Symbols associated with magic, astrology, alchemy, Hermeticism, and other esoteric systems can be found throughout popular music (for an overview of these systems, see Western Esotericism: A Concise History by Antoine Faivre). However banal, cliché, or harmless popular music might seem, rumors and fears that popular music supports neopaganism or occult spirituality are not unfounded. Consider astrology.
Astrology refers to any of multiple systems of divination (e.g., Western, Mayan, Chinese, Vedic) that analyze human pasts, presents, and futures in terms of their correspondences with astronomical phenomena. Those phenomena are read off of a horoscope or astrological chart, which indicates the positions of planets (e.g., Mercury, Venus, Neptune, etc., including Sun and Moon), twelve signs associated with constellations (e.g., Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Taurus, etc.), and twelve “houses” that divide the circle of the horoscope.
Astrology is not taught in mainstream education. It’s considered by most mainstream educators and academics as a pseudoscience or an old superstition. From their perspective, if you want to know about planets, you should learn natural sciences like astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. They don’t recommend consulting an astrologer, for they consider it ridiculous and naïve to assert that the position of planets in the sky can affect human lives, shaping our personalities and guiding our destinies.
This mainstream banishment of astrology from legitimate knowledge is not new. A rational refutation of astrology can be found as early as the end of the fourth century in St. Augustine’s Confessions (VII.6). For Augustine, the refutation is straightforward. Twins are born in the same place and time, therefore they have the same natal chart (birth chart), which means they have the same sign and the same planetary alignments (e.g., Saturn-Jupiter conjunction, Moon-Neptune square, Sun-Pluto trine, etc.). If one’s natal chart really determined one’s life, then two people with the same chart should lead relatively identical lives. However, that is not the case, not even with twins, at least not in Augustine’s experience. Therefore, Augustine concludes that astrology is false and that one’s astrological chart does not actually determine the course of one’s life.
Nevertheless, people still practice astrology. Even among those who do not practice it, some still have it in their lives to a small extent, like people who know their sign even if they don’t know what it means and don’t check their horoscope, or people who consult horoscopes to check their compatibility with partners, not to mention people who see zodiac place settings when they visit a Chinese restaurant. Planets and stars are enchanting, and despite ongoing attempts of religious and scientific authorities to ensure that planets are understood as mere objects not to be confused with divine powers, symbols of their enchantment persist, as is evident in popular music.
Popular music provides numerous examples of the persistence of astrology. This is not to say that astrology is not also in classical music. Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets is an excellent example, with each piece of the suite focusing on a different planet in terms of its astrological symbolism (e.g., Mercury as a messenger, Neptune as a mystic). However, astrological references today are heard by more people in contexts of popular music, making popular music a uniquely compelling area of inquiry for thinking of the persistence of astrology.
Some songs use planetary metaphors in their lyrics that are not explicitly astrological but are open to astrological interpretation, like Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,” which uses Jupiter, shooting stars, and atmosphere as metaphors for the singer’s experience of his mother’s ongoing presence after her death. There are too many astrologically inclined references in popular music to be comprehensive: “Valleys of Neptune,” by Jimi Hendrix; Pink Floyd’s lyrics about “the dark side of the moon” (in “Brain Damage” on the album The Dark Side of the Moon); and Björk’s “Pluto” and “Moon,” to name just a few.
There are also many places where astrology shows up more explicitly. Again, there are too many references to be comprehensive: “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the musical Hair, which sings of the dawning of a new age – the age of Aquarius; the No Doubt album Return of Saturn, which was produced around the time of singer Gwen Stefani’s Saturn return (an often challenging period of maturation beginning in one’s late 20s and lasting for a few years); Tool’s song “The Grudge,” wherein “Saturn ascends” along with its accompanying dynamics of limitation, negativity, and calculative decision; and the album Aquemini by the hip-hop duo Outkast, which combines the astrological signs of the two members, Big Boi (Aquarius) and André 3000 (Gemini).
“Bright,” by the California-based indie pop band Echosmith, provides a current example. The song has been on regular rotation in pop radio for the last few months. It uses astrological metaphors not to speak of a rigid fate determined by the planets but to speak of the universe as a co-conspirator in human affairs. In this case, the universe helps someone find love. The opposite of paranoia, these lyrics express pronoia – the belief that the universe is working in your favor. The first verse opens with these lyrics:
I think the universe is on my side
Heaven and Earth have finally aligned
Days are good and that’s the way it should be.
Three celestial bodies are mentioned in the chorus: Jupiter, Moon, and Neptune. Jupiter (the Roman approximation of the Greek sky god Zeus) represents an expansive, regal quality. Moon symbolizes the foundation of personality in body, soul, and home (not personality itself, which is symbolized by Sun). Neptune symbolizes spirituality, mystical union, and the waters of boundary dissolution (Neptune approximates the Greek ocean god Poseidon).
Did you and Jupiter conspire to get me?
I think you and the Moon and Neptune got it right
‘Cause now I’m shining bright, so bright…
While Venus is most often associated with love, the planets mentioned in this song also contribute to romantic relationships. Finding someone you love can make you shine bright with expansive feelings (Jupiter). It can also make you feel like you are finding a counterpart or soulmate with whom you feel completely at home (Moon). It can also dissolve your boundaries so that you lose yourself in your beloved (Neptune): “Bright, so bright, and I get lost in your eyes tonight.”
This song is further evidence that astrology is a shared reference throughout popular music. It indicates something like a neopagan or esoteric strand of spirituality in popular music, a spirituality for which divinity is not relegated to an otherworldly status but permeates the planets and stars, immanent to the whole universe. Like St. Augustine knew, no two people respond to celestial phenomena the same way. However, as Echosmith and so many musicians know, this does not mean that astrology is false. It means that astrology is open ended and dynamic, changing depending on human participation, like the participatory astrology developed in the seminal work by Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche. The planets do not seal our fate. They are creative dialogue partners, co-conspirators in a meaningful and interconnected universe that might even be on our side. Have any songs helped you participate in such a universe? What songs about astrology have made an impact in your life?