Pick your poison: Either you’re lost in the crumbling maze of your own mind, incapable of articulating anything coherent amid the disintegrated mess of half-formed thoughts; or you can be certain of one thing—that you are a victim, a slave of your own emotions and irresistible urges. That is the entire spectrum of human possibility and psychology, at least as depicted by many of today’s popular musical artists, whose commercial and critical success evinces a broad cultural trend: the triumph of defeat—that is, the near-universal acceptance that we are but confused and helpless creatures.

Take the new album Daniel by the indie rock band Real Estate. On the website Metacritic.com, which aggregates review scores, Daniel has floated between ratings of “generally favorable” and “universal acclaim.” Despite its sophomoric lyrics and basic chord patterns that somehow are neither happy nor sad but statically blasé, the album reveals a key cause of this cultural trend—and illustrates its results. On “Water Underground,” vocalist Martin Courtney sings, “I have a voice inside my head; Can’t figure out what it’s trying to say.” He told Apple Music, “I wrote the whole song without really knowing what I was writing about, but I thought about it later and it came to me: ‘Oh, it’s like your subconscious.’”

The subconscious is, as Courtney goes on to intimate, essential to the creative process. The mind is an integrating mechanism, and the subconscious is like a storehouse for our prior thoughts and integrations, whether these are fully formed and rationally validated, or inchoate and erroneous.

So, should we take whatever material the subconscious throws us and run with it? That’s like running with scissors, but it’s precisely how many people live their lives, treating not only their half-baked ideas but also their shortsighted whims or out-of-context emotions as an inerrant fount of wisdom. Many fail to ask themselves, “Does this idea actually make sense?” or “What ideas and evaluations are causing me to feel this way, and are they valid?” Such people are run largely by a subconscious the contents of which they don’t understand, composing their lives as others do songs, without really knowing what they’re doing or why. They are pulled like puppets, first in this direction, then in that, unable to make sense of themselves—never mind the world—and are thereby doomed to frustration and pain.

This sort of self-imposed nightmare is a common denominator in much modern music, and it’s well concretized in the incongruous lines of Real Estate’s second single from Daniel, “Haunted World”: “The sun is shining through the trees; This haunted world is killing me.” No wonder. That’s the price of misunderstanding and misusing the mind.

The prevalence of this error has made its psychological consequences a hallmark of modern life, which helps explain an unfortunately popular aspect of today’s music culture: the “coolness” of ambiguity and even outright absurdity. Take MGMT’s new album, Loss of Life, which debuted at twenty-two on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart. It begins with the track “Loss of Life, Pt. 2” (and ends nine tracks later with part one, a sort of musical Pulp Fiction, if you will). The “song” is two minutes of spoken nonsense—a 13th-century (or earlier) Welsh poem read over the top of pretty synthesizer sounds.

I know why there is an echo in a hollow
Why silver gleams, why breath is black, why liver is bloody
Why a cow has horns, why a woman is affectionate
Why milk is white, why holly is green
Why a kid is bearded, why the cow parsnip is hollow . . .

These words serve as a sort of trailhead sign, telling listeners: “Leave your mind here; you don’t need it where you’re going.” That’s true. “Bubblegum Dog,” for instance, is like the transcript of a brain soaking in a vat of acid:

Juvenile quetzal birds
Living in the coal mine
Manicured lawns
Tibetan straw men
Igneous basketballs
Drifting through the heavens
I felt hate towards the earthly world
But hate is a very strong word
And it’s finally catching up with me

The years of plodding on
In fear of the bubblegum dog
It’s finally catching up with me

The album’s most decipherable tracks are “People in the Streets” and “Nothing to Declare.” The first is an ode to doubt, like Descartes’s skepticism through the lens of bad trip.

And just as the sun comes out again
Something is blocking the light
But it’s all right
The inside’s still glowing
Telling the heart what it wants to hear
But what if it’s only lies
Twisted apart by fear?
Well, that’s when the brain waves goodbye

The result of the “brain waving goodbye” is that the band has, as the other song title concedes, “Nothing to Declare.” Its lyrics read:

Starlight ain’t never gonna let me down
Until I stumble like a drunkard back to town
Then I end up where you are
Keeping the sanctuary warm
Don’t ask me who I am
Don’t ask me where I was
Nothing to declare
Not in the valise of my mind

Though perhaps uncharacteristically explicit, the admission is representative not only of the album but of much modern music. There are moments of beauty on Loss of Life, such as the synth-horn buildup and epic ending section of the title track. This, though, is graced by the lines:

When the world is born, and life is ending
Then you learn to love your loss of life
When that moment comes, and life is over
Anyone can love
Anyone can love

Aside from such occasional, tragic views, nothing on the album ever congeals into a coherent theme. It is, as it was seemingly intended, one big blur that escapes the mind as fast as the last notes fade from the ear—nay, faster.

Many artists who do have something comprehensible to say tell us, in effect, that man is but a slimy kelp leaf rocked and rolled by the ceaseless toil of a vast emotional ocean. Their leitmotif is the portrayal of temptations that no one could possibly overcome, especially shortsighted and overpowering lust.

For instance, take Prelude to Ecstasy, the debut album from the all-girl rock band The Last Dinner Party, which has attracted “a rabid cult fanbase” and spurred a bidding war between record labels.1 The album is full of soaring vocal melodies, gorgeous harmonies, thoughtful songcraft, and infectiously catchy anthems fit for soundtracking a glorious battle. Sadly, though, what its lyrics depict is a battle against oneself—a battle between what one knows to be in one’s long-term best interest, on the one hand, and the urge to succumb to self-destructive temptations, on the other. Of course, this has always been a theme in rock music, hence the slogan “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” But Prelude to Ecstasy puts a fine, sharp point on it. In “Feminine Urge,” for instance, lead vocalist Abigail Morris sings:

Oh, pull your boots on, boys
And push me down
I’m only here for your entertainment
I am a dark red liver stretched out on the rocks
All the poison, I convert it and I turn it to love

The chorus of the band’s signature song, “Nothing Matters,” is particularly illuminating: “And you can hold me like he held her; And I will fuck you like nothing matters.” If, by these lines, she means to enshrine all-consuming ecstasy with a partner one deeply and rationally values, then amen. But what could be more discordant with such an experience of one’s highest personal value than the attitude that nothing matters? Does she mean that nothing matters more? Or that the urge is so strong that one simply must sleep with someone—and that what doesn’t matter are the good reasons one has not to do so? Consider the context. After a gorgeous orchestral intro, Prelude to Ecstasy opens with the lines:

Wine is on your blouse
You think it’s so romantic
But in reality
We’re both just addicts
I am not the girl I set out to be
Let me make my grief a commodity

And it ends with:

I’m just a mirror
Pretty glass, an empty heart
I’m just a mirror
I don’t exist without your gaze
I fade away
I fade away
I fade away

The message is obvious. As one reviewer writes, “the indulgence is the point. . . . ‘Nothing Matters’ leaps from a sardonic, courtly swoon to a chant of bitter self-debasement, admirably churning up bile in the process.”2 One can agree with the description without accepting the evaluation. The truth is that Prelude to Ecstasy is itself a triumph of defeat—a gorgeous but nonetheless destructive siren song, luring listeners to crash their lives against the rocks of untethered emotionalism, profligacy, and psychological self-victimization.

Tragedy can be beautiful, as artists from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Shostakovich have shown, particularly when it puts clear, memorable words, images, or sounds to our own painful emotions, helping us better understand and cope with what we’re going through. Such works provide respite, a source of spiritual sustenance, and even life guidance. Not so for those who paint us as forever victims, telling us to wave the white flag before the first shot is fired, to give up on our values and to “love your loss of life.” That is helpful to no one, and only when enough of us realize it and demand better will such defeatism be defeated.

The success of many of today's popular musical artists evinces a broad cultural trend: the triumph of defeat—that is, the near-universal acceptance that we are but confused and helpless creatures.
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1. Nick Reilly, “Meet the Last Dinner Party, Who Might Just Be Your Favourite New Band,” Rolling Stone, April 20, 2023, https://www.rollingstone.co.uk/music/features/meet-the-last-dinner-party-who-might-just-be-your-favourite-new-band-28599/.

2. Laura Snapes, “Prelude to Ecstasy: The Last Dinner Party,” Pitchfork, February 8, 2024, https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/the-last-dinner-party-prelude-to-ecstasy/.

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