanings also pop up in this song, always with the intention ‘To find out something that you need to do’. He continually tries to see critical theory as an igniting source for political action—which might only be possible in the unusual combination of philosophy and pop music. He comically challenges hegemonic structures, crying out, ‘desire is so voracious/ I wanna eat your nation state’. The concept of a nation-state — theorized by Hannah Arendt and Micheal Foucault, among others — depicts a certain kind of country in which the nationalist tendencies and the government powers align, forming a dangerously powerful unit that can produce a totalitarian or highly capitalist state.
The notion of state or republic pervades Gartside’s thinking; even before the conception of Songs to Remember, early Scritti singles were overtly political works conceptualizing a republic in which language is the highest power. In particular, the 1980 Rough Trade single “2nd Peel Session” includes part of an essay by Gartside titled “Scritto’s Republic”, which gives full expression to the power of discourse, that is, to capital-L Language to repress desire through the imposition of functional communication, simplicity, clarity, and common sense. When the words and melody become unstable, interruptive even, then and only then can desire speak, even if we must struggle to understand it.
Desire is always a contradiction for Gartside. In Lacanian fashion, it always signifies a lack in oneself. On the album’s penultimate song, “Gettin’ Havin’ & Holdin'”, the contradiction becomes more explicit, as he sings in one verse ‘When a man loves a woman/ He is never alone, he’s never alone’ and then in the following verse ‘When a man loves a woman/ He is always alone, he’s always alone’. His aloneness does not depend on his love for a woman; rather, love constantly signals a presence and absence in oneself.
Whether or not one ‘has’ love or ‘is in’ love constitutes a fundamental question for the late 20th-century critical theorist Jacques Lacan, which Gartside continues to prod and question in his lyrics. After wondering whether or not the man is happy, jealous, or even if he is aware of his love, the second to last verse asserts, ‘His love is a heart breaking out’—and one can ask, breaking out of a prison of language, political ennui, or literally breaking out of his chest? All of these possibilities highlight the ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings that lie behind deconstruction and expressions of desire.
Songs to Remember is remarkable because it provides an elegant solution to the quarrel between philosophy and poetry set to smooth, soulful tunes. Although Plato is not explicitly mentioned, the album resolves a polemic introduced by Plato 2,500 years ago. In The Republic, Plato exiles the poets, who often sang and recited their lyrical poetry, from the city, which ought to be governed by those who know best, that is, the philosophers. Since then, poetry and philosophy have been divided, and many thinkers have attempted to overcome this division. No one could have predicted it would be overcome in England in 1982 by a rag-tag team of Communist squatters.
Though over 40 years old, Songs to Remember signals a contemporary trend on Tik Tok of videos on various intellectual concepts combined with short musical sequences. Ultimately, the power and importance of Scritti Politti is the bridge between high and low cultures, philosophy and pop, and brings an intellectualism to music that is both refreshing and ignites a possibility for a (re)-interpretation that demands repeated listening.
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