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The Doors, Classic Rock, & Why You Should Care About Romanticism

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The Doors, Classic Rock, & Why You Should Care About Romanticism

Photo Courtesy of Alain Ronay

Photo Courtesy of Alain Ronay

Photo Courtesy of Alain Ronay

Photo Courtesy of Alain Ronay

Niccolo Bechtler, Web Staffer

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For most of recorded history, if you wanted to know about how common tropes of classic rock songwriting share common ground with the aesthetics of 19­century Romantic art and literature, you’d be out of luck. Then, just recently, some dude wrote a book about it (which—full disclosure—I didn’t know existed until after I wrote this). But the book is like $100 because it’s fancy academic writing, and who has that much money to spend on some big words anyway? Luckily, I’m gonna tell you all about it for free.

Photo Courtesy of William Hilton

Alright, so in the 1700s, there was a period in Western art and philosophy called the Enlightenment, which I—like you—read about in high school but pretty much ignored because I—maybe also like you—was busy thinking about playing guitar. But it turns out that it was interesting! As trade and exploration expanded the European worldview, Euro­thinkers’ collective sense of continental pride spawned a set of values that championed the logic and reason that had allowed the continent to expand so widely and so rapidly. Then, from this emphasis on logic and reason—that became synonymous with the Enlightenment—came an aesthetic push to revisit the good ol’ days of Classical Greek and Roman society, another period when logic and reason had lead Europe (or at least parts of it) to prosperity. This aesthetic, which valued simplicity, symmetry, and idealized forms, was called Neoclassicism, i.e. revamped classics.

 

But even though Neoclassical art was very beautiful and very impressive (it kinda reminds me of fiddly overwrought nu­metal 8­string bass solos), it wasn’t reflective of authentic human experiences, since the art presented idealized people with infallible morals. And, worst of all to art­people, it was—god forbid—derivative. So artists reacted, as artists do, and came up with Romanticism toward the end of the 18th century. This new school of thought valued fallible human perception over objectivity and placed emotion over reason. To make it quick, Romanticism set out to burn down every ideal that Neoclassicism stood for, and to replace each one with its opposite.

 

By telling stories about imperfect characters governed by their emotions, Romantic artists and writers built the narrative groundwork for great classic rock songwriters to pick up and expand on, well over a century later—whether those songwriters and their bands knew it or not. Look at any great classic rock song, compare it to any great Romantic book or painting, and you’ll see what I mean: even if their respective subject matter is from different universes, classic rock and Romantic art are thematically identical.

 

Let’s take a little peek at a Doors song, since they recorded some of the most iconic classic rock ever, not to mention that Jim Morrison was also an archetypical Romantic artist (more on that in a minute). So take “Riders on the Storm:” the name and chorus suggest some kinda gang of outlaws on Harleys or horses or something, which gets at a very Romantic ideal of individuality and rejection of “practical” mainstream values in favor of a “free” lifestyle. Then in the first verse, Morrison introduces a strange vignette: “there’s a killer on the road/his brain is squirmin’ like a toad.” Aside from that hilariously weird lyric, this is also textbook Romantic writing; it has an individual anti­hero, flawed and possibly insane, but still somehow empathetic.

 

In verse 2, Morrison pivots to another key aspect of Romantic ideals and starts singing about capital­L Love. “Girl you gotta love your man/take him by the hand/make him understand/the world on you depends/our life will never end,” he sings, asserting an idealized hippy vision of love as essential and infallible, driven by pure emotion and not cold, logical thought. These ideas come straight out of Romantic art.

 

Compare that Doors song to a poem from the Romantic era, like “To Fanny” by quintessential Romantic writer John Keats, and you can see they’re basically the same idea. Keats writes “Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all,/Withhold no atom’s atom or I die,” speaking to the same conception of love as eternal and life­giving that Morrison does in “Riders on the Storm.” The words in Keats’ poem are bigger (and the poetry is good on its own as poetry, unlike most Doors lyrics) but the ideas are the same across 150 years.

 

Another key Romantic idea that classic rockers ate up was that of the Hopeless/Doomed Romantic artist. Embodied by Keats himself in the 19th century, this trope concerns some kinda artist who is too pure and too vulnerable to be accepted in the modern world (we live in a society, man), and instead needs to die for their art, only to be understood years after their death. Yes, this is a terrible role model, but it’s still a dominant character type in our art today, and it was wild­popular among classic rock stars.

 

For Keats in the early 1800s, “Doomed Artist” was a literal title. He was all gross and sickly for much of his life, and wrote his best poems in bed, contemplating death. Then, at the ripe old age of 25, he finally died of tuberculosis, just like the entire rest of his family (god, life was terrifying before modern medicine). But his death made him a martyr for the Romantic cause; though he had been appreciated as a poet in his life, it was only after his death that he

 

became regarded as one of the all­time greats. Readers thought he’d been misunderstood in his lifetime and mourned him, knowing that they’d do it right if they got a second chance. This is all very Romantic.

 

Jim Morrison lived a similar life, although most of his sickness was self­inflicted. He wrote books and poems and screenplays and wanted to be respected as a writer, but critics panned his work almost unanimously. Songwriting was the only place he found any success, and it felt like a cop­out. Also: crazy rock star money and the total detachment from reality that comes with it. So, of course, he drank a lot, did a lot of drugs, had a lot of terrible relationships and finally died at age 27. Keats and Morrison had very different lives, yet they both suffered by and for their art, and became regarded as “misunderstood geniuses” to lots of people after their deaths. Hopeless Romantic (anti)heroes like Keats blazed the trail, and classic rock stars followed them in their own drugged­out way a century and a half later.

 

As you can see, the Romantic movement parallels classic rock songwriting and ideals in a lot of ways. However, Romantic art was a reaction to Neoclassical art, but it’s not like classic rock was a reaction to some kind of logic­and­reason­driven kind of pop music before it. And I think that’s why—even though they’re similar in a lot of ways—Romanticism is one of the most important movements of modern history, but classic rock is pretty much just a fun genre that’s good for listening on long car trips. Great art is reactionary; it responds to its environment and criticizes it, and in doing so, it creates new ideals that can define an entire era. That’s why Romanticism is so important in cultural development while classic rock is a historical blip: in the 19th century, Romantic ideals could refresh and shock, but by the 1960s, those ideals were saggy and bloated (not unlike Jim Morrison).

So next time you hear a classic rock song come on the radio as you pass through some tiny farm town you’ve never been to before, remember where those songwriters got their ideals. Because even if you never read a stuffy 19th century novel, Jane Austen and Lord Byron are alive in Jefferson Airplane and Steppenwolf. The only difference in that 150­year gap is that those bands had more drugs and less tuberculosis.

 

“Into this house we’re born/Into this world we’re thrown/Like a dog without a bone/An actor out on loan/Riders on the storm…”

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The Doors, Classic Rock, & Why You Should Care About Romanticism