Arts & Entertainment, Music, Pop Rhetoric

Concept albums and the problem with defining subjective terms

Albums come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, with each crafted with different aims in mind. In 1973, Pink Floyd released their monumental album The Dark Side of the Moon, a progressive rock masterpiece and one of the most acclaimed albums of the decade. But Dark Side was more than just a collection of tracks; overtime, it has become known as a quintessential concept album

A concept album is commonly understood as an album with tracks whose meanings are oriented around specific themes and ideas. In The Dark Side of the Moon, for example, each song represents a different aspect of an unfulfilled life; the track “Time” highlights people’s wasted years, while the track “Brain Damage” focusses on insanity. The Dark Side of the Moon may appear to be a fairly clear example of a concept album, as its tracks are interwoven with the theme of the “dark side” of life. However,  the definition of these types of albums is actually quite tentative, loosely applied, and relatively subjective. Attempting to define exactly what a concept album is with one concrete paradigm is rather counterintuitive.

Take, for instance, Metallica’s Master of Puppets: Each track represents various destructive activities, ranging from drug abuse to war. The binding theme that ties each track together is the lack of control one feels over their life when caught in a cycle of despair. Yet popular music magazines, such as Classic Rock, do not list the album among other great concept albums, with no definitive reason as to why. If Master of Puppets is not a concept album, then the criteria for calling an album one must be more restrictive than the broad definition of unified themes and coordinated, meaningful songs. 

One way to narrow the definition is to specify that the songs have to form a narrative, and that the album’s meaning is best understood when all of the songs are considered together. Similar to the last definition, this framework adds a storyline element, which would explain why Master of Puppets, a meaningful album that lacks a “plot,” is not generally considered to be a concept album.

However, this definition may be too constraining. While it can accurately describe some examples, such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, it would exclude what some people consider the first concept album: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. With Sgt. Pepper’s, there is little thematic connection and overall narrative between the songs to satisfy this definition. And though this has led some to deny it the status of a concept album, many still attribute the label to it. 

These conceptual problems beg an important Euthyphropic question: Is an album called a concept album because it is one, or is it a concept album because it is called one? 

This question, though clarifying the debate, is not easy to answer. There ought to be a reason to call something a concept album, but what should that reason be? In Platonic terms, what is the “form” of the concept album? When analyzing specific albums, such as Master of Puppets and Sgt. Pepper’s, it seems that there is no objective answer and no definite solution. 

Perhaps the debate itself is misleading. Does it really matter if someone thinks that Master of Puppets is not a concept album while The Dark Side of the Moon is? Nailing down the definition of a concept album is the wrong approach. Otherwise, albums would lose their subjective meaning in the face of a futile search for objectivity in music. To continue down this path may lead us to have to declare, in Nietzschean style, that the concept album is dead, and we have killed it. In other words, trying to force an inherent meaning upon a concept album goes against the personal nature of listening to music. 

The history of music is a wonderful and distinctly personal one; being stringent about labels should not be the way forward. 

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