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Alex Sharp Cole's picture
Art and Pop Culture
Alex Sharp Cole

Analysis of the Song "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground

09.02.2016 | Alex Sharp Cole

Performance Documentation

My intuitive understanding of the song "Heroin," by The Velvet Underground, is that of a performative ritual.  Consider the primal simplicity of the processional drum in the opening of the song.   Music -- probably all of the arts -- have sometimes been used in this way.  The intent is to cast a spell – to see what can happen.

In other more discernable terms, one might create works of art and music in order to see what influence these subjective intentions, brought into focus, might have upon our outward, phyrsical or objective reality.  Jung proposed that a link could conceivably exist.  It was what Freud refused to accept and it was the thing, according to Jung, that ultimately severed his and mentor's intellectual relationship.   There may be an all-encompassing reality that exists -- between the objective and the subjective mind.  Physicists reitterate that we are, naturally, all made up of the same particles and energy that makes up the  many components of  our innermost thoughts -- man is not somehow "separate" from the universe.

We are a part of it.

The artist of antiquity was, above all, shaman.  Together -- art, music, performance, spirituality, science -- were still unified at this primordial stage of the human drama.

I believe it is important to consider that the separation we have assigned to these areas of human life is probably forced --at best, superficial.  Art, music, light, sound -- these are manifestations of human energy.
If the artist wishes to use the energy of his psyche in order to experiment with time, causality or what things in life are possible, it may be revealing -- insofar as the human condition might be revealed by an exploration of the inner space of the mind.



Aristotle divided all life into opposing forces or elements -- "Earth and Air; Water and Fire.
In the midst of a tribal drum, simple, but slowly gathering an increased speed and intensity, the forces of our symbolic logic itself -- Meaning and Anti-Meaning will conspire to co-create.

Once meaning and anti-meaning collide overhead, the subject matter is in stark contrast to its delivery system -- like a “spike” to the vein or a similarly torrid love affair -- results are beautiful yet ugly, reverent yet irreverent.  The human world attempts to divide things into groups.  The reality is incomprehensible because in reality the universe is not so neatly paired-off and sectioned.

The guitar playing style of Velvet Underground guitarist, Sterling Morrison, enables him to shift tempo at will.  No time signature is necessary since he strums up and down, simply, similar to the way in which a percussive bell -- or a sitar -- is played.  His guitar serves the same trance-inducing function as the drone of a bagpipe or of a pipe organ might serves in a religious rite.

There is intentionality behind his strumming, we feel;  an assertion of intuition in the speed changes, and in the erratic speed.  These sudden changes give the feeling of something living, alive -- and perhaps even on the brink of losing control.

Trying to frame the music -- within bar lines or “beats per measure” -- would have imposed artificial restrictions upon the spontaneous flow of this piece, and severely limited the ability of the performers' emotions to take the lead.

I would call this music post-modern.  It has the ability to reflect upon itself.  It is not imprisoned in the moment.

The music juxtaposes two ideas that we ordinarily push into opposite corners-- a ritual-like reverence and the irreverence of pop music -- Meaning and Anti-Meaning -- cliche and unpredictability -- through such an untested alignment of cultural ideas, violently opposed against one another, they arrive at something else entirely.

Combining opposite forces so distinctly has the effect in the music of jolting the listener into the realization that his or her old understanding of the music world has been subverted; old associations to musical patterns and structures that would have been predictable before are now transcended as the overall meaning becomes something deeper.

By a technique of diametric opposition, we the audience are presented with a thesis that opens a door to dark places (including possible Nihilism) which forces our brain to re-asses its understanding.  This, I believe, is a clear example of how music can, in fact, be used, not only to entice, lure or persuade a change in understanding -- but to directly, aggressively, shake loose old pre-conceptions of the listener.

Like a dream, re-constructed for a DaDaist theatre, the music stands asymetrically in defiance -- defying all that matters -- to the West, to the Church, but also, to Science.

If a statement can be both true and false, what -- in fact -- is ordering the universe?  Given the reality of the co-existance of two opposing truths, there are just two possibilities:  nothing is real – or everything is real.  Lou Reed offers a strange, hopeful Nihilism to the airwaves -- banned in New York in 1967.

The big mystery of the universe according to DaDa and the Lou Reed-cynic is that matter is emptiness and emptiness is everywhere, and yet the same energy of pop music is, in some form, in all things.  Does this make its existence holy?  Or is it, as many were told in school, only an imitation – a copy of a copy -- a replica of the real -- like Campbells Soup or any other neon idol from the primitive lineage of homo habilus – the sullen resurgence of Man’s worship of the broken, hallowed idol -- and the saul emptiness of all things. . .


It is an unmistakable testament to the astounding level of detailed aesthetic meaning that can be contained within the pattern of a familiar structure -- sometimes, just below the surface.

Art tends to hide itself, all-too-easily, behind the flash, sheen and sparkle of pop music.