…When you said your last goodbye
I died a little bit inside
And I lay in tears in bed all night
Alone without you by my side
But if you loved me
Why’d you leave me?
Take my body…take my body…
All I want is
And all I need is
To find somebody
I’ll find somebody
Like you…like you…
These are the words, sung in the warm, Celtic voice of Clare Stagg that had me wiping away a single tear before glancing down at my phone thinking:
Why the hell am I listening to this garbage?
I appreciate a wide variety of music, a variety that I am always trying to broaden and enhance. I’ve gone through all sorts of phases with music, ranging from death metal to blues, classic rock to ska, punk to choro, and many more.
Phases come and go, but I always return to some of the same favorite genres that just never seem to get old: jazz, classical, and…. one other one.
Something a lot of people don’t know about me is my strange affinity for electronic music. (It’s kind of my dirty little secret.)
I’m aware of the images this conjures up:
…thousands of people packed into massive stadiums…. painted faces, flags and glow-sticks waving everywhere… arms swaying to mind-blowing light shows while drowning in beat/MDMA induced euphoria…and all in front of a single DJ on an enormous stage.
For the record, I’ve never been to a rave or EDM event, but the music (if you can call it that) is something that appeals to me for several reasons:
- It’s energetic and is highly conducive to maintaining flow-state. This helps me stay in “go-mode” whenever I need to be productive or drive fast (which is always).
- It’s mathematically structured and therefore cognitively digestible for a machine-brained person like me. It’s almost like Bach, except you can move to it (fyi: you cannot dance to it).
- It is unparalleled in its ability to draw out positive emotion. Trance is carefully designed to take the listener on an intense emotional rollercoaster ride by gradually building on an uplifting tune, adding deep base lines, pushing the emotion further and further until an accelerating drum beat brings the song to the brink of an almost unbearable climax that finally releases the listener with a return to the deep, heavy beat that is the undercurrent of the whole piece. Then it repeats the process.
I could make trance sound even more sophisticated, but who am I kidding? Trance appeals to the same base primitive emotions that country, hip-hop and pop music appeal to. Trance just does it electronically and with euphoria as its emotional medium.
Did I really just use the word “sophisticated”?
I hope it’s at least somewhat apparent at this point that I basically hate myself for liking this junk. If classical music is like an aged bottle of exquisite wine you found in your grandfathers cellar, then trance is like a line of coke you got from the McDonald’s dishwasher in exchange for a pack of smokes.
But it wasn’t the genre so much as it was the lyrics in Ciaran McAuley’s emotional new hit “All I Want” that made me cringe.
You see, I have a certain dislike for “vocal music”. What I mean by “vocal music”, is any piece of music that has words in it.
(Please excuse me while I get on my soap box for a moment. Ahem.)
Music speaks loudest when it has no voice. This is because music has a voice and a language all its own, one that cuts through the limits of human grammar and vocabulary and touches our emotions directly. Music can tell complicated stories, unite a diverse crowd, and leave grown men in tears for reasons they don’t understand.
It has been said that:
Words, versatile though they are, are simply insufficient in describing the true depths of the human experience.
So humans built machines to speak for us – to work as proxies when words weren’t enough, and wrote a new language that both human and machine could speak.
We call these machines instruments…and we call the language… music.
Music is the message. And that message is only limited and cheapened by the addition of human words. The most heinous violation of musical purity by vocals is that it immediately identifies and separates speaker and audience. Music is communication. It can be a conduit for the expression of feeling, a source of feeling, a combination of the two, or even a complex mixture of the same.
The details depend on more factors than can be listed, so suffice it to say, music is a unique experience. Adding an “ambassador” for the music erases that amazing and unique potential for two-way communication and expression.
Finally, human words add specific meaning, which limits what the music might have said otherwise. Words add cultural and political baggage that can act as a geographical marker and/or a timestamp, thereby destroying a potentially timeless piece.
There simply is no substitute for pure music, music that has no need for specific and petty human meanings.
(Okay. Soap-boxing complete – thank you.)
Yet, despite knowing all this, I still indulge in vocal music from time to time, and it just so happened to be those dumb, bleeding-heart lyrics that got me thinking about human song and its meaning in the broader sense.
I don’t know if maybe I was trying to understand why I liked this music, or if I was trying to justify why it was okay to like it, but I’m going to have to explain another strange feature of my mind for the rest of this to make sense. Please bear with me.
Dirty secret #2:
I have a habit of mentally reframing human behavior in alternate contexts when I encounter something that seems illogical or that I can’t quite wrap my head around.
I accomplish this by replacing the humans with one of two animals: for scenarios involving higher cognitive functions (usually group functions), I imagine bonobos, and for more basic mammalian behaviors, I imagine mice.
This conceptual thought experiment usually helps me sort out and understand what people are doing and why.
Here are some examples to clarify:
Why would a smart male teenager try so hard to fit in with a group of popular teenagers of vastly lower intelligence? Is this something a beta-male bonobo attempting to discover/gain status in an established social hierarchy might do to gain access to females and mating privileges?
Why would a non-starving person consume copious amounts of junk food when they know it makes them sexually unattractive and shortens their life span? Is this something a mouse with a genetic predisposition to favor rare and valuable nutrients would do when exposed to readily available sources of sugar and fat?
These are admittedly sloppy examples, but they at least illustrate the framework.
So once again the question of music inspired me to attempt a similar thought experiment.
Why would anyone make or listen to this emotionally charged noise when we’ve already invented classical music and jazz (and choro)? And most importantly, what would super-intelligent aliens think if they were cruising by Earth and happened to hear this crap?
To find out, I decided to turn the tables.
Imagine with me if you will (I’ve always wanted to say that), a distant future in which humans are traveling on a spaceship and come across a small planet on which mice have become the dominant species. What would we hear if we directed our microphones towards their planet and listened? What kind of music would they be making?
What if mice could sing?
Well, first of all, although mice are capable of squeaking at frequencies human ears can hear, most of their squeaks extend outside of our hearing range and into the ultrasonic. It would be a lot of high-pitched noise to our ears, so we’d need to adjust the microphones a little to compensate. Second, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine what they would sing about:
Since these mice were small prey animals throughout most of their evolution, they would probably sing about a deep fear of or respect for predators. They would sing about heroes evading cats, snakes, owls and foxes. They would sing about mice who conquered their fears and who ventured out into the great unknown and survived.
They would probably sing about the things that are essential to the longevity of their species (ie: the things that are most dear to them): sexual attraction, offspring, companionship and all of the related emotions like connection, love, longing, and loss.
Mice would likely also sing about the simpler elements that comprise mouse life. Things like safety, food, sleep, shelter, nature, and peace. The things that make a mouse’s life worth living.
Some mice might even sing about the things that make a mouse’s life awful. Things like sickness, disease, starvation, even corruption and exploitation.
Is that too far-fetched? I think if we allow ourselves creative license to imagine this much (based on general mouse social behavior) we could be justified in assuming that mice would sing about the same things that humans sing about.
I guess humans aren’t so strange after all. Given that humans sing, it would be weird if we didn’t sing about the things we sing about.
So that’s one problem solved. I’ll need to be less harsh on vocal music from now on.
I would have ended things there, but the more I played around with this little thought experiment, the more interesting it got.
Back to our imaginary spaceship hovering on the edge of our mouse planet.
If we “zoomed in” our microphones, we might focus on a single mouse’s heartfelt song. A song about tunneling in fields, maybe. A song perhaps for mouse children about the carefree mouse that got snatched up by a hawk. Or maybe a ballad about young mouse love. Maybe even a trance song about a mouse’s broken heart.
But what would happen if we “zoomed out” our microphones a little?
A loud cacophony of thousands of squeaks and squeals, all in the same regional mouse language or dialect (most likely), accompanied by a confused mesh of all the various musical instruments that mice would no doubt have invented.
We could no doubt pick out all kinds of different songs at this distance. A funeral dirge here, a battle march there. Mouse kindergarten choirs, mouse garage punk bands, and mouse operas. Mouse songs sung in mouse showers, mouse songs sung in mouse streets, mouse songs screamed at the night sky, and mouse songs choked by mouse sobs.
But why stop there?
What if we zoomed out ALL the way? What if we could capture every single song being sung on this tiny mouse planet? What would we hear?
You might say we would get a coarse-grained snapshot of what being a mouse on the mouse planet at that one instant is like. A strange, confused, and truly overwhelming picture of what it is to be a mouse. It would be unfathomable, horrendous and terrible. It would be mesmerizing and humbling. It would be something never heard before:
A frighteningly complex uproar comprised of billions of mouse voices all singing, shouting, screaming, whispering, crying and wailing in a single, tumultuous song. It would be a song that began when the first mouse to develop vocal cords uttered its first squeak, and it would continue without intermission into infinity. An unbroken song.
This song would tell a tangled and garbled story of pain, and suffering, and love, and compassion, and laughing, and crying, and hoping, and dreaming, and eating, and sleeping, and mating, and dying, and living….and living.
A story of living.
What we would hear emanating from our little mouse planet… would be a song about living.
An unbroken song of life.
I began to think at this point about how Earth really isn’t all that different from this imaginary “Planet of the Mice”.
We spend so much time living on our own little planet… we forget that living on this planet is literally all we do.
But while we’re doing it, we somehow always find time to sing about it, too.
We write songs. And then we sing them to each other.
The songs that an alien visitor would hear coming from our Earth would be no different than the many squeaks and squeals from that mouse planet we imagined earlier.
A deafening melting together of voices… singing together, crying together, feeling together… in a billion simultaneous and sequential movements to the grandest symphony ever composed…
…our very own unbroken song of life.
At this point I realized something about my silly trance song: it doesn’t speak for all of humanity – it’s just one small voice. That’s all. One small voice among countless others that make up a single snapshot of what it is to be a human on this planet.
After all, is Earth really that different from a mouse planet? And are humans really that different from mice?
What are we really, but lonely, grapefruit-brained mammals stranded on a lost little planet lunging through the universe?
If humans could sing, what would they sing? What do they sing?
I think I may have figured it out…
An unbroken song of life comprised of a billion wailing beings struggling to make sense of their existence…
…a billion voices singing their souls into the void.
I wondered what our song of life sounded like, and wished humans could hear it. I also wondered how we would react to it if we could hear it.
Would we focus on the many cycles of life and find peace in it? Would the meaninglessness of it all induce feelings of despair? Would we recoil in horror at the unfathomable suffering, or maybe just laugh because no other reaction felt appropriate?
I wonder if we’d even find a word big enough to describe it all with.
Our song of life, that is.
As for me, I have no idea how I would react to the human song. I just hope, as I imagine everyone would, that it wouldn’t shatter the way I currently see life.
Because for me, from my narrow life and even narrower perspective, there is only one word big enough that touches all of the feelings that encompass the human experience in all its wonder and tragedy… and that word is beauty.
Standing alone in the women’s shoe stockroom, with a wall of Steve Madden on one side of me, and a wall of Sam Edelman on the other, I looked down at my phone again. I decided it was okay to listen to these dumb songs after all, and chose a track that I knew would lift my spirits a little…or at least help me run stock faster:
the new release by Zach Zlov, “Regicide” from The Art of Skullduggery.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I’ll keep listening to my stupid low-brow trance music, at least for now.
After all, it adds to a certain unfathomable beauty that I know of.
But, and for what it’s worth, I did switch to Mahler’s fifth symphony afterwards to make up for it.