Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 50 years ago, which he immediately turned down, citing that no author "should allow himself to be turned into an institution." A somewhat ironic argument considering the institution that his arguments have become in the world of philosophy. Although not the inventor of existentialism, Sartre was at the apex of the doctrine during its rise in popularity following World War II.
He began with a rather negative opinion on music, believing it to be irrelevant and part of the "absurd world" that is meaningless. He came around however, changing his tune later in life, particularly noting that jazz came to represent his theories of freedom and authenticity.
Music Times gathered a few songs that can be seen as representing Sartre's thought process and we hope that all you philosophy majors will lay off if we blur some lines. This is dense stuff.
"Intuition" by Lennie Tristano
If jazz as a whole represented what Sartre believed about freedom and authenticity, it's fair to say that free jazz exemplified is the peak of his approach to existential though. The Lennie Tristano Quartet's 1949 tracks "Intuition" and "Digression" are widely held as the first recordings for what is now know as free jazz. Tristano starts in the lead on his piano and the rest of the band just does what it feels. Although the name "Intuition" might fly in the face of Sartre's beliefs (human nature as an excuse doesn't exist for him, so therefore intuition or gut feeling can't exist, right? Feel free to tell us if we're wrong), the song's emergence during the post-World War II era seems to line up nicely with his golden period.
"Five To One" by The Doors
It's no surprise to anyone that somebody like Jim Morrison might buy into the philosophy of existentialism. And, like most philosophy majors, the best they can do with it is try to impress intellectual chicks with that knowledge at parties. Morrison's famous line "no one gets out of here alive" is the popular message most people have taken from the purposeless "absurd world" idea, and he uses this as justification for why some chick should shack up with him. No One Gets Out of Here Alive would return as the title for the vocalist's biography, although that was published posthumously.
"Time" by Pink Floyd
Roger Waters wrote "Time" when he realized that he was halfway through his life (he was 28 then...and we're happy to say he's surpassed 56 since) and wasn't sure what he was planning to do with the rest of it. It's the essential midlife-crisis song and indeed the concept of a midlife-crisis is very existential: You're going to die soon enough so shouldn't you figure out what you're going to do with it? There's no metaphysical purpose for your life on Earth so you've got to self-define. The responsibility is yours. Sartre deemed this freedom as terrifying so it fits that this is arguably the most frightening of Pink Floyd songs, both in concept and because of it's antique store orchestra of clocks at the introduction.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen
Yes! Opera wasn't the only intellectual thing that Queen's epic single pays tribute to. Consider the lyrics delivered by Freddy Mercury as the protagonist: "Is this the real life? If this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality." Indeed, Sartre might say, there is no escape from existence (barring death of course). "If I'm not back again this time tomorrow, carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters." It doesn't matter, Sartre agrees, you have no preordained purpose in this world. Most telling however is how the narrator jumps back after the opera segment, confirming Sartre's beliefs that one must experience "death consciousness" to truly realize the value of one's own life.
"The Motto" by Drake
We hesitate to label Drake as a representative of philosophical thought in our times but his lifestyle is certainly representative of Sartre's findings on existentialism. "YOLO" serves as one big example of realizing the inevitability of death and living one's life in accordance to that, following in the footsteps laid out by Morrison earlier. And uh, for what it's worth, both Sartre and Drake are cool with amphetamines.