Is That All There Is?: Philosophy's Greatest Hits

Categories: Listen Up!

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Photo by Paul Carroll
I love Queen, and the late Freddie Mercury had the best rock voice ever (in my opinion), so it pains me to say that some of music's worst thought-out lyrics are scrunched into the opening lines of "Bohemian Rhapsody."

"Is this the real life?/ Is this just fantasy?", the song begins, but mere breaths later, Freddie affirms there's "no escape from reality."

So, which is it? Is life a concrete and tangible occurrence, or is it but a dream? The only thing separating Mercury from these two opposing metaphysical viewpoints is being "caught in a landslide," which, come to think of it, could create the sort of existential moment that defines the rest of one's days.

So, in spite of his songbird voice, you might look to other musical artists for your philosophical cues. As long as we've been able to wonder what's it all about, Alfie, we've also been expressing these ideas through song. Here are a few that capture these heavy ideas better than others:

METAPHYSICS

Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?"
Metaphysics is a far-reaching philosophical principle that asks the big questions, the kind that start creeping in around high-school freshman year when you begin to realize that you too will eventually have to leave school, go to work, maybe have a family, grow old and die.

But why? What's this all for? That sort of thing. Consider metaphysics the house and all the Kants and Kierkegaards the brooding inhabitants of its infinite rooms. Pop singer Peggy Lee's 1969 hit was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who wrote 1950s and '60s classics like "Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me." This one has been covered by Tony Bennett, Chaka Khan and PJ Harvey, among others.

"Is That All There Is?" suggests life's tragedies, joys and daily events all fall short of something special. Even death is seen as an ultimate disappointment. It might be the most depressing song ever to encourage dancing and boozing. But, by asking if this really is all there is, it opens the floor to further philosophical discussion.


MORAL DUALISM

Massive Attack feat. Mos Def, "I Against I"
Have you ever imagined an angel on one of your shoulders encouraging upstanding behavior and a devil on the other promoting an evil, but possibly much more fun, agenda? If so, you have engaged in moral dualism, the philosophy that recognizes the constant human struggle between one's own good and evil selves.

Massive Attack and Mos Def double-teamed the subject in "I Against I," found on the Blade II movie soundtrack. Lines like "two of a kind but one won't survive, my images reflect in the enemy's eye and his images reflect in mine the same time" are not only friggin' cool, but also perfectly depict this inner, individual conflict.


FREE WILL

Rush, "Freewill"
Free will waters down the determinist viewpoint. Whatever happens to us occurs because of our will to choose; in other words, had Henderson chosen a different route home, he might not have been shot. His fault. Many songs have addressed the subject but none more directly than this 1980 track from the cerebral Canadians.

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