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William Irwin

William Irwin edits Blackwell’s ‘Philosophy And Pop Culture’ book series. Grant Bartley asks him about Black Sabbath & Philosophy.

Hello Bill. What’s the philosophical relevance of studying pop culture for you?

Hi. For me, the philosophical importance of pop culture is the vivid examples it provides. Philosophy has always found value in thought experiments, but the examples that philosophers come up with tend to be less engaging than those of Hollywood writers. For example, when The Matrix depicted the possibility of deception by a comprehensive virtual reality program, it immediately got the interest of millions of people in a way that legions of Descartes scholars never could. In addition, pop culture is produced by a wider culture that has been shaped by philosophy, and so it cannot help but incorporate philosophy, even if it does so unintentionally. So the books I edit seize on vivid examples from pop culture, and also search out the philosophical influences within pop culture.

What criteria do you use for selecting topics for your ‘And Philosophy’ series, and why in particular did you choose Black Sabbath?

I look for something that is genuinely popular which has some depth to it. It’s also nice if I can find a topic that will surprise people with its philosophical significance. Of course, many people will react with disbelief when they see Black Sabbath and Philosophy. But Sabbath fans are more likely to react by saying, “Finally someone is taking Sabbath seriously.” Many people have a misperception of heavy metal as being dumb and unsophisticated, so I was pleased to find an international crew of philosophy professors who were also Black Sabbath fans who helped me to set the record straight in this book.

What’s the distance between appearance and reality for Black Sabbath, for instance when it comes to their Satanic trappings?

Black Sabbath’s image as Satanic is one of the many misperceptions about them. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, you discover that they are closer to a Christian band than a Satanic one! They flirt with the occult, but they embrace the divine. Rock critic Lester Bangs called them “the John Milton of rock’n’roll.” I think that’s accurate. Satan figures as an intriguing character in some of their songs, but he is symbolic of the evil that humans commit in the form of war, pollution, and oppression. Ultimately, Sabbath calls for love to conquer evil. Consider the lyrics of Children of the Grave: “If you want a better place to live in, spread the word today / Show the world that love is still alive, you must be brave.” In fact, the song After Forever is explicitly monotheistic, almost Christian, in its message, saying, “God is the only way to love.”

What else is surprising about Sabbath?

One of the things people find surprising about Black Sabbath is that they have a pacifist message in many songs. War Pigs in particular is a quintessential anti-war song. It’s just that, instead of pleading us to “give peace a chance” to the tune of jangling guitars, Sabbath urges a “fight for peace” to the beat of war drums.

Can you tell us some philosophically interesting Black Sabbath lyrics?

I see Black Sabbath’s lyrics as Britain’s chief contribution to existentialism! Don’t get me wrong, bassist Geezer Butler, who wrote most of the lyrics, didn’t study existentialism. But from growing up in post-industrial Birmingham he did have a lot of firsthand knowledge of oppression, absurdity, and despair. My chapter in the book, ‘Beyond Good and Evil: Facing Your Demons with Black Sabbath and Existentialism’, analyses Sabbath lyrics with reference to Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. The themes of freedom, authenticity, and self-creation run throughout their lyrics. As just one example, the song Under the Sun (Every Day Comes and Goes) – the title alludes to the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes – presents an existentialist declaration of independence: “Well I don’t want no preacher / Telling me about the god in the sky / No I don’t want no one to tell me / Where I’m gonna go when I die / I wanna live my life with no people telling me what to do / I just believe in myself, ‘cause no one else is true.” The book also includes a chapter that discusses Sabbath’s music and concert experience in terms of Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Sabbath’s overriding message is one of hope in the face of despair.

Is it only Black Sabbath if Ozzy is singing?

That’s one of the perennial debates among Sabbath fans, so we have two chapters in the book addressing it, one arguing yes, the other arguing no. We supply the fans with some philosophical terminology and technique to improve their arguments. Is a band with a changing line-up like Sabbath like the Ship of Theseus with its changing planks? Is there a metaphysical difference between a band and a line-up? Metaphysically, I think it can still be Black Sabbath even without Ozzy [Osbourne], but ethically, they shouldn’t use the name unless Ozzy is singing. The other perennial debate in rock that the book covers is the definition of ‘heavy metal’. Like the term ‘art’ itself, ‘metal’ is notoriously difficult to define. Expressive and institutional theories of art offer some help, but ultimately Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance makes the most sense of metal: there are no necessary and sufficient criteria for a band being a heavy metal band, just overlapping sets of characteristics. Historical definitions of art also help make sense of what counts as metal, usually by telling a story of how a contemporary metal band fits in the history of the genre that begins with Black Sabbath.

What about Tony Iommi? Isn’t he the only constant member in the various line-ups?

That’s right. Iommi is the guitar player. For a guitar player he has an unusual handicap. At the age of seventeen, on his last day of work in a Birmingham factory, he lost the tips of two fingers on his fretting hand. That almost spelled the end for the band. But Iommi made plastic fingertips and learned to play with them, even though it might seem impossible to fret properly without feeling through flesh. One chapter in the book uses Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to reveal the secret to how Iommi manages this. In brief, Iommi has managed to extend his ‘body schema’, as Merleau-Ponty calls it.

Grant Bartley edits for Philosophy Now.

William Irwin is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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