Healing Words

Published Friday May 11, 2018.

An old note, which I figured I’d save for posterity…

So Max Temkin (designer of Cards Against Humanity) has discussed music taste before and claims that (to paraphrase):

People listen to music from when they were most powerful. Most men keep their music taste from when they were in their late teens for example, because after that people just get more impotent.

His ideas here never sat well with me, but even though he can’t really prove his side of things it frustrated me that I didn’t have a competing theory, or a counterexample of his.

Today I had a lousy day, and I couldn’t get anything done and I got all bothered and frustrated — so I took half an hour out and took a walk to clear my head, and while I did I put on some music I was enjoying a few months ago that I haven’t listened to for a while.

The music’s from an absolutely perfect podcast, called The Adventure Zone. I like this song especially because I remember listening to the scene back in November very vividly, and for months after something about that scene and the music would make me well up with hope. It’s interesting to me that I revisit it now, when I’m having a Bad Day™, because I haven’t listened to it in ages! But sure enough, I ended up cutting my walk kind of short because listening to Rachel Rose Mitchell just completely brightened my perspective.

I think this is true of a lot of the music I pick up now. Coming from a similar time, Bo En’s Money Won’t Pay still makes me dance around my kitchen — I’m listening to it now as I’m writing — and I finally discovered The Mountain Goats too. I’m also off to see The The this September, and I still listen to This Is The Day when something big happens in my life — I got seriously into them maybe six or seven years ago. At the same time, I got into Liquid Tension Experiment, and a solid decade ago it was The Flaming Lips and Arthur Yoria (who just released a very good new album!).

The point of this big list of bands is that there’s a bit of a theme, but I’ve ended up listening to a range of things — what they really have in common isn’t genre or time in my life, but the times in my life. I actually think Max is on to something with his power notion, but I think he’s wrong to assume that we listen to music we pick up in one specific period of our lives, or that we listen to music that makes us feel powerful. All of those come from different times, and I associate them with different feelings, but the constant is that those feelings are all things I can look back on and understand as growth.

And I think that’s important. Things that stick with us — or things we come back to again and again — are more often than not things that help us to appreciate some new part of ourselves, or are things that we associate with that.

For example, I really love Fiona Apple, because whenever I listen to her I’m reminded of playing her as the test of finally getting music working on my first serious Linux machine; I was listening to her when I finally understood how computers worked. Feeder reminds me of hanging out with my Dad, playing video games, a solid decade ago. Radiohead reminds me both of the first time I fell in love, and seperately, the first time I appreciated love.

The point I want to make, though, is that I don’t think this is just true of music. I think this is why we keep all sorts of art in our lives. For example, Seven Samurai is a film I still come back to often even though I don’t really enjoy watching it that much, because it reminds me of a cultural curiosity I had around 17. And I’ll always be really fond of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, partly because it’s a perfect book if you want to borrow a copy just say the word and partly because it completely reframed my perspective on what a narrative could be. When I feel burnt out, or like I’ve made poor life choices, Dances Moving always brings me back around. (If you watch it, start from the beginning and let it build through a few episodes. They’re only 3 mins each.)

We pick up a range of music, and eventually we stop — I can’t think of many people significantly older than me who still repeatedly find new music that becomes a classic for them — but I don’t think we stop because we feel powerless, and the music reminds us of a better time.

Ze Frank says something along the lines of, “the things that make us feel most alone have the greatest power to connect us”. On a similar note, the things that make us feel most vulnerable have the greatest power to touch us. When we’re open, and something has the potential to hurt us, sometimes art comes along that takes that vulnerability and teaches us something about ourselves with it, and I love that. I can’t think of anything I’ve kept through the years, culturally, that hasn’t had that kind of impact on me in retrospect, or isn’t something I associate with some period of growth.

In fact, I think there’s some similarity with what Ze’s said around Crushing Words, only here, we’re talking about words that bring hope or clarity, too — not just Ze’s kind of existential pondering, but something that can inspire and heal.

Additional: I wonder whether prayer has the same value. I’m not going to be bold enough to actually comment on religion, that’s not my place, but I do wonder whether there’s something about the connectedness, and community, and comfort, and safety, of having prayer to fall back on. When people are in a really tough spot, faith tends to get them through, and I wonder whether that experience gives people of faith an understanding about themselves and the world that culture gives me. When people pray really fervently, they’re usually in a place where they need the help they’re praying for. I just stick on the mountain goats. Maybe that vulnerability, that’s almost introspective, leaves people open to discovering more about their personal philosophy and worldview through faith. That’d explain why religious texts seem to have so much life advice, and stories about what the world is like. I’m unsure.