Tuesday 24 January 2017

‘Your head throbbing like a heart, and your heart throbbing like a drum, and the drums throbbing like the point is just go ahead and jump’ *

That last post was a bit intense, wasn’t it? Well, technically now I’m referring to the post before the last one, because the unexpected entry last time was more along the lines of ‘shit, there's been an earthquake, fuuuuck, I was not prepared for that.’ But the general arc of my posts has been quite intensely introspective and steeped in navel gazing self-analysis, and, it’s not like all of that stuff has gone anywhere, but nobody can, or should, run at that level at all times, mainly because, it’s just too exhausting. Things ebb and flow, so I’m going to ease up the tempo now and focus on something a bit less, well, less. Although, I say this, but in actuality this blog is really just the next step in the same arc, I’m just trying to have a bit more fun with the whole thing because life can be so damn heavy, y’know?

The intention with this one is to share my thoughts, but to also hopefully encourage yours. I’m going to talk about music: what it has meant to me, can mean to me, and how I connect with it in general. The desired outcome being that maybe it will make you think about your own relationship with music, or any kind of art, and consider the value of it to you as person. That’s my theory anyway, and at least, I can recommend some awesome tunes to you along the way.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of music and the impact it can have on our emotional lives. If you’re at all like me, music can be anything from fun, funny, and funky to melancholic, cathartic and ultimately heart breaking. I believe our emotional relationship with music works on many levels. It links us to our memories, to our relationships, to our feelings and our perspectives on life. Listening to music can be passive or active, enjoyable or painful, but whatever it is, it takes something that was meaningful to the person creating it, and our interpretations of it make it personal to us. Such is art.

I love words (I was going to make a joke here about knowing all the best words - but that shit just ain’t funny now that it’s the actual leader of the free world) but there are places that words alone can’t reach. There are thoughts and feelings that just feel bigger than the neat little bow you can put words around. Of course, lyrics are a big part of music, and I’ve always enjoyed the poetry of them. Much like actual poetry, lyrics tend to summarise in short, punchy lines, ideas and emotions that I find it difficult to explain using a thousand words. That’s why I’m a shit poet, as it happens. It’s all about the metaphor isn’t it? I love metaphor. This goes some way to explaining why two of my favourite musical outfits, R.E.M. and Beck, tend to use so much metaphor that to anyone not subscribed to their madness it can seem almost too abstract (hepatitis contact lens anyone? Sarcastic silver swell that day it rained? No?)

Anyway, I keep linking to songs at the end of my posts because I’ve been going through a lot of heavy emotional stuff (aren’t we all, always, to different degrees) and as important as it is to try to disconnect from my issues and consider them abstractly and logically at points, it’s also really important to, y’know, actually feel my feelings.

I didn’t do much listening to music when I lived in Saigon. This was in part because walking around with headphones on was just an absurdly stupid idea. Never before have I ever lived somewhere where you need your wits about you quite literally at all times to avoid trouble or risk to your personal safety. But that wasn’t the whole reason why I didn’t, I could’ve listened more in the relative safety of my apartment. I didn’t do it because I could not afford to feel so much on an emotional level - I was surviving. I had to build a damn that I dared not break in order to get through each day. The songs I did listen to, on the occasions that I did, tended to be big, expressive, 80’s tunes, because I could cope with the broad strokes, and the big shouty anthems, I just couldn’t do nuance. I feared that doing so would fill in all the rapidly expanding cracks and split me apart at the centre.

Now, however, I live in a land where sheep still outnumber people by a large majority, and the capital city tends to be less hectic than ‘uddersfield town centre on a bad day. This gives me the freedom to slip on my headphones and transport myself back into my emotional life. I cry, I laugh, I sing and even dance at points (but generally don’t worry about judgement, because I’ve found sheep aren’t that judgemental) and this helps me to process the things I need to process. There are no answers at the end of that process of course, but there can be understanding, and expression, and both of those things can help you to move forward. Or at least that’s what I believe.

This change of situation that has allowed me time to heal reminds me of the Terry Pratchett book Carpe Jugulum. In that story, one of the main characters, Granny Weatherwax, goes on quite a difficult personal journey, at the end of which she has to fight it out, hard as nails, and not show any weakness to win the day. As part of that, she catches the end of a sword, and appears to suffer no damage at all, breaking the confidence of her opponent. I should mention at this point for those who are not familiar with Pratchett’s Discworld series that Granny Weatherwax is a witch, and that’s how she manages to pull off the sword grabbing. But even magic is subject to some natural laws in the Discworld, albeit bendable ones. So later, at the end of the story, when it’s quiet and she’s alone, the wound opens and she suffers the damage that she delayed before. Now, I may not have magical powers (or only a few anyway), but I can identify with this metaphor, I think a lot of us can. We don’t always react and express how we feel in the moment that something happens. Quite often we have to be strong, and survive, and it’s only later that we allow ourselves time to bleed. But the point is that we have to bleed sometime, else we’ll never heal. That’s what this time has been for me, and because the pain I was facing was so enormous, and I had been switched off to that for a prolonged period, it took some real connection with some meaningful music to kick start that process in me. I had to allow myself to feel again, despite my reservations.  

I’ve dallied about with the idea of this post for ages, and it’s actually been a really hard one to formulate, because out of all the million, billion awesome and wonderful songs and artists in the world, how do you ever begin to whittle down your favourites? Or make them relevant to your audience? But the point of what I’m trying to explore here is the same point of music in any given context, I’m taking something that feels personal to me and using it to tell a story. The intention behind it being that you, the reader, might identify with aspects of that story, or you might think I’m talking arse but in turn that might inspire you to think about your own emotional connection with music. So, the arbitrary rules I’ve set myself are as follows: I’ve chosen ten categories and ten artists that best exemplify that category for me personally (sort of - you'll see what I mean later!). I’ve chosen music that has specific meaning to me and through my explaining why that music matters, I’ve revealed a bit of my story along the way.

(I’ve also been immensely cheeky and dotted about some additional links to music that didn’t make the cut but is SO worth hearing, for the more curious among you.)


1. The Childhood Sweetheart – R.E.M.
I really am not sure where to start with R.E.M. I remember the first ever opportunity I had to use the internet, at school, looking up and printing out lyrics to R.E.M. tunes that I then stuck proudly on my bedroom walls. Both of my parents liked R.E.M. and had the majority of their albums. I’m not sure what exactly it was about them that I connected with, but I did, like, really did. Whether we’re talking about their old school more grungy iteration or their rock-y phase or their weirdly mournful electronic phase, I was just tuned into them and utterly on board for the ride. I was committed to them and listened to their albums endlessly, even to tunes I didn’t like that much at first, the way you do when you’re an intense young fan of something. I loved the poetry of the lyrics and Michael Stripe’s voice, so heartfelt, so achingly real. Despite my musical tastes growing and changing as I’ve got older, and me not being quite the fangirl of them that I once was, they’re like my first love, and for that reason, they’ll always be important. They will always matter to me and they will always move me because they set the template for what I would connect with in other artists. Their lyrics even made their way into my artwork when I was at college (see dodgy picture!) because R.E.M. always walked that line of being as dark and depressing as fuck yet utterly, unabashedly joyful. This is a paradox that I have a lot of empathy for. So when deciding which song to link you to, I had a really hard choice to make. Should I choose one that might surprise you, that you perhaps don’t associate with their obvious sounds from Automatic for The People or Out of Time? Should I link you to one that best demonstrates Michael Stipe’s kickass voice? But the answer came to me in the easiest way possible, I’ll just link you to the one that means the most to me right now, because that’s what the relationship will always be about. That is what it will always come back to for me, just like re-reading on old novel that you love, I’ll happen upon one of their back catalogue that speaks to me in the most wonderfully meaningful way that has relevance to the me of right now, and reminds me all over again of what I first saw in them. This one was actually written for Man on the Moon, the biopic of Andy Kaufman. Which, if you haven’t seen it, is one of the most hilarious and sincerely moving films I’ve ever seen, and Jim Carrey’s best performance of his career by a long, long way.

2. Dad Rock – Dire Straits
We all love a bit of dad rock in our lives, don’t we? I know some of you are actually dads now, so whatever music you like pretty much falls into the category of dad rock by default. It will never happen to me, even if I do have kids, I can guarantee I ain’t ever gonna be a dad. But there is a distinct line between what feels like dad rock and what doesn’t, isn’t there? So R.E.M. I would definitely classify as dad rock, Nine Inch Nails, I would not. I think I would find almost universal agreement on that, even though it’s based on feeling as opposed to any actual criteria, we just, sort of know, don’t we? Like, Genesis = dad rock. Foo Fighters = previously not, now, kinda yeah? Simple, right?

My dad has always been a weird exception to the rule because he’s genuinely really passionate about music and his LP collection is frickin’ epic and he is, just, way cooler than me in that regard. A lot of my taste in music derives from bands that my dad introduced me to, like The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Massive Attack, Queen, The Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Kings of Leon, Smashing Pumpkins, I didn’t find these bands off my own back, I was introduced to them through my dad’s record collection, which is a continual ongoing growing entity. It’s the same for my sister. And both of us have been able to tell in later years, exactly the sort of music our dad would appreciate, based on our learnt understanding of his taste. Anyway, the epitome of dad rock, really probably should be Dire Straits. And even then, what do you go with, Sultans of Swing, Brothers in Arms, possibly the greatest opening guitar riff of all time in Money for Nothing? My choice actually ties into what Dire Straits truly represent for me, and that is a memory. Not that dissimilar to The The, the sound of Dire Straits kind of encompasses this 80’s lameness, at points almost gross, and yet profoundly meaningful and accomplished performances. They manage to be all of the above at the same time. So it has to be Romeo and Juliet. This song is full of British dialect and humour, while also being utterly beautiful in its poetry. A key example being the following words

I can’t do the talk, like they talk on the TV
And I can’t do a love song, like the way it’s meant to be
I can’t do everything, but I’d do anything for you
I can’t do anything except be in love with you

So eloquently put, I wish I could express myself so succinctly and gorgeously. But I said my choice lied with a memory, so here it is. If you listen to this song, the last bars, the fading guitar and the piano at the end, those few seconds, remind me of something very specific. Travelling back from somewhere, who knows where, it’s a myriad of memories and one at the same time, at night, the streetlamps rushing past and I lie, dozing, in the back of my parents car and I feel something that I’ve rarely ever felt in my life, but I have felt it on some rare shining occasions: I felt safe. The fact that a few bars of a song can bring all of that feeling back in heartbeat, well, that just goes to remind us of the power music can have.

3. The Classics – Holst, The Planet Suite
I know I don’t particularly seem like a fan of straight up orchestral or classical music and to be honest, I’m pretty much not as a general rule. But classical and orchestral scores cover a lot of art and cinema that I love, and classical music is part of my emotional relationship with music, because it’s part of our cultural musical landscape. Now, I’m admittedly only really a fan of the obvious choices, ones that most people can identify and enjoy, but I don’t think it’s a cop out to admit it. There is a reason why people are familiar with The Planets, Hall of the Mountain King, 1812 Overture, Danse Macabre, and the likes, and that’s because cos they’re really bloody good, they evoke genuine emotion. It’s not about whether you enjoy classical music or not, these examples and others like it, transcend that genre. For me, personally, my favourite of all of these pieces of music has to be Jupiter. If you know it, you’ll get why, and even if you do know it, listen to it again, fool. It’s an epic journey and I don’t think there are many moments in music that even begin to compare to the first drop in this piece. Like, seriously, put on your headphones and immerse yourself in this, it will make your hairs stand on end.

4. The Raw Emotion – Nine Inch Nails
There are lots of bands that talk about feelings but not as many that, for me, reflect those feelings in the very arrangement of their music. Aphex Twin maybe being one, Vitalic and The Prodigy being others off the top of my head. Every aspect of the songs they produce is designed to reflect the meaning behind it. The masters at this art, are, for me, Nine Inch Nails. You don’t so much listen to a NIN song as feel it. Every beat, every sound, is engineered to carry you along the emotional arc of the feelings they are trying to convey. I think people get put off by the idea that it’s electronic music or by the use of language in their songs (oh me oh my, he said fuck repeatedly, he’s just done that for shock value) but the words are there to create a reaction in you, a visceral response, it’s not about shock - it’s about rawness. It’s about being unfiltered and having impact. I could give you so many examples of this, the unexpected and much needed joyous release at the end of All the Love in the World, the introspective revelation that is Only, the longing behind Sunspots or whip-cracking energy that drives Discipline. But I guess, for a true feel, it has to be Closer. Which, if you’re immediately put off by the language, just give it a chance, the whole song is designed to carry you through, and it feels like an unraveling. It’s all about emotion, and longing, and also, pretty awesome to dance to. But, of course, NSFW. And, if you’re my mum, or a mum type figure in my life, like, maybe, don’t click the link? And if you do, just, remember that a. I’m 32 now, and b. I really did ask you not to. ;o)

5. The Soundtrack – Clint Mansell, Moon
If you link music to an emotion then soundtracks are the key to invoking this emotion. There are songs and bands I like based solely on their use in a film that I love. Think the Dude's theme song from The Big Lebowski, or Annie Lennox's voice against the rain and transfixing pain that is American Beauty. Where would Jurassic Park, or Star Wars or Indiana Jones be without those sweeping scores? Music is integral to our enjoyment of film. When trying to pick the best example of this for me personally, it was again really hard to narrow it down. Examples like From Dusk Til Dawn, with its hip thrusting Mexican mash ups, or films with soundtracks that are synonymous with the whole ethos the picture is trying to present - I’m thinking specifically here of Badly Drawn Boy and the wonderfully cathartic moment when Hugh Grant’s character’s world falls to pieces around him in About a Boy. You can’t ever separate the emotion of a film from the emotion of the music that goes with it. But where I actually fell is the soundtrack to Moon. If you haven’t seen the film yet, Jesus Christ stop reading this immediately and get on that. And when you do, you’ll see how the soundtrack fits it perfectly. It’s surprising and tense and exciting and mysterious and melancholic - it’s everything the film is. Carried on the back of the most awesome shoulders of Sam Rockwell. And Kevin Spacey, to be fair. Before you accuse me of choosing this one just because of my feelings on Sam Rockwell, I insist that you listen to my choice and watch the film and understand how it’s not about that at all. Or at least, how all of that goes some way to understanding why I rate him so highly in the first place. And if I wanted to just focus on SR, I would just watch this again. So neeer. 

6. The Lifetime Love – Beck
Beck, oh Beck, Beck, Beck. I almost don’t even know where to start with this guy. He’s my guy, just utterly, my guy. My friends back home are aware that if I am left alone in charge of the music for any length of time, it will always turn into Beck. And if you think you don’t like Beck, I will strongly assert that he is one of those artists that you are rarely aware of liking, because he’s done so much, across so many genres, and I would bet good money that you do like some of his stuff, you just don’t even recognise it as his. And he does it all, from artsy, improv stuff, to dance to rock to funk to feel good to easy listening to almost any kind of music you care to imagine. Because he really is a proper musician, much in the vein of late and undeniably great, David Bowie. His back catalogue is so cool and so extensive that choosing a specific song is like trying to choose my favourite thing about somebody I love, how the hell do you that? Which of his songs I want, nay, need to hear at points ties directly into how I’m feeling, whether that be the haunting echoes of Nobody's Fault But My Own, the effortless beauty of Jackass, the sweaty, steamy thudding of Soul of a Man, or the quintessentially Beck sounding tracks like Girl or Devil’s Haircut. Despite a plethora of awesome tracks to choose from, I went with one of his most recent ones, because the fact that it’s already one of my favourites is in itself evidence of an ongoing relationship that never fails to make me feel.

7. The Anthem – Studio Killers
Everybody loves a good foot pounding anthem track. A metaphorical fuck you at the world when you’re feeling ground down. There are loads of artists that are great at this and ones that tend to resonate with me personally are The Heavy, Gin Wigmore, Fiona Apple, Dorathy and Jack White (whose recent solo stuff has been phenomenal by the by) to name just a few. But I guess my favourite group for this have to be the Studio Killers. Whether they’re calling out men to be pigs, talking about robot shagging, or acknowledging that there are some people you just can't help falling for, they are fun, funky, heartfelt, and always with just right amount of irony and humour. They are my favourite shower songs (you know the ones that you sing your heart out to, imagining your voice is something other than the shrill, off-key noise that it actually is- what is it about bathroom acoustics that assist with this delusion?) Anyhow, it was an easy enough choice picking the one I wanted to link you to. Further points if you get the reference with the animation as well. This track is nothing less than uplifting and cheeky, and never fails to put a spring in my step.

8. The Party – Pendulum
When it comes to good party tracks, well, I could spend a whole blog post just listing them. The best thing about songs at parties is the shared experience aspect. The feeling of euphoria that can be associated with those tunes not only builds relationships, but it builds amazing memories. Stand out examples of musical outfits that do this are, of course Justice, Knife Party, Daft Punk, Leftfield, Skrillex, and The Prodigy, to name just a few. But the group I’m going with here are Pendulum. They were just in the right time and place for me, circumstantially, and I have amazing memory moments locked into some of these tracks. The obvious choice I suppose would be The Island, Part 2, because that track really is Space Mountain, it just builds and builds with greater and greater fervour and doesn’t let go until the final drop. I was going to link to Fasten Your Seatbelts because that was always a popular one at parties, and it reminds me of good times. But here’s the thing, part of being me, at those parties, was turning my empathy level up to maximum and going with the tunes I knew other people loved, because making my friends happy made me happy. But giving of yourself is also always very tiring after the fact. So as a recognition of where I am these days, in terms of having an understanding of what I enjoy and what floats my boat as well as other people’s, I’m going to link to one of my personal favourites from back in the day, which rarely got played as often, for the reasons I’ve covered above.   

9. The Comic Relief – Flight of the Conchords
Now, lots of music snobs will insist that comedy songs ain’t music, buddy, and turn their nose up at those who explore it. But I feel that, just like every single other thing in life, humour is not only a universal method of connection and enjoyment, but often essential to our ability to survive the shit storm that the world presents us with at points. Finding the funny, even in the darkest moments, is a coping mechanism. Plus, who doesn’t love a good bit of juxtaposition to bring some self-awareness to the emotion heavy go-to topics of music. My favourite comedy outfits who are also musicians, and incorporate music into their comedy, include Bill Bailey, Tim Minchin, The Mighty Boosh, the thunderously immense Tenacious D, Garfunkel and Oates, and the YouTube sensation The Brett Domino Trio, to name a mere handful of culprits. But my favourites really do have to be Flight of the Conchords. I mean, my liking of them is not entirely coincidental to my current geographical location, and I don’t forget at any point that not only am I living in the same town that birthed those two lovable mofos, but they are alumni of the very Uni I currently work at. Also, get this, I have a really good mate here (honest, she’s confirmed that we are actually good mates on, like, numerous occasions, without prompting) who grew up near to Jemaine, and was actually on the ‘alright’ level of recognition with him. I shit you not.

Anyhow, you probably know the bigger songs, and have heard them to death. So I want to link you to one of my favourites from the second season of their TV show that you might not be so familiar with. Not only is it funny (naturally) but it’s pretty, and also happens to be the one I sing the most in the - yes we’re back to that- shower. So here y’go. It’s all about love and stuff, and the cultural difficulties Kiwis face when boffing Aussies.

10. The Wild Card
In setting myself a series of difficult decisions, and creating arbitrary rules and (mostly) sticking to them, I had another hard choice when it came to my last category and pick. So I’m essentially using my last wish to wish for more wishes, by choosing the top 3 songs that happen to be on my playlist at the moment. As much as anything, music is a snapshot of you in time, so I guess this is effectively me in the moment, or general moment, which will change again in accordance with whatever mood takes me tomorrow, or next week. That feels like a wildcard approach, so here we go.

Imagine Dragons: Radioactive
This song reminds me of Vietnam, for many reasons, and I’ve been thinking about Vietnam a lot recently, and writing about it even more, so that makes sense. Plus it’s a nice track.

*OK GO: Obsession
Really OK GO should have their own section in my list, and I nearly did give them that. They are incredible visual artists as well as musicians, as their videos testify. But part of the awesome of OK GO is that their tracks that don’t have the showy videos are nothing less than awesome as well. This is my latest OK GO Obsession. Dya see what I did there? I know, pretty damn weak ey. ;o)

The Eels are a bit like Beck for me in that I’m invariably always listening to them. This is just the song of theirs that I happen to have stuck in my head at the moment.


The thing is, it’s really easy to turn off your feelings. Sometimes we have to do it, I certainly did it in Saigon for the most part. I numbed myself out as much as possible and rode the water dingy rapids ride out until it nearly broke me. In the meantime the world kept moving, as it should, and I’m now taking time to assess the situation, and the damage, and work out the most healthy way forward for me. And it’s all about the forward momentum baby, because you can’t ever go back to what you were. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it, the hurt and the pain, the excitement and the fear, and the LOVE – the LOVE, LOVE, LOVE…

Because that last one is the best bit about being alive, and we know it.

It’s important that we allow ourselves to feel it, even if it breaks our hearts. Plus if something or someone matters to you that much, you do have the power to change your world. I’ve never been one to put my feelings ahead of those I love, I’ve always worked around what I think is best for them, which was always a dangerous concept because what the hell do I know about what is in someone else’s head? I used to have very fixed ideas on what was good and bad, right and wrong, black and white, all of the binary opposition metaphors. But my God, these last few years have taught me enough to know that I know nothing, I really don’t. I can’t understand what it’s like to be anyone other than me, I just might now have more empathy for certain experiences because I’ve lived through similar ones. I have a life to live, and I want to live it to the fullest where I can, because heaven knows what’s next, but I know that whatever pursuit of my own happiness I’m going to undertake it will be with be respect, consideration and love for those around me, because that’s the person I am. And I know it will be the same for you, whatever path you end up choosing, or are currently walking, or whatever, you know what I mean!

In order to do all of the above though, I need balance. I need help with seeing my situation, and others, from a more analytical, less personal and subjective angle, but I also need to listen to my heart and my head and what they’re telling me. It’s a bit like that oft’ misappropriated Einstein quote ‘science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’ What I mean by this is, I’ve got to feel the love, and the hate for that matter, and all the many facets of emotion in between, to have any idea about what I want and where I’m heading. But to have the tools to get where I’m going, I need to be able to look at myself, and my actions, as predictably textbook and no less informed or important or original or romantic than any bugger else’s. And with that knowledge behind me, listen to external advice, and bring myself around to accepting how completely not-special I am, while at the same understanding just how special that is. The point of this post is that music helped me to keep the emotion and not lose myself in the logic. Because I’ll always need both, we all do.

So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my playlist, or I hope it makes you think about your own, subjectively superior one. We all need a good dance, a good sing, or a good cry now and then, and music helps us with all of that expression. So, be the you that you need to be right now, be strong, be awesome, or be broken, it’s all the same anyway, it’s all just you being wonderfully you. But remember that you’re going to need to bleed sooner or later, because this stuff never just goes away, and if it matters, then you need to find your way back to it. One day.

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