Friday, April 8, 2016

Feeling the Music

I've heard some people say that one of the things they enjoy about listening to sad music is knowing that someone else out there feels the way they do. That is never really a thought that crosses my mind--I was at least 29 when I realized that people are writing about their own feelings when they write music. I probably knew that somewhere inside me, I guess, but again, I hadn't given it much thought.

The reason I listen to that music is because I like having words for how I feel. It feels insufficient just to put a name to the emotion. It's not enough to say, "I feel sad," or even just, "I've been feeling sad a lot lately." But a lyric like this can feel so perfect:
It felt like a winter machine that you go through, and then
You catch your breath and winter starts again
And everyone else is spring-bound.
  - Dar Williams, "After All"
When an artist sings a song, they are usually bringing something to their performance that is meant to convey their emotional state.  The music, words, and performance are all conveying an emotional experience in a way that is meant to evoke that same emotional experience in the listener. This is one of the things that makes it difficult to cover other people's music: it is only going to work if you can match that emotional state in some way, but without sounding exactly like the original.

There is a video where some kids cover the Tool song "46 and 2." The kids playing the instruments totally nail it. The singer... well, she does the best job that you could expect from a singer that young. The issue is not just with what her voice is capable of doing. The song is about self-reflection, examining all the worst aspects of yourself, and coming to embrace those things. It is a point of view that first requires maturing enough to have a good conception of who you are, and then to be able to make some kind of comparison between the person you are and the person you wish you were. The girl in that video is between the ages of about 12 and 14. She is still discovering who she is. That isn't to say she doesn't have problems of her own--it is pretty much the worst time in a person's life--but those issues have a lot more to do with sorting out who you want to be from what the people around you want you to be, and what you perceive society wants you to be.

When I first looked at the lyrics to Tool's song "Pushit," I couldn't tell if it was about drugs or a relationship–all I knew was that it was about something that was really terrible for the singer. Then I was in a relationship with a girl I will call Stephanie. The relationship eventually started to feel like "Pushit," and it was then that I really started to feel like I understood the song. It spoke to me on a very deep and emotional level that went beyond the words in the song.

I was listening to a lot of Florence + the Machine at the time, and it was music that brought me peace and happiness. I wanted a relationship that felt like a Florence + the Machine song, but I now had to admit to myself that I was in a relationship that felt like a Tool song. That was something I never wanted to have happened in my life.

Once I got out of the relationship, I was able to see something else in the song: it comes from the kind of dark place where you have been in the darkness for so long that you've forgotten that there is anything outside of that darkness.

It was around this time that I started to have an emotional reaction to the Florence + the Machine song "Cosmic Love." I couldn't really tell what the song was about, but when I listened to it, something about it would make me tear up, and I couldn't understand why. This particular part always got to me:
And in the dark, I can hear your heartbeat
I tried to find the sound
But then it stopped, and I was in the darkness,
So darkness I became
I had definitely had emotional reactions to music before, but only when I felt like I really understood the lyrics. This song was going past the logical part of my brain, straight to my "feels." I had never experienced that before, and couldn't tell why it was happening.

I asked someone for her opinion on the song. I honestly can't remember what she said to me, but I was now able to make the connection that the song was like my relationship with Stephanie. It's kind of about being blinded by love, and drawn into the world of your partner, to the exclusion of the rest of your own world. Once you find yourself there, it's so hard to find your way out that it feels much easier to stay. Kind of like my relationship with Stephanie.

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