Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Preamble to the 2013 Year in Review Album

It's that time of year again.  List after list chronicling, categorizing and ranking the musical year pops up in my inbox. I love looking and listening through them as much as I can because there is so much new, undiscovered territory for me.  And I am about to finalize my own year-end list. It's an annual tradition friends and family have been collaborating on and it's one I hope never falls by the wayside.

One of the opinions professionals shared this year more than ever is that there just isn't enough time to cover all the music being made.  Even if you only focus on one genre, or sub-genre. Music can be recorded on an iPhone, mixed, uploaded and disseminated so quickly, there would be no way to stay afloat with all that's being produced.  But even the well-known bands with big followings seemed extra prolific this year.  Take, for example, the Avett Brothers.  They released two full-length,studio albums about one year apart.  The Avetts tour relentlessly in the US and abroad, and still found time to write two albums chock full of beautiful, profound songs.  Sometimes I guess you get to a moment when you have a lot to say and you need to make the music when it's in you.  Even as a big Avett Brothers fan, it takes a long time with one of their albums to really know it.  With any album I want to get to know, I sit with it for long car rides, talk about it with other people, think about what the lyrics are saying, listen to it in my apartment, with headphones, and in the car to get all kinds of different sounds and hear different things each track.  Not being a person whose livelihood is made listening to music, it is sometimes hard to find this kind of time in the midst of normal life pursuits. Music professionals who listen to music every waking hour of every day (and sometimes in their sleep) would be able to cover exponentially more musical ground than me, but even they lament the lack of time and how much they missed. You just can't hear everything.

For the longest time, I couldn't accept this fact. How could I live when I didn't, and couldn't, know it all? I was plagued by thoughts of a lute-playing Serbian poet writing the song my soul was born to sing.  What if I never heard it? This fear drove me to a near-suicidal level of concert-going and music-absorption. I probably spent most of my disposable income seeing shows and buying music, back in those days when The Cloud didn't exist.  I was going to four and five shows in a week, and getting the same number of hours of sleep per night, driven to discover.

Partly, this drive came from a search for an identity.  I wanted music, my knowledge of it and my passion for it, to be something that defined me.  I would hear something in a song that I wanted to be. I pursued self-actualization through song lyrics.  And the more I heard, the more heroines cannonized in beautiful ballads, the more my own true character got lost trying to be what people were singing about.  In college, I was in love with a boy who loved music as much if not more than I did. He introduced me to a band called Rockwell Church. They wrote a song called "She Hung the Moon" and I still think it is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard.  I bring it up simply to illustrate that all I wanted in life was to hang the moon for someone, for someone to think of me as lighting their night sky.  Oh, if you could hear those beautiful guitar strings being strummed, and the soft harmonies being sung like I heard them in my head. This guy in particular hung the moon for me at a certain point in my life and that he had shared the song with me meant that I was special. Maybe, I thought, he was dedicating this song to me.  This small act, its significance a tenuous extrapolation at best, became foundational in my understanding of our relationship.  We spoke to each other through music.  We said things we couldn't otherwise say to each other in song, every mix tape or band recommendation a coded message.  

I've realized how dangerous it is to look for the definition of your character, or your relationships, in other people or things.  We have to say what we mean to one another, in real time. It seems an obvious statement, and yet, I see this struggle in a vast majority of the people I encounter, including myself. One song I go back to again and again for its truth is Everclear's "Everything to Everyone".  Though this record, in fact the whole album, is lyrically dark, the sound is ear-catching pop through and through.  "Everything to Everyone" was one of the biggest singles off that album which did very well in 1997.  "You always try to be everything to everyone.  You know all the right people, you play all the right games..."  That rings crystal clear for me at that time in my life.  I just wanted to be perfect, all the time, to everyone.  Know all the answers, know where to go, what to do, and have the right friendships.  That was all I needed to validate me.

First, I derived my identity from the music I was listening to and the words I yearned would describe me.  Next, I got it from the amount of music I consumed and my ability to speak intelligently, nay, esoterically, about it.  If I missed a show or an album release, if I heard bands mentioned that I didn't know about being talked about in friend circles, it was like heaping coals on my head. And I wouldn't share willingly either.  I hated it when a band got popular or sell-out arena tours started.  I hated it when they no longer felt like this discovery that I had made and that was all mine.  I felt like part of my identity, as someone who knew these things, an expert and a trusted resource, was called into question when it became a common resource, a part of the public discussion.  No longer a badge of honor in conversation.  At that point it became about, "well, I knew them when...."  What a horrible thing to say to someone who has just come to you with this newfound joy for a band or a song that I once had myself.  And all I could do was say, "yeah, I've seen them 5 times and I bought that album two years ago.  Have you heard their live anthology?"  Which tells this person two things 1) I am affirming your like of this band, but only in a way that is inferior to my like for them, and 2) you're not cool enough. So Sorry. Thanks for playing.  That was my way of acknowledging and at the same time completely dismissing genuine people trying to connect with me about something they knew I liked or thought I might like.

I've since learned that if you don't want to share things that should be shared, food, music, fellowship, that is a glaring red flag.  I was hoarding something that is designed to be enjoyed communally.  Also, a natural response for joy and excitement is sharing with people you love.  What makes a heart contract like that?

In college, because people who love music tend to find one another, a few friends got together and gave each other the soundtracks of our lives one year.  I cannot tell you how much time I spent on mine.  I must have gone through and listened to at least part of every song in my library to find the ones I wanted to tell my life story up to age 22.  I still remember these discs and how much each of us poured into them.  I got a little courageous with some of my choices and remember learning a lot about the people who submitted through the music they chose, even though we were all already close friends.  We were being vulnerable with each other.

Still to this day, I rely on poets and the words of others to express my heart.  I might have been better at self-expression by now, but while I was trying so hard to be who I thought people wanted me to be, who people needed me to be, and who I thought I was, I lived wholly apart from who I actually am.  I didn't learn how to say what I mean because I was always afraid it would be the wrong thing.  So I either kept quiet or spoke vaguely without any real truth. One thing I have always admired about true artists and writers is that, for better or worse, they seem to have a firmly rooted sense of identity and that's why the best artists and writers write so well.  Nothing can shake them, come hell or high water, the art in them is an expression that MUST COME OUT.  I am so grateful that there are people out there who aren't scared to write lyrics like "If I loved you, life would be easy, there'd be no truth that I'd be scared of...but I don't love you, not like I want to..." and to pour passion into stone like this:

What is the point of art?  What is the point of listening to music?  It coaxes us away from our false selves, and edges us closer to true reality.  Even in artistic impressions of reality, like in Starry Night, we can experience something true.

That is why I listen to music.  It is no longer to find out from the music who I am.  It is no longer to impress people with how much I know about something.  It's no longer a greedy hoarding of good tunes that I alone possess.  Time and again beautiful words and notes come together to lift me out of my flawed self, and towards something true.  That is why you can't look for the definition of yourself in the music, or in the people making the music, or in the people you listen to the music with.  Music echoes the call of Him From Whom All Things Flow.  Art, specifically music, when it is good,  reminds me that we are created from something vastly greater and not of this earth.  It reminds me that we are called to employ our gifts with whatever scope of reach we have in the service of His Kingdom.  Anything with that purpose can turn into a passionate pouring out of love, no matter the job, no matter who it is done for.

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