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Top 40 Philosophy: Three Days Grace, “I Am Machine”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

One more day of Rawk. Song #5 on Billboard’s “Mainstream Rock Songs” chart — when I started this post (the new charts are released on Thursdays, I think) — is Three Days Grace’s “I Am Machine.” The video isn’t terribly impressive — Blabbermouth calls it a lyric video, which is technically correct — but it gives you a glimpse into the recording process. This is what the musicians actually look like in the studio as they’re recording a song.

“What are you going to talk about with this song, Tillman?”

I’m glad you asked, you. Thanks! I’m going to talk about the difference between form and content.

Form vs. Content

 

Take this image, for instance:FormContent

In that image you have six geometric shapes: three squares and three circles. In the top row, the three shapes have the same form; they are all squares. In the bottom row, however, there is a different form; all three shapes are circles. The shape of a shape, in other words, is its “form.”

In spite of the fact that the shapes in the top row have the same form, they have three different “contents.” The first is made of the color red (or something close to it). The second is made of the color . . . um . . . teal . . . blue-ish? The third is made of the color . . . goldenrod? . . . yellow-ish? Something. Let’s just say they’re red, blue, and yellow.

In each “column,” the form changes (from square to circle) while the content stays the same.

Quantity vs. Quality

Now, the form of a shape is studied by geometry, which is a branch of mathematics. So, form is usually (at least since Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will, book II) thought of as mathematical or quantitative. The content (i.e., the color) of a shape, however, is studied by artists, and so is usually thought of as qualitative. Form is quantity, content is quality.

However, form is not just quantity. Form is the way the content is structured, arranged, organized, related to itself, and so on.

Likewise, content is not just quality. Content is the stuff or material or substance being formed.

Got it? Form = structure, arrangment, organization, relation, etc. and is quantitative (numerical, or measureable by numbers). Content = stuff, material/matter, substance, etc. and is qualitative.

Harmony Is Form?

Now here’s the deal. Three Days Grace has always had a unique vocal sound (Listen to the chorus of their first single. Listen to the pre-chorus/chorus of “The Good Life”), even though they’ve changed lead singers.

At first I thought the quality of Three Days Grace’s vocals was just due to Adam Gontier‘s voice. But then I began to suspect there were actually backing vocals behind his voice whenever it took on the “Three Days Grace” sound. So, I thought maybe it had something to do with how the backing vocals mesh with the lead vocals.

If the Three Days Grace vocal sound is in fact due to the relationship between their lead and backing vocals, this would explain why they can pull it off with two different lead singers. The same relationship, after all, can “hold” between different things. The relationship we call “living in” holds between me and my apartment. But the same relationship holds between you and your house. Different things, same relationship.

The Beatles’ harmonies, furthermore, sound like the Everly Brothers’ harmonies. What makes the sound is the relationship between the voices, not the voices themselves. Same relationship; different voices.

Harmony Is Content?

However, if this is right, we have a huge philosophical problem. Relationships are belong to form. But the “sound” of a band’s vocals is a matter of quality. The quality of the vocals is like the color of a square, or the material a house is made from.

But what if the quality of Three Days Grace’s (or Simon and Garfunkel’s, or the Cranberries’, or Alice in Chains’) vocals is due to the relationship between lead vocals and backing vocals? Then that means a quality of those vocals is due to the relationship between their parts (between lead voice and backing voice). The quality of the vocals belongs not to the material of the vocals but to the form of the vocals.

Quality from Quantity?!?

“But of course!,” you interject. “Even the quality we call ‘color’ is something formal/structural. It’s a number. It’s the number of waves of light per second.

“But that’s just a quantity!” I exclaim. “How do you get quality from quantity?”

The same issue, furthermore, is raised by the song’s lyrics. The song is about having lost the ability to feel — to have emotions and desires. It is about feeling feelingless, as if you were a machine.

Feelings are a matter of quality.

Mr. Spock and Mr. Locke

Now, we all know the Vulcans want to be emotionless. They want to be purely rational. They want to simply think and reason, and not let emotions get in the way. They want to do what reason tells them, like John Locke believed we should do (Second Treatise, Section 6) when we’re trying to set up a government.

But “what reason tells us” is a matter of content, not form. And a lot of philosophers believe that reason is purely formal. It just tells you if an argument is structured in the right way (if its parts are connected/related to each other correctly). But that just tells you whether the argument is valid, not if it’s actually sound (i.e., not if it’s really true).

So, putting aside the paradox of being worried about being unable to feel, Three Days Grace are right to be worried about being machines. It’s not enough to just have form. You also need content.

____

The Hidden Track

Q: What kind of philosophy were we doing today?

A: Ontology / Metaphysics.

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