Disbelief and Its Suspension, or Why I Like Yes


14. Sep. 2010, 1:53

The motivation for this essay came from the reaction to a video of a live performance of Changes, by Yes, that I posted in another social network. A friend left a commentary on the clip, saying it was the "evil side of the 80's". After I and another guy replied trying to cast Yes under a more positive light, that friend replied with:

"I only hear soulless, quasi-mystical pomp."

Now, judging by the tone of the previous paragraph, you might be concerned that this text will develop along the lines of "That guy doesn't have a clue on what he's about!" or "He just does not get it...". That will not happen for three reasons. First, those judgements are not true - the author of the that commentary has a refined taste for music and arts in general; and furthermore, he does share a number of preferences with myself (notably, a soft spot for the neo-romanticism in 80's goth and darkwave music). Second, if I went down that route the essay would degenerate into just another boring fanboy rant, and thus I would be wasting both my time and yours.

And third: I kind of agree with him to a significant extent.

The criticism that Yes is no more than a lot of hot air is not new. To pick but one example, consider George Starostin. He is a talented amateur rock critic which keeps his album reviews on a website that was quite popular during my musically-formative years. I value highly his essays, although I hold many divergences with his positions on specific issues (for one, he utterly despises my favourite band). On the subject of Yes, Starostin, though moderately positive, has quite a few gripes:

"See, I don't like prog-rock just for the sake of being 'progressive', i.e., long-winded, symphonic and mystical. Moreover, I'm certain you shouldn't like it for these things alone as well. I really only care for those prog rock bands who manage to make this long-winded, symphonic and uncomprehensible music interesting: whatever that might mean."

Their [Yes] music was always what you might call 'prog for the sake of prog'. Sometimes it feels that the band's only desire in life was to get as complicated as possible so as to blow away all competition, and, what's even worse, sometimes it feels that this complicatedness only served to mask a general lack of truly creative ideas.

And then, later on, when reviewing The Yes Album...

Anderson's lyrics have gone totally nuts, jumping from one baseless image to another, absorbing all kinds of high-style cliches and non-cliches. Yeah, I know they're supposed to be 'poetry', but true poetry is supposed to work, filling your head with images and impressions, while Anderson's broodings are nothing but a nasty cosmic put-on, whether it be the love allusions on 'Yours Is No Disgrace', visionary gallucinations of 'Starship Trooper', or pseudo-epic puff-ups of 'A Venture'.

It is not exactly easy to counter this position. Consider the interviews in which Jon Anderson appears to be several clouds too high to be affected by the concerns of us, mere mortals. Or then try to decipher a story with some sense from the lyrics of Starship Trooper (and I won't even mention the Topographic Oceans). On first inspection, such evidence seems to lead to one of two conclusions: either Jon and the other guys were, and still are, way off their rockers or there is no depth to their music and it is all contrived pomp, style without substance - in one word, soulless.

I concede all of that may well be true. And nevertheless I still sincerely appreciate the music of Yes. The search of a rationale that dispels this apparent contradiction leads to several interesting questions about art and music. For instance: How can we be sure of the sincerity of an artist? Does it even matter? What should be understood for the "soul" of a piece of music?

I will begin the argument by generalizing a concept which is normally employed in the context of film. It is called suspension of disbelief, and refers to the process through which the spectator, consciously or not, chooses to ignore logically flawed, bizarre or otherwise unrealistic premises of the universe in which the story unfolds. For a simple example, consider House M.D., the TV series. It is reasonable to assume that most people who know the series and spent more than a couple seconds reflecting on its universe agree that it is a little weird for any hospital team to get those insanely complicated medical cases once every two weeks or so; or that any reputable hospital would have fired Gregory House long before the upcoming seventh season. Even so, there are lots of fans of the series are perfectly aware of these artifacts - they just accept the compromise and do not allow the unrealistic premises to get in the way of their appreciation and enjoyment.

Suspension of disbelief is not generally mentioned in music discussions because, in principle, listening to music does not demand us to accept any premises - unlike a film or TV series, in which there is a well-defined plot and universe. In practice, however, we do care about the intentions of the artist, spend hours trying to decode colourful lyric sheets and use (or at least are constantly exposed to) terms such as "fake" and "sellout" when discussing music. That leads us to invariably include many kinds of premises in our appreciation, and if those premises are untenable we will be drawn to tossing away the relevant songs, albums and artists. For an example of how that can happen, consider the taboo about Richard Wagner's music in Israel (chronicled, for instance, by the efforts by Daniel Barenboim to conduct Tristan und Isolde there). Wagner was a staunch anti-Semite, and his music was liberally deployed as soundtrack by the nazists. That makes his music a delicate subject among a number of Jews and Israelis, and some of them are understandably unwilling to ignore the symbolic associations with Nazism. The effort necessary to sidestep such extra-musical issues when listening to Wagner is closely related to the suspension of disbelief in action when watching a film. Even if it is not quite the same thing, for the moment I will stick to the "suspension of disbelief" terminology when talking about music due to the lack of a better alternative.

Now, back to Yes: I do agree there is very little philosophical and metaphysical depth in their lyrics, and I don't see Jon Anderson as a beacon of light. In fact, if he declared today that there was no sincerity in anything they did and that they were just chasing big bucks all of the time (both in the early 70's when prog rock was hip and in the 80's with their shift towards pop) my feelings about Yes music - and, to a very large extent, my respect for them as musicians - would not change. I enjoy listening to Yes because, even if they did not intentionally put deep layers of meaning behind their music, the style of their compositions and the imagery conjured by the lyrics - backed, it must be said, by their exceptional skills as musicians - have a strong uplifting effect, and often are just downright gorgeous. Such appreciations were built by me as a reaction to the music alone, and are detached from the artists' intentions. In effect, when I listen to a song by Yes I do not look for the messages they tucked in it, but rather absorb the music and re-signify it according to my thoughts and feelings. Granted, it is almost an instinctive impulse to look for a more personal connection to the artists, and it is desirable to be able to believe they really did mean whatever we find in the music. But in the case of Yes (and a number of other acts) I am willing to suspend my doubts about extra-musical commitments.

This kind of detachment is not always attained as simply as I made it look like in the previous paragraph - the Wagner in Israel situation amply illustrates that. In music - often more than in film - suspension of disbelief can require significant effort, particularly when it comes to putting moral impulses in standby. When one becomes aware of the possibility of achieving it, however, an interesting change of perspective can happen. As an alternative to the question "Do these guys really meant it?", it becomes possible to ask "Is their music worth the effort I will have to do to suspend my judgement?". Both questions are valid; however, there is a clear advantage to the second one. While it can be impossible to find out the correct answer to the first question, the second one is essentially answered using a force entirely in control of the listener - taste. If one does not see enough cultural or entertainment value in a piece of art there is no point in pushing oneself to absorb it - be it House M.D., Wagner or Yes.

At this stage, many of you readers must have been set in yellow alert about the point I am trying to make. I am sailing on the Sea of Subjectivism, dangerously close to crashing this ship on the rocks of Relativism. For, if personal taste is the key metric to music appreciation, how should we expect to hold any reasonable arguments and discussions on the quality and musical value of a song? Again, a change of perspective and plane of discussion can be helpful. Instead of kickstarting the reasoning with "Do I like this song?", a more tenable possibility could be "Is it reasonable to seriously like this song?". An objective answer to the second question can be found in a number of ways. The one which I am more strongly drawn to relies in finding out which elements of a song lend themselves to assimilation and re-signification by the listeners. For instance, if I had to formally answer why do I find run-of-the-mill teenage pop or generic hair metal drivel deplorable my explanation would include how music in such genres lack any elements from which I could build a personal interpretation of the songs, even if I wanted to. Obvious themes, even more obvious lyrics, in-your-face deliveries and song building based on nothing but a few heavy-handed (even when potentially pleasurable) musical ideas which are repeated to exhaustion through the course of a song or album. The elements unavailable from this sort of music - which I would call substance if that wasn't such a loaded term - can be found in abundance with Yes. It should be clear that I am not saying that since Yes has this kind of "depth" everyone must like them - that would be plain dumb. The point is that the combination of skill and creativity of the band members with a consistent approach to song building allows people with matching sensibilities (like myself) to appreciate in depth their music for more than ten minutes at a time and attach to it a new layer of personal meaning - in my case, one that can be summarized with the adjectives "starry-eyed", "naïve" and "ethereal".

To conclude an already very long piece, this "defence" of Yes eventually led to a much more general hypothesis, which can be summarized by affirming it is possible, though not mandatory, to detach the appreciation of music from the intentions of the musicians. Doing so requires the listener to, in his mental constructs about a piece of music, replace the purported intentions of the artists with his own subjectively attributed layers of meaning. For that process to be tenable, a key demand is that the music possesses a minimum amount of depth (which can manifest itself in a myriad of forms) so that the listener can find elements that can be subject of re-signification. As of now, these propositions are very far from being possibly taken as universal laws, but at least they go a long way in providing a rationale to my experiences when exploring musical territories, both the well-known and the uncharted ones. Moreover, and most importantly, they allow for a world in which there are rational people who can either like or dislike Yes, both groups being able to live in harmony and have sane discussions about music together. Just like me and my friend from the introduction - who I effusively thank for triggering the composition of this essay.


  • WatsonWW

    thank you very much for this stunningly interesting reading! the culture of "arguing about tastes" is one of the most complicated ones and this is a wonderful example of practising it

    16. Sep. 2010, 14:53
  • iggy930

    Excellent essay. Thank you.

    19. Sep. 2010, 8:53
  • Devonprog

    Good points well made; music is a very personal experience, and it's complexities are magnified in the prog genre that we all appreciate in different ways, sometimes with uncanny compatibiltiy, othertimes your subjectivity can be clouded by misconceptions, but hey, we all listen, depart. and return, and the thought process is stimulated further.......

    30. Okt. 2010, 22:06
Alle 3 Kommentare anzeigen
Sage etwas. Melde dich bei Last.fm an oder registriere ein neues Benutzerkonto (es kostet nichts).