A professor at Washington and Lee University by the name of Eduardo Velázquez, in his recent book A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse — in my incomplete reading, a rip-roaring adventure in polemics and philosophy, bombast and humor, caricature and insight — dedicates a chapter to a careful analysis of the music and lyrics of Dave Matthews. Now for those readers over 40, Dave Matthews is the songwriter and frontman for an exceedingly successful rock band, whose albumic strategy, if you will, has largely consisted of a couple very catchy tunes supported by a mass of more complex and enterprising material, much of which is uneven but the great peaks of which have formed the soundtrack for a generation of young men and women.
Let us grant that there is a depth and desperation in Matthews’ lyrics unusual for popular music: it is to be wondered whether any scholar of this caliber has done such a thing as this: has dared or deigned to give such attention to a product of modern rock music. A serious reading of Dave Matthews? Men have given this honor to songwriters and musicians like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, whose stature is not controverted; but whether Matthews is due, much less has already received it before, I do not know.
In any case, Prof. Velázquez has now done it. His effort is, I think, a fruitful one — even though, as often happens with this sort of thing, one wonders whether the poetry is solid enough to bear the burden of content the critic assumes for it. That is, again, is Matthews’ lyrics as poetry worthy of attention? I have long loved his music, and, less often, his lyrics — a carry-over from what they call adolescence, I suppose; I have no objectivity here. But I believe it can be stated that Velázquez at least shows there is some real if uneven poetry in Matthews’ lyrics, though it is mostly of the darker, grimmer, uglier variety so favored by moderns.
And this, indeed, is Velázquez’s argument. With a lapidary elegance, verging almost on terseness, he shows Matthews’ poetry to be the ravings of an agonized nihilist. This man wants to be a simple atheist; but there cannot be a simple atheist, as there can a simple Christian — though there certainly can be a boring atheist — and thus Matthews’ simply gives voice to despair and incapacity. The atheist celebrates the emancipation of reason; but reason is never enough. His passions go somewhere, usually somewhere dark. Matthews rages against God; he cleverly falsifies Christian doctrine; he is full of denials, negations, contraries; he subverts and abuses. He does not reason or even argue. Typical of his verse is “if at all God’s gaze upon us falls / it’s with a mischievous grin” or “I told God, I’m coming to your country / I’m going to eat up your cities, / Your homes, you know”. And to this sort of invective he adds, predictably, debauchery and license. Velázquez does not dwell at length on it, but it is a fact that much of Matthews’ appeal derives from his nimble eroticism. His songs “Crash to Me” (1996) and “Crush” (1998) give ample evidence to his talent in this genre. Scripture tells us that the truth will set you free; Matthews’s lyrics provide the obverse: falsehood will enslave. Desire, passion, ambition — all those things that, unchecked, destroy liberty: these are celebrated in this music as true freedom. Velázquez simply calls him a “lunatic.”
That may be too harsh, and even the professor himself qualifies it in a vital way. But what is not too harsh, what is in fact quite correct, is the concatenation of insight that Velázquez delivers with his critique. I would summarize it thusly: (1) The man who begins with a denial of Being, passes quickly to a doubt of all being, and thus must end in a denial of reason; (2) insofar as Matthews speaks, as it were, for a generation, or at least for a certain decisive portion of a generation, he bespeaks madness. The philosophic impulses informing his position as a lyricist amount, in brief, to lunacy. One cannot commence with nature (as Matthews often does), celebrate science, culminate in denials and narrow dead-ends; and still pretend that you are a stoic old Apostle of Reason. Yet this is the very sort of false philosophy that permeates the men and women of my generation. It is our little twist on the Liberalism that is poisoning our minds.
So it no longer strikes me, as it first did, that Prof. Velázquez has chosen a distractingly bombastic title for his thin volume. He has exposed at least one thing in the popular culture, i.e., the consumer’s culture, that is freighted with apocalyptic themes and tones — apocalyptic in the popular sense of “end-of-the-world-ish,” and apocalyptic in the older sense of a stark and sudden revelation. Other chapters deal with such numbers as the film Fight Club, and Tom Wolfe’s recent book about the American university. If they are as successful in their insightful polemics as this one that I have read, it will amount to a fun and valuable book.