November 15, 2016

How to listen to music in a country you do not recognize


Spirit-Of-Eden-coverTalk Talk’s Mark Hollis opens Spirit of Eden, the band’s penultimate record from 1988, with the line, “Oh yeah, world’s turned upside down.” The lyric, sung in Hollis’s unmistakably sonorous voice (like a viola being bowed), confirms the band’s conscious upturning of the sonic/aesthetic world of New Wave, the genre with which it had previously been most closely associated, and introduce listeners to a strange new world, where Hollis sings in the dark.

At first take, the line—with that lazy contraction, with that cool “oh yeah”—might be heard as a bit too detached for comfort. One might hear in it a nihilist’s view of the apocalypse. But in Hollis’s announcement that the world we’ve all known is gone, that the very ground on which he is standing is unlike any ground he’s stood on before, I hear something else. I hear a voice from the future. A voice that survives and still sings.

I shied away from music for a few days after the election of Donald Trump. Music has a way of infusing joy in everything, and in the days immediately after I found that joy insulting. I didn’t deserve it, and I didn’t want it. Besides, I should be focusing on figuring out what to do about all of this. Problem was, I couldn’t focus on a damn thing.

In any event, over the course of this past weekend, following the first protests and the endless horrifying distraction of scrolling on Facebook and Twitter, I remembered Hollis’s line, and I began to wonder about music’s active role in all of this moving forward. With music, the news brings a sense of purpose, even when the news is bad. Even when the news is at its most pulverizing and over the top, a listener participates: sings, dances, meditates, marches, plugs her ears in defiance.

So how—in these early days of Trump’s America, these days of terrifying headline after terrifying headline, these days where the media is already doing its best to normalize Trump and his cronies—how can music help? And how might we meaningfully participate with it?

I’m positive I don’t know, but I do believe that some music has an unbelievable knack for creating an auditory landscape from which to place oneself in to breathe deep, to read, to think clearly (at last!), to protest. To move forward. Like Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, the places of these songs are spare and terrifying — but should we set up camp in them for a while, I think we might better position ourselves to move forward, both healthier and more productive. Further, if we learn to enter these sonic worlds with intention (like preparing a French press, like going to the library to write no less than 5,000 words), we give ourselves, at the very least, the opportunity to focus on what to do next — and that’s much better than endless dread or unforgivable amnesia.

Some suggestions for where to get started below.


Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.