Pink Floyd’s 1973 rock album, Dark Side of the Moon, is more than a collection of songs ranging from the smooth and slightly psychedelic to the heavy and brooding.
It’s an emotional experience, carefully crafted so as to express the emotions of stagnation, madness, desperation, and fear. By this measure, and by the psychically transformative effect it has on its listeners, it passes Leo Tolstoy’s test of real art as presented in his essay, “What is Art?,” but only if we can succeed in proving that the emotions the listener experiences are identical to those felt by the artists.
Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art, and Dark Side of the Moon
Leo Tolstoy’s litmus test for a work of art, as explained in “What is Art,” is a successful transmission of an artist’s emotions, via her work of art, to the observer of the work. The distinguishing quality of a work of art, then, is “infectiousness,” the degree of which depends on three conditions: individuality, clarity, and sincerity.
It is by measure of these three conditions that we must determine to what degree Dark Side of the Moon passes as a work of art. If these qualities are in place, a listener should, when listening to “Breathe,” feel, like lyricist, bassist, and vocalist Roger Waters, “home, home again,” only to slip into his fear of madness in “Brain Damage.”
After reviewing whether the lyrics, musical form, and production of the album come together to satisfy these three criteria, I will seek to determine whether these three criteria are enough. If the conditions are all in place, does Pink Floyd achieve “a union among men joining them together in the same feelings”?
Individuality of Emotion
Tolstoy’s first artistic criterion, “individuality of emotion,” deals with the singleness of the emotion the artist seeks to communicate. According to Tolstoy, this results in “more pleasure,” which then draws the listener in to “more readily and strongly” share in the artist’s emotion.
Before placing the emotions expressed by the band on the spectrum of individuality, we must first identify the emotions they attempt to transmit throughout Dark Side. This requires a bit of an epistemological leap on our part. We must assume that by critically reading the album, the feelings we see expressed in the lyrics are those selfsame feelings experienced by Waters, Gilmour, et al.
Tolstoy would defend this objectivist stance, however, by arguing that the feelings we derive from the album can only be the feelings of its creators, if the album succeeds as a work of art, and that the clearness of the transmission will ensure that. (The issue, of course, is that this is a circular argument on Tolstoy’s part.)
The main emotions expressed by the album (if my reading is correct) are:
- Stagnation : “You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way” (Waters, “Time”)
- Frustration in the face of an endless consumerist cycle: “You run and you run to catch up to the sun, but it’s sinking” (Waters, “Time”)
- Fear of death (“Great Gig in the Sky”)
- Fear of madness (“Brain Damage”).
The general theme throughout Dark Side of the Moon is the cycle of alienation and connection.
The “sun” symbolizes everything from which the modern human alienates herself: meaning, the natural world, a sense of satisfaction from her work, and, most of all, her fellow humans. Money is the album’s main antagonist, as well as the title of the first track of the second side of the album (appearing at 18:50 in the 42:59 minute album, and lasting 6:30, “Money” is quite literally the center of the entire album). The consumerist forces and paradoxical progress that drive people to “dig that hole, forget the sun” (“Breathe”) are also what drive people away from one another:
And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?
Out of the way, it’s a busy day
I’ve got things on my mind
For want of the price of tea and a slice
The old man died
– “Us and Them”
Go gentle into that good night, or go mad
Throughout the album, time, mortality, and insanity are the limiting forces, as well as the prime motivators away from the “quiet desperation” (Waters, “Time”) and toward not “be[ing] afraid to care” (Waters, “Breathe”). The album warns us that if we do not break the cycle of working and earning money only to grow bigger appetites, work more, and earn more, we will:
- “Race toward an early grave” (“Breathe”)
- “Never seem to find the time” for our plans (“Time”)
- Go insane, permanently alienating ourselves and “shout[ing]” while “no one seems to hear” (“Brain Damage”)
- Turn against one another (“Us and Them”).
Now that we have a rough sketch of the emotional landscape of Dark Side of the Moon, we can determine how individual these emotions are.
While “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” (“Breathe”), indicating a universality of the desperation of which David Gilmour sings, Pink Floyd employs many techniques to show how a global problem manifests itself on a specific, individual level.
The music industry is another major antagonist of the album, as indicated in the spoken word quotes in “Speak to Me”: “”I’ve been mad for fucking years, absolutely years, been over the edge for yonks, been working me buns off for bands…,” as well as the rock star excesses described in “Money”: “New car, caviar, four star daydream/ Think I’ll buy me a football team.”
Throughout the album, though one may feel as though one is encountering a problem that affects society at large, one is also cognizant of an individual narrator (in this case, any of the artistic contributors to the album) with her own specific version of the story.
Therefore, Dark Side is individual.
Dark Side also demonstrates clarity, the second of Tolstoy’s criteria, both lyrically and musically.Waters’ lyrical language is simple, depicting larger philosophical concepts (“quiet desperation,” the limiting factor of mortality, alienation and connection) with concrete imagery: a person digging a hole (“Breathe”), lists of products a wealthy rock star might purchase (“Money”), or the image of an old man dying of starvation (“Us and Them”).
The audio also helps to illustrate the thematic matter of the song.
The vocal style of Clare Tory in “Great Gig in the Sky,” a song which transmits the feeling of the fear of death, resembles stylized screaming. The album begins and ends with the sound of a heartbeat, signifying the limiting factor of life and mortality. “Money” begins with the rhythmic sound of cash registers. These factors combine to make it difficult to walk away from Dark Side of the Moon with the feeling that consumerism is a benevolent force in the world.
Tolstoy’s third criterion, sincerity, is also “the most important,” and makes art effective by removing the possibility of manipulation.
“As soon as the spectator… feels that the artist is infected by his own production and writes, sings, or plays for himself, and not merely to act on others, this mental condition of the artist infects the recipient” (Tolstoy). This is the most difficult criterion, because it requires us to enter the mind of the artist herself. However, it is hard to listen to Dark Side of the Moon and not take from it a sense of honesty and candor.
Pink Floyd, improvisation, and sincerity
The spoken-word elements of the album are recorded interviews with various staff and other occupants of the Abbey Road studio, where the album was recorded. “On the Run” was a recorded improvisation, and Clare Torry’s vocals on “Great Gig in the Sky” were also improvised.
When an artist improvises, she makes artistic choices in real time, with a limited amount of preparation — this process lends itself to an increased sincerity, as the artist is “caught up in the moment.”
Another element of sincerity can be found in the lyrics themselves.
I have already described the specific personal context of the album’s broader themes (artist versus music industry), but Waters also betrays some personal information in “Brain Damage”: “And when the band you’re in starts playing different tunes/ I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.”
This is most likely a reference to Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s former lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist.
As Barrett slipped into an LSD-exacerbated schizophrenia, the band gradually began to phase out his influence, beginning with his live performances and culminating with his compositions. Barrett literally found himself in a situation in which the band he was in was “playing different tunes,” and Waters was continually plagued by the memory of his former friend and band mate, fearing the same fate for himself (Kealey 232). This very personal fear lends itself to the sincerity of the album as a whole.
Dark Side satisfies Tolstoy’s three criteria, but does it necessarily follow that it achieves Tolstoy’s goal of the destruction “in the consciousness of the recipient the separation between himself and the artist”?
Taking into consideration that the entire album is about the pain of alienation and the need for reconnection, it would be thematically appropriate for this union to take place. I think that the continued popularity and classic status of the album speaks to its ability to infect the listener.
The combination of non-musical elements like spoken word interviews, the sound of heartbeats, bells, and cash registers, as well as musical elements like rapidfire Moog synthesizer, Torry’s screaming vocals, and Gilmour’s dreamy, sensitive guitar, in addition to Waters’ candid, picturesque lyrics, all contribute to the inescapable moodscape of Dark Side of the Moon.
In my next post, I’ll take a crack at Dark Side of the Moon from another philosopher of art: R.G. Collingwood.
Kealey, Erin. “The Tragic Life of Syd Barrett.” Ed. George A. Reisch. Pink Floyd and Philosophy (Popular Culture and Philosophy). Chicago: Open Court, 2007. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. “What is Art?” Blackboard. Tiger Roholt. Web. 19 Nov. 2009.