Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How Music is the Soundtrack of Our Lives


            It’s been said that music is the universal language. History has proven that it is timeless in its impact on the human spirit – from the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche who philosophized, “Without music life would be a mistake.” – to former President Ronald Reagan who proclaimed, “Life is one grand, sweet song, so start the music.” And start the music human society did. Ever since, in the history of music and in the history of mankind, life and music have been simpatico. Our lives have defined music, and music has defined our lives. Music does indeed form the soundtrack of our lives.

            Famed contemporary musical artist, Paul Simon, wisely suggested, “Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” Our taste in music does mature and change as we mature and change. As babies, lullabies soothed us. As children, silly songs that were interactive and involved play and fun were our musical preferences. We enjoyed S’Mores around a campfire while singing “Cumbaya, My Lord”. We had mischievous fun while standing in line at the summer camp dining hall singing, “Great green gobs of grimy, greasy gopher guts, and here we stand waiting to be fed.”  We played with music by singing and dancing the Hoki Poki, the Mexican Hat Dance, and stomping and clapping along to “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.” I was probably about 12 years old before I truly noticed the effect music had on the human psyche, and that I could enjoy it without fun dances and activities to accompany it. I remember hearing Perry Como singing “Catch a Falling Star and Put it in Your Pocket and Save it for a Rainy Day.” I immediately took notice that the song made me feel happy and was even inspirational to my young mind. That was one of the first moments in my life when music defined me, and I defined the music. It was the beginning of the soundtrack that would continue, from that moment on, to accompany my life.

            However, as we grew into teenagers and young men and women, we hadn’t put aside all musical fun and games. We discovered that we still liked to play with music. We discovered mystery in music, and it became a fun challenge to try to solve the mystery. For instance, has anyone ever solved the mystery of what Mick Jagger is saying in some of his lyrics in “Jumping Jack Flash”? Speak English, Mick! In her song, “Respect”, what precisely is Aretha Franklin saying in the lyric immediately following “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”?  E-N-U-N-C-I-A-T-E, Aretha! One would have to Google the lyrics to solve the mystery. Perhaps it’s more fun just to guess.

            And then, of course, there was always the ultimate fun musical mystery challenge for teens and Generation X’ers of detecting the alleged subliminal or hidden message in Backmasking. Sometimes referred to as Backward Masking, Backmasking is a technique in which a message is recorded backwards on a track that’s meant to be played forward. The technique was initially popularized in 1966 by the Beatles who allegedly, either intentionally or unintentionally, used backward vocals on their album, Revolver. About ten years after the murderous rampage of Charles Manson and his “family”, it was reported, founded or unfounded, that evil propaganda messages were detected in some Beatle songs. Manson perpetuated the mystery and controversy by proclaiming that the Beatles White Album contained metaphorical messages that would “set up things for revolution – the battle of Armageddon.” Manson even lent his own interpretation to the Beatle lyrics, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and then learn to fly / All your life you were waiting for this moment to arise.” Manson believed them to mean that the black man was going to arise and overthrow the white man. He absurdly suggested that the Beatles were trying to initiate a race war. Supposedly evil messages were also detected in the music of Black Oak Arkansas, Electric Light Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, and Queen. Such intriguing mystery and fun there was in trying to hear the alleged satanic messages in the music of  the aforementioned musicians by playing the music backwards – a task accomplished by setting the speed of the turntable in a neutral position and then manually spinning it backwards at a speed that made the vocalist’s voice and the hidden message discernable. Indeed, even when we were no longer children, we hadn’t given up childish ways. – We still “played” with music.

            As we progress through our lives, and as we reflect on past moments in our lives, most of us discover that music both accompanied and defined the most momentous occasions. In my personal reflections, I recall, as a new teenage driver, driving too fast and singing along as The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” blasted from the car radio. I flipped my car. The car was damaged, but I was physically unscathed. The irony lies in the fact that the otherwise normal silence that typically follows the shock and confusion from such an accident was broken by The Angels melodiously and rhythmically warning, “…..and there’s gonna be trouble.”  Music – the soundtrack of our lives!

            When I was going through a particularly devastating divorce, I was quite the drama queen and experienced a great deal of self pity in the initial stages. It was not uncommon for neighbors to hear the husky, whiskey-throated vocals of Janis Joplin lamenting “Take another piece of my heart, baby.” Ah yes -  music – the soundtrack of our lives!

            As a young divorced woman and single mother of both a baby and a toddler – struggling with a full time teaching position while simultaneously attempting to complete my Master’s degree, I often felt overwhelmed. Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” became my musical mantra. Listening to it each morning gave me an emotional boost and the strength and courage to face the challenges that were mine each day. Music – a pep rally in C-Minor!

            Don McLean’s “American Pie” refers to the “day the music died.” The music died once again on December 8, 1980 when John Lennon was murdered. I remember feeling shock and disbelief and found it impossible to even fathom how someone could take the life of a talented, peaceful man who musically invited us to Imagine. “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope someday you’ll join us / And the world will live as one.” Apparently, Mark David Chapman wasn’t feeling the brotherhood of man when he chose to snuff out the light that was Lennon. John Lennon’s “Imagine” became my mourning lament for some time thereafter and is still among my favorite songs.

            My children were raised in an acoustic environment of my musical repertoire and learned to appreciate the classics as well classic rock – old time rock and roll - and still love it today, even though they have developed their own repertoire of today’s music. I watch my children, grown now, enjoying their music, enjoying their lives, and I sometimes feel nostalgic about my children as babies and miss my grandbabies at times that I’m unable see them. No matter how grown up my children have become they will always be my babies, and my job as a mother – everlasting. The Dixie Chicks song, “Lullabye”, sums up those sentiments with lyrical simplicity: “They didn’t have you where I come from / Never knew the best was yet to come / Life began when I saw your face / And I hear your laugh like a serenade / How long do you want to be loved / Is forever enough, is forever enough?” It’s instinctive for parents to feel protective of their children even after their children are grown. I, personally, am a lioness when it comes to protecting my own – ready to pounce on anything or anyone intending them harm. I am not embarrassed to admit that the lyrics from The Grateful Dead’s song, “I Will Take You Home”, occasionally bring a wistful tear to my eye: “Ain’t no way the Bogeyman can get you / You can close your eyes, the world is gonna let you / Your daddy’s here and never will forget you / I will take you home / I will take you home”. Music – life’s lullaby!

            Sometimes, even with all of life’s blessings, it’s possible occasionally to feel loneliness, sadness or even despair. At such times, it’s difficult to resist wallowing in our own self pity. It’s  been my experience that song choices, such as Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” or Neil Young’s “Helpless”, are particularly appropriate musical accompaniment for pity parties. As Maya Angelou wrote in Gather Together in My Name, “Music was my refuge; I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

            However, a more emotionally therapeutic alternative for those morose moments would be to fill the air with uplifting music and joyful songs. My personal preferences for lifting me from doldrums include Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, Bob Marly’s “Three Little Birds”, Judy Garland’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, Yael Naim’s “New Soul”, and, of course, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony”. These choices are emotional and spiritual endorphins – the wine of inspiration – the mythical Bacchus melodiously elevating and intoxicating our mood. It’s as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poetically proclaimed, “And the night shall be filled with music. And the cares that infest the day shall fold their tents like Arabs and as silently steal away.”

            There are few better ways to take a respite from melancholy, stress and worries than to embark on a tropical get-away or a vacation to any destination with sun, sand and surf. You will need travel tunes to help you transition from work mode to vacation mode. Pop a Jimmy Buffet CD into your car CD player and you will soon be transported to “Margaritaville”, eating a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” – a place where self-indulgence is the rule rather than the exception – a place where it’s perfectly acceptable to have a Corona, a Margarita or even a Vodka Martini in the middle of the day. After all, “it’s five o’clock somewhere.” Jimmy Buffet – musical manna for the beach-going soul!

            These are difficult times that we are living in right now. We are involved in a seemingly endless war and have inherited from the previous presidential administration an economy and environment literally “raped” by government negligence and missteps. We bear witness to contentious and self-serving political bickering and grandstanding that serves only to block President Obama’s policies and initiatives designed to help America and Americans. My musical mantra for the exasperation that I feel with this situation – Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A’Changin’” and John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change.” Music – the battle hymn for the disenfranchised!

            Being a Baby Boomer – the Woodstock generation – it’s difficult for me to conceive of ever growing old when I still feel young at heart and still possess a rock and roll soul. My musical mantra, and one from which all Boomers can take consolation, includes Five for Fighting’s “100 Years” and Bob Dylan’s comfort classic, “Forever Young”. Music –a mellow fountain of youth!

            If  it’s difficult to fathom the autumn of our lives, it’s even more unpleasant to think about facing death one day. Remember that Paul Simon suggested that music should follow us right on up until we die. I suggest that music should be the soundtrack for our lives even after death. If I were to choose my funereal soundtrack, it would most assuredly include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, James Blunt’s “Carry You Home”, Sarah MacLachlan’s “Angel”, and Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart”. But, like Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

            On a more whimsical and personal note, I must admit that when this Boomer Babe needs a boost to her self esteem, she enjoys listening to The Allman Brothers’ “Sweet Melissa” and foolishly fantasizing that the Bros are singing about her. Silly you say? Well, that’s okay. “Sweet Melissa” is my song, and I am sweet Melissa!

             You see now that there is no disputing the fact that music does indeed define us. It is the musical score to the metaphorical movie that is our lives. Tolstoy believed that music is “the shorthand of emotion.” But Aldous Huxley more precisely captured its impact and essence in his essay, Music at Night: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Picture credit: Stephen Davies