It is common, in discussions about artworks, to hear the question, “What does this mean,” being asked by the artworks’ audiences. This is also a common discussion among philosophers trying to probe the intellectual depth of the artwork’s content. It is easy to imagine being in front of a painting, say a Monet, and ask that question, expecting the answer to be a story that the picture shows a part of. Likewise, one can imagine reading a poem and expecting the meaning to be some statement or insight relating to human nature. Lyrical songs, songs that include set words or lyrics, are often grouped with poems for the simple reason that the words are seen as the primary mode of transferring meaning. However, there is much more to a song than just its lyrics, just as there is more to a painting than just the shapes that can be found in it, especially when considering the meanings being conveyed. The specific song I intend to base this paper around is “Sugar Magnolia” by the Grateful Dead (lyrics by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir). This song was originally released on their 1970 album American Beauty, and in an attempt to simplify the beginning of this paper, I will begin by only referring to this version of the song. This will allow me to then, later on in the paper, discuss the many variations in live performances of the song, and the implications that come along with them. My goal in this paper, through discussing the meanings that can be found in this song, is to come to a conclusion about the importance of finding meaning in art, and the overall function or importance of art such as this in society.
Before going into any kind of discussion about how we should interpret this artwork, I should briefly describe the artwork itself. The most basic label to put on it is that it is a love song. The lyrics have to do with a character referred to as Sugar Magnolia, a girl we can assume is the object of the singer’s affection. The song begins with an instrumental intro that can be described as bouncy and lilting, kind of like a wild run through a summer field. The lyrics are littered with references to flowers and natural images, some describing Sugar Magnolia, some just there to describe the scenery and mindset of the singer. The combination of the two drummers and the two guitar players with the bass bouncing between them also makes the downbeat elusive, making the listener chase it, playing into the running feeling of the song.
One reason I decided to write about this song is the strange relationship between the Grateful Dead and finding any one particular meaning in their songs. Many songs either narrate a story, with the underlying meaning designed to be the story’s moral. Others have at least one message, whether it is related to social change and upheaval, as in the Beatles’ “Revolution,” or as most pop songs today choose to do, to let young adolescents know that they’re depressed and angsty too. However Sugar Magnolia has no linear progression through time or any discernable plot, nor does it have an ulterior motive such as creating social change or making teenage girls cry. This, typical of other Dead songs, is what Hunter talks about as “an invocation of the Muse,” in that it is meant to be taken on a psycho-spiritual level to find any meaning from it to begin with. The next question, then, is what meanings are there to find, and how do we find them?
The question, as you may have noticed, is not how we should interpret any artwork, but rather just this particular one. This is because different artworks should be interpreted in different ways depending on the situation. If Sugar Magnolia was a hit single, a major influence on culture, or a song written by tone-deaf monkeys who somehow managed to write an intelligible song, then it would have to be interpreted in those contexts. Likewise, if I was interpreting a Monet painting, a Warhol painting, or a statue of a guy with his head coming out of his ass, I would have to interpret them in their own contexts, from classical art to modern art. This also brings up the question of authorial intention, in regards to what Hirsch describes as the ideal audience, which I believe sets the context for interpretation of an artwork. If the ideal audience for Hunter and Weir was the post-modernist crowd, then we would have to interpret the song in terms of cynical and subtle statements and comments on the realities of our culture. This is most certainly not the ideal audience for Hunter and Weir, seeing as our ironic culture today seems to have no bearing on ideas of the Muse, so I would say the ideal audience, and therefore the correct perspective from which to interpret this song, is a Romantic perspective.
The reason I choose to utilize Hirsch’s theory of authorial intent is that, while it is true an artwork can be enjoyed in analyzed without an author, the author is nevertheless a necessary figure for the art to be created. I also believe that the intention of an author is an intrinsically important feature in a piece of art. I do not mean that the meaning of a piece of art is only what the author had in mind during the artwork’s creation. This is much too rigid a restriction, and it does not take in to account any unconscious forces or influences the author was subjected too, nor any kind of publicly established meaning. Instead of this, the ideal audience concept does not give all the power to the author and what “he means” by presenting the artwork, but only to who he intended the audience to be. The audience, being comprised (usually) of a multitude of different people with different experiences, finds potentially infinite meanings, but they are still limited in scope by the audience the author had in mind. Now some authors may have no specific audience in mind, but this is not the case with Sugar Magnolia: the Dead had the fans of their music in mind when writing their songs, and this is no exception (not that they wrote them for the fans, but that they were a necessary part of the musical experience as a whole that necessarily affected the writing process).
This broader concept of authorial intent points towards some sort of sharing of the meaning of an artwork between the author and the audience, which makes this a good place to talk about the idea of the Muse and meaning, something we haven’t talked about in class. When Robert Hunter talks about the Muse, and I believe this is the correct way to view it, he means an archetypal, psycho-spiritual force or spirit of creation that is present in us all, and while this seems to be treading into mystical territory, there is some science behind it. When the psychologist Carl Jung talked about the collective unconscious, he suggested that we do share the same archetypes in the banks of our minds, whether we realize it or not. This affects the discussion of meaning by making what seems to be a multitude of subjective experiences and meanings found in an artwork into something a little more objective. This is especially true in the world of Grateful Dead music and fans, where there is a massive gestalt that results in many synchronicities, including shared experiences of meaning and implication. By using a style of writing that invokes this sense of the Muse (a Muse-ical style if you will), Hunter and Weir take advantage of Hirsch’s theory, using their audience’s interpretations of their previous songs to influence and manifest meanings in Sugar Magnolia.
A strange feature of this Muse twist to authorial intention is that it only seems to work if the author intends to use it. Although the Muse is supposedly an unconscious and universal archetype, it does not seem relevant to most incidents where people point to authorial intent. If the author says that he means x and that as a result the artwork means x, then the muse is not present. This is another instance of frameworks of art being too rigid, for this egotistical posit of meaning does not allow for the unconscious effects of the Muse to which Hunter appeals to “work their magic.” The author needs to say to himself or his audience, “I don’t know how this will turn out or what it will mean, but I’m going to do it anyway with the Muse’s help,” for the Muse to work.
I will try to relate this back to our class material by appealing to Gadamer’s discussion of the importance of play as a concept in art. This isn't play as in a theater performance, but as a somewhat technical term for an identification, or loss of self, in something. Gadamer describes the absorbing quality of creating art as being the same absorbing quality of playing a game, sport, or activity. The artist becomes completely involved in the creation of the artwork, and this absorption facilitates the creation even more. Gadamer also talks about how this concept relates to the audience, but I don’t intend to elaborate on that here. For now, I want to relate this absorbing quality of play to the psychological qualities of the Muse. In becoming absorbed in the play of creating art, the author quiets his other mental experiences and trains of thought, allowing the artwork to flow organically from him. This quieting of mental states is a familiar concept in meditation and transpersonal psychology, which allows archetypal forces and imagery to come to the mind’s surface. Since the artist is in this pseudo-meditative state, he is not quite aware of what might surface, accounting for unconscious meanings in artworks, and eventually it seems as if the artwork is creating itself through the author: this is the doings of the Muse, whether as a spiritual entity or a psychological force. The Dead themselves actually have a lyric in another song that describes this, “…as the music plays the band,” which occurred to me when we were discussing Gadamer in class.
The last aspect about this song I wish to discuss as far as authorial intention goes is that things do get a bit more complicated than I have painted them when we consider the fact that it was not just Hunter who wrote the song, but Weir as well. I still stand by everything I said about the Muse and meaning, but the shared sense of the meaning in this case is more divided than a general description of Muse-related thought can cover. Not only is the meaning shared somewhere between the audience and Hunter, or the audience and Weir, but also between Hunter and Weir as co-authors in their experiences of the Muse. The meaning cannot be divided by any mathematical divisions, because credit and contribution are not concrete factors in an artwork that can be quantified. The truth is, the song was actually a source of dispute between Weir and Hunter because of their differing tastes despite being somewhat similar people with similar qualities, in the same band.
Hunter took from his Muse more natural, airy, and sentimental imagery and emotions to put into the song, evoking transient, immaterial reasons for his love. He contributed lyrics about breezes, high times, and seasons of the year; Weir was different. His workings with the Muse resulted in more concrete, worldly parts of his life and cultural background. Weir was the closest the Dead would come to the post-modernist critique of our culture, but Sugar Magnolia is not an example of this; only one of Weir’s songs, "Throwing Stones" was arguably a cultural critique for the audience to think about. Weir contributed to "Sugar Magnolia" lines referencing Ken Kesey books (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Americana imagery of Willy’s Jeeps and the joy of driving, as well as numerous sexual innuendos that the Dead crowd knew to be just those due to Weir’s reputation as Bobby, the ladies man.
These two men argued over what type of lyrics fit where in the song, so it seems strange to say that they both wrote it equally, but at the same time it seems strange to give either one more credit than the other. However, maybe the urge to divvy up credit like food rations is folly. It seems plausible that most people would be satisfied with saying that both Weir and Hunter wrote the song, with largely the same Muse-related intentions, and therefore the song is attributed to Weir/Hunter, and not to Bob Weir and Robert Hunter as individuals. This may sound similar to the idea of hypothetical intention, but I am not positing the existence of some strange Weir/Hunter entity, merely a way to attribute authorship of one artwork to multiple people with strange terminology.
So far I have talked about how to interpret this song only in terms of the lyrics Hunter and Weir collaborated on. However, Sugar Magnolia is not an a capella piece of music, and the instrumental aspects to it are of great importance when talking about the artwork as a whole. I mentioned earlier that the music contributed to the feeling the music conveyed (carefree, lilting, bouncy), and now I want to discuss how this affects meaning in a song. The musical style of any band is developed by the tastes of the band members, the reception of their songs by mass and/or specific audiences, resulting in some sort of change by the band, repeating until the band falls apart or they carve a comfortable niche for themselves into the musical world. The Dead’s style was also undeniably influenced by their fans’ and their own interest in psychedelics, which instilled the suggestibility of a psychedelic experience into their work. As a result, the carefree feeling to the song is not the same as some pop band from the fifties, but comes from the cascading interplay of the instruments as they propel the song along. There are many places where one player will start a kind of rhythm or jam, and it is picked up and carried along by other members throughout the song, even if the original player had moved on to something else. However, as far as meaning goes, this is as deep as the instrumental aspects get.
The purpose of the music around the lyrics is not to convey another set of meanings, but rather to help set the context of the song for the audience. The Dead’s audience was not a crowd of people who only wanted to be happy and skip merrily along, but a group of humans with dynamic feelings and emotions; they appreciated a sad, somber song as much as a carefree dancing number. The chord changes, rhythms, and melodies of a song set the stage for the emotions that can be found in the meanings, and the suggestibility of this particular band does more to convey the appropriate mindset and conditions for the lyrics. This is generally true of all music, but I find it especially true with the Dead.
So we’ve covered the purpose of music and lyrics in interpreting the meanings of a song as a piece of art, but that leads us to the much broader question that has prevalent in discussions of art for millennia: what is the purpose of art? As with the question of how one should interpret a piece of art, the question of what purpose it serves depends on what type of art it is. Also, the question depends on what qualifies as a purpose to who’s asking the question. Some people think a purpose must be a material, empirical function in society, others just think of it as what something does, no matter how immaterial it is; since I am the one writing this paper, I’m going to side with the second use of the word. Some art, such as portraits, statues, and monuments serve a political or historical purpose to remind people of some person, event, or sentiment that is important to a culture, but with the skill of some artist. Art created with the aspiration of being post-modern, whether an abstract painting or semen-covered bed, serves the purpose of calling our culture into question through the culturally accepted medium of art. Music can fit into this last category, and can also serve the purpose of being a cultural rallying point, whether talking directly (and not ironically in the post-modern way) about social issues or expressing a shared sentiment from universal acceptance to universal damnation of a group of people or series of events. However all of these forms of art, music especially, also serve a purpose that has fallen out of favor in philosophical discussions about art: the aesthetic experience.
Although art can serve a "higher", intellectual purpose for art critics and hipsters with scarves who are in love with obscure artists, this is not always the audience intended by the author. Authorial intention also determines the purpose of an artwork, although in a more powerful way than it influences meaning. There is less vagueness and less worry about unconscious influences when an author states what he intends to accomplish with a piece of art because it is a very conscious and simple intention, and if anything a very objective one, for it is very possible for the author to fail to create an artwork that fulfils its intended purpose (but a failure in conveying meaning can still produce some meaning). It seems to me that many musicians only intend their artwork to serve an aesthetic purpose, thus the prevalence of purely instrumental styles of music. What sort of cultural statement or direct message can anything Mozart or Beethoven wrote? Styles are certainly influenced by fashions of certain cultures at certain times, which can be easily noticed when one listens to pieces from different eras, but these influences merely echo the mood of the time, they do not say any one thing about it. This aesthetic intention may be seen as back-tracking in Hegel’s model of humanity moving away from religion and spirit towards science and reason, but I am not a subscriber of that view of how our culture is progressing. The purpose of much music, the Grateful Dead’s especially, is too evoke some kind of spiritual, aesthetic experience, and to let the audience take from it what they will.
The aesthetic experience the Dead regularly evoked in their audience at concerts is also similar to Gadamer’s concept of play, in that it can be completely absorbing. When the Dead played live, they were always influenced by the gestalt that existed between them and the crowd, so every performance was different, depending on any factor from weather, to intoxication, to how much sleep they got the previous night. This resulted, in this particular case of "Sugar Magnolia" as well as other songs, in the gradual transformation of the song into a different style, influenced greatly by audience interaction. The Dead’s style of playing was also highly improvisational, appealing to the idea of performance as play, in that they were not trying to exactly replicate the song as it was written, but to get absorbed into each particular performance in order to create in it a different way. This improvisation also absorbed the audience’s attention, because all of the fans of the Dead are interested and eager to hear what guitar licks, bass lines, and drum crashes will come out of each performance: there is never a dull moment when they have no idea what is about to happen. I have roughly 170 (some discrepancies on my computer certainly exist) different live recordings of Sugar Magnolia, and they are all completely different (even some lyrics get changed around or forgotten at various performances). These songs range anywhere from 4 minutes to over ten minutes of playing, and some of them are incomplete because the Dead broke off into a different song in the middle, and never finished up the rest of the lyrics in Sugar Magnolia.
I still need to answer the question of what the significance of this song is as a piece of art, apart from all other songs and artworks. Personally I find it significant because of how much of a fan of the Dead I am. This song started out as a light-hearted rock song with a hint of country-western influence, and morphed, through its recreation in live performances, into what Weir described as “balls-out rock and roll;” this song is a perfect example of the vastness of the Dead’s repertoire and how dynamic their style was. It’s also a song that I’ve heard performed by remaining members of the Dead playing in the band Furthur, which was quite an experience. However, I can think of no historical or massively influential significance in the rest of the world. It sure is a good song, and many people enjoy it, but it hasn’t changed world politics or international history. However, that was not the purpose it was written for; what is significant about this song is that it is completely honest to itself and not pretentiously trying to preach to popular culture, which is something many musicians that people know of nowadays cannot say of their songs.
Of course, my interpretations of this artwork, as well as my reflections on how I interpret it and how others should, is completely a result of my places in the Dead culture and larger culture as a whole. If I wasn’t as versed in the history of the band and song, I would not have the same insights on it, nor would I want to interpret it in the way I do, without appealing to any singular school of thought in the study of aesthetics. In a similar way, if I was still as knowledgeable about the Dead, but not aware of my being a part of their culture, or like many in that culture, not aware of my place in society as a whole, I would not have the option to look at the song from as many different perspectives as I have.
The last point I have to make is to directly answer your question of the role of art in making us examine our roles in society, history, and life as a whole. While it is not a necessary feature for something to be considered an artwork, this role that art can play does a lot to determine what makes for worthwhile art. While I have described post-modernists as cynics in this paper, it is not completely inappropriate that they should be cynical about life. Much of the world today is not a joyous, care-free place, and there should be art to make people aware of that, it just shouldn’t be all that art makes people aware of. It also plays a large role in showing us where we fit into life and the world in psychological and spiritual ways, showing us that although we are individual people, we have many shared sentiments and urges. This is why some art does need to be a care-free sprint through flowers and streams, so we don’t forget that’s another way to live, regardless of how depressing our culture may seem to be.