What is Nihilism?
Google Nihilism, I dare you. After several philosophical debates with the mirror and numerous headaches I still don’t really understand it, or how it works.
In most of our realities we are spoon fed information on a constant from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep. Most of us have some sort of daily routine maybe involving a job or education, most of us have people around us such as family, friends, or that roommate who has failed to grasp the concept of hygiene. Whatever it may be that you do or see throughout the day we can all agree there’s stuff, right? Stuff everywhere. People, objects, time, feelings, just stuff. Well, not a nihilist. Nihilists believe that nothing holds reality and nothing can ever be known. They literally believe nothing. This is where it gets confusing, because in our lives there are things we interact with all the time, things we can see, touch, taste and smell, but according to a nihilist they don’t exist. And as for that messy roommate, well, lucky you, they don’t exist either; although I’d get the vacuum out every now and then anyway just in case.
If we pull back from the most extreme sense of the belief, however, we land on something that seems more practical, a life led with no purpose, no commitments, no loyalties, no ties, no religion and no responsibilities. This is where nihilism fits into music; a study by Charis F Kubrin in 2005 took a collection of gangster rap music and analysed the lyrics of each and every one, categorising the subject and sentiment of every line. Whilst there was a high volume of the usual joys such as ’79.7% willingness to use violence’, ’73.4% objectification of women’ and ’70.3% for respect’ (unfortunately not towards women it would seem) the theme that appeared most of all was nihilism, which featured in 87.5% of the music analysed. Whilst this may seem the odd one out in the group mentioned, it really isn’t as surprising as it seems. Glance a thought back to any rap song and there is usually some sort of sentiment of not answering to anyone, living life for yourself and doing what you want when you want at some point. My question is, does this help or hinder out mental health?
Personally, I think it can be a positive. Whilst the defined version of nihilism may seem extreme to many of us, the sort included in rap music does sometimes hold positive messages. Life is full of pressures; social, economic, educational and more, so is it a bad thing to once in a while embrace an ideal of living for yourself? I’m not suggesting that we take a day of the week and become a lawless society where we have no responsibilities, refusing to feed the cat because it might not even exist anyway. I am suggesting, however, that from time to time we could all benefit from following a toned back version of the nihilism philosophy. We spend most of our lives answering to people and taking responsibility, living by someone else’s rulebook and following a life path which can often feel pre-determined. So, where’s the harm in doing something for yourself every once in a while? Even if we just take a day where we decide to only do things for us. Not answering to other people or doing what we feel we are supposed to, but doing things because we want to. Society is full of pressure and between work, socialising and monetary needs we often don’t have much time to stop and enjoy things, and this can be damaging for our mental health; and in this case I think a nihilist philosophy of just living for yourself can be exactly what we need to remind ourselves of and try to incorporate into our lifestyles every now and then.
So, what is the other side of the coin? Well, whilst the idea of nihilism sounds fun, most of the nihilism in rap music takes a much darker stance. The philosophy of no one to answer to can quickly become not caring about anyone else, and the concept of not having any responsibility can fast take on the form of disregarding consequences. This whole ideal of living for yourself seems to become much more of an ‘every man for themselves’ type deal, in which there is an attitude that we can all do what we want and disregard everyone else. Whilst nihilism remains prevalent in rap music that reaches the charts today, it is more often than not in the form of emotionless sex, money and drugs. This is where the whole nihilism concept becomes tricky. The idealistic theory that we take a day for ourselves every now and then is really nihilism in its most stripped back form; this is more about getting full fat ice cream instead of low sugar because who cares right? The nihilistic attitude to adopt is only really healthy when it is limited to just taking some time for yourself and loosening up a little; maybe putting aside some of our stresses temporarily. But this isn’t really nihilism. We still abide by laws; we still have bills to pay and ultimately, we can only do things for ourselves when we have assigned time off from our scheduled work lives. The rap music version of nihilism is usually a bit closer to the real thing, but it crosses that line from being something we can encourage, to something that ethically raises a few eyebrows. We live in a society with other people, and if everyone adopted a stronger stance of nihilism it would surely become a dangerous land where people had no regard for their actions, the consequences or other people.
So, is nihilism in rap music a positive?
There is a definite divide in how nihilism in music is handled, and really it depends which side of the spectrum each song falls as to whether it can be considered a positive or not. I think if we just focus on a very simplistic and PG form of nihilism, it can be very healthy for us. Songs such as Young, Wild and Free by Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and Bruno Mars are a good example of this. The chorus of this song goes as follows: ‘So what we get drunk? So what we smoke weed? We're just havin' fun, We don't care who sees So what we go out? That's how it's supposed to be, Livin' young and wild and free’. The song perfectly encapsulates the spirit of letting go of our responsibilities for a while and allowing ourselves to have some fun, and doing things for us, regardless of other people’s opinions. This is something we can all aim to incorporate into our lives, loosening up and having some fun can really be a positive for our mental well-being.
Reference: KUBRIN, CHARIS E. "Gangstas, Thugs, and Hustlas: Identity and the Code of the Street in Rap Music." Social Problems 52, no. 3 (2005): 360-78. doi:10.1525/sp.2005.52.3.360.