Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On the Other Side of Wherever

Neon music sign
I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. ~ Igor Stravinsky

This from the man who composed The Firebird Suite, can you believe that? Reminds me of something songwriter Paul Simon said about Graceland. When asked what the lyrics meant, he said he had no idea, they just came to him and they worked. There have been times when listening to Lady Smith Black Mombazo I'm convinced some piece of my soul must be rooted in Africa.

Music separates or at least, distinguishes one generation from another, less because of its content and more because of its form. The lyrics of John Dowland's Flow My Tears reflects the culture of 1596, but heartbreak transcends language and culture. So does love, liquor (and its variants, e.g. Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix), and lust. People are people and we're going to write about what we feel no matter where or when we live.

And, as each generation enters adolescence, the intensity of feeling that finds expression in music is so exquisite that it seems utterly unique. When feeling finds a form, it becomes infused with our desire for self-expression, which leads us to believe we're saying something that's either never been said before or not quite in this same way. Although mom has felt Lost in Love (Air Supply) with the poignant memories to prove it, her daughter, listening to Gotta be Somebody (Nickelback), cries angrily, "Haven't you ever been in love?"

In a sense, the medium becomes the message rather than its bearer. Understanding is rooted in our ability to enter into the musical experience and participate on an emotional level. My Life (Billy Joel) and Second Chance (Shinedown) have nearly identical themes, i.e. leaving one life in pursuit of another, but they're miles apart in the ways they communicate it. Their power lies in the emotions they evoke. We all yearn for liberation, no matter who sings its anthem.

Finding common ground is an empathic process. It entails taking on the spirit of Stravinsky and admitting we don't "get" what's going on within music, but recognizing that we don't have to. What really matters, especially when establishing a basis for relating to teenagers, is whether we can let go of our inhibitions about feeling. We don't have to give up being ourselves, we just need to learn to listen and let the music take us where it will. It won't hurt, and we might be surprised to find our children waiting for us, just on the other side of wherever.


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