Perhaps the most frequently exalted properties of music are its abilities to transport, transform, and bewitch. The ability of a song, movement, or lyric, whether at a warehouse rave or the Royal Albert Hall, to summarily relocate a listener is often cited as some nameless, indescribable power.
The magic in music is found in this ineffability. It is a medium to which we relate on a primarily sensory basis, but one steeped in cultural tradition. In joining these two distinct levels of consciousness, music acquires an innately magical property, as it bridges a perceivable, but indescribable gap. It is for this reason that magic in music is so recurrent, the successful combination of unconscious emotion and rational experience remains both an extraordinary process and experience.
As any student with walls blessed by posters of The Jimi Hendrix Experience album covers can tell you, the years of the 60s and 70s saw allusion after allusion to the mystical, spectral, and illusory. Aside from Jimi, whose riffs alone are often described as transcendent, Bowie, Santana, Fleetwood Mac, Ozzy, and Yoko Ono all fell under the apparently alluring spell of including magical elements in their creations. Countless artists of varying backgrounds and genres chose to evoke the supernatural as a means to connect with their audience. Thanks to this ubiquity, magic has served a host of purposes during its tenure as a musical motif.
More often than not, a reference to something mystical or paranormal was accompanied by overtones of heightened emotion, that which the artist could not describe without calling on some higher power. Carlos Santana’s infatuation with the subject of the ‘Black Magic Woman’ is explained only by her witchlike power over him. Similarly, some form of creature from a supernatural realm features on almost every Bowie album between 1968 and 1975; an alien fascination for the ‘Thin White Duke’. Some aspect of either emotional or sensory experience in these years had become so deranged and exaggerated that they were only accessible through the supernormal and occult.
The contemporary response by those groups less inclined toward deliberate, proactive derangement was a strict condemnation of drug use within the music industry. Jimi Hendrix’s polite request to be excused whilst he ‘kiss[es] the sky’ in ‘Purple Haze’ is just one lyrical manifestation of the legend’s penchant for substance abuse. The magic of those decades for Hendrix and other artists may have chemically resided in baggies and vials, but intoxication seemed more to be a stepping stone, once again, to reach a higher level of consciousness or contemplation; a key to unlock the full potential of their music.
The drug trade is not the only negative image associated with magic in music. The presentation of women and the trope of the ‘witch’ in 20th century music was noticeably common. The ideas of black magic and dark arts were hung banner-like across musical portraits of unfaithful partners or particularly bewitching love interests. Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ recalls the bad luck brought by such a figure after the singer saw a black cat at his door; the ‘fairer sex’ is simply written off as a vessel of poor fortune.
The presentation of magic in a musical form is less obvious than in its lyrical form. If we accept the previously definitive feature of magic as ‘bridging the gap’ between the sensory and the conscious, then a similar action is observable in the musical advances of the time. From Hendrix’s blending of classical techniques with electronic leaps, such as pitch-shifting and effect circuits, to Van Halen’s complete reinvention of the relationship between man and guitar, music in the era was enchanted with tones, timbres, and progressive features never seen before.
As time and tastes have progressed, the role magic plays has become subtler. With a now established lexicon of magical imagery, some potency has been lost. In its place has arisen a shift of focus onto the unsettling and the uncanny, rather than the downright spooky. Florence + the Machine’s lyrics sit as a prime example of this. In ‘Spectrum’, Florence sings of colours flooding her body and relieving her of her ‘paper thin’ fragility; magic is not specifically referenced, but the supernatural is still present and powerful.
However we elect to define magic in music, as allusions to witchcraft, the bliss of being made weightless and uprooted by a song, or the union of the senses and thought, it is difficult to deny its presence. What I first titled a nameless, indescribable power, the magic of music, is universally accessible, hence its evolving, but constant presence. Perhaps more importantly, as Jimi Hendrix noted with characteristic astuteness, it is the key to finding the Voodoo Child within us all.