Everyone I know agrees the world is burning. With so much to despair over and so little hope in sight, I have found myself at a loss for how to cope with my inherent, collective powerlessness. Isolated from my friends and unable to concentrate on some of my most fundamental passions, I find hope in little else but the music I queue up on Spotify. That said, I can hardly remember a time when music was not the most dependable constant of my life.
I was twelve years old when I discovered the blues, that great musical progenitor to which nearly all American music can eventually be traced. At that impressionable age, I already loved music, but I had no idea why. As far as I was concerned, people played and listened to music primarily to pass the time. An aspiring musician myself, I figured that the guitar I had just started learning to play would at most be a fun distraction from my homework or else a skill with which I could impress my classmates. I re-evaluated that narrow conception when I discovered the music of Robert Johnson.
I first came across Johnson’s original rendition of “Crossroad Blues” on YouTube one night, seeking out blues artists who were nowhere to be found in my parents’ CD cabinet. Listening to Robert Johnson’s staple song, I found that the combination of his lone voice and bottleneck slide elicited feelings that my twelve-year-old self might have described as an unknowable mix of fear and elation. Now, nearly ten years later, I recognize that I experienced a distinct emotion, one whose name or particularities are impossible to convey unless you put on “Crossroad Blues.” I began to understand that music was far more than just a pastime, noise for when you rode in the car or cleaned your room. Instead, it could be a conduit to those kinds of wonderfully cryptic feelings that Johnson’s record had inspired in me. My introduction to the blues was so powerful that it put me on a path to find those same kinds of emotions, whatever musical form they might end up taking.
It took me a little longer to make my way to jazz. Not until I was fourteen or fifteen did I find the courage to brave the seemingly murky waters of long instrumental breaks too dense for my developing brain. This narrow description of such a broad genre will surely sound ludicrous to even a casual jazz fan: jazz can be everything from the laugh of Louis Armstrong to the regality of Duke Ellington to the frenzy of Dizzy Gillespie. But back then I still thought of music as a subject to be parsed, an experience to be classified and codified, instead of allowing myself simply to surrender to its intricacies.
Some of the first jazz that really grabbed me, then, was vocal jazz, where usually simple lyrics sustained the songs’ more complex melodies and chord progressions. Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole: if there was an orchestra or big band playing behind a soft male voice, I was there. It took me just a little longer to graduate to the work of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone, the women who took the art of solo vocal performance to new heights in the middle decades of the twentieth century. But in the end, my messiah was Billie Holiday.
I have already wondered at length why exactly I adore Holiday’s music so much. The tune I most distinctly remember falling in love with is her rendition of Cole Porter’s standard “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love).” At the time, I was caught up in both my adolescent sexual awakening and my looming fear that life would be as grindingly dull as so many of my teachers and their curricula seemed to predict. Holiday’s pep and spunk brought to life lyrics of implied sexual proclivities that suggested, perhaps, life really wouldn’t turn out as bad as I feared. In fact, maybe it would even be kind of okay. Billie Holiday’s music gave me something to latch onto, something solid against which I could steel myself as I began to grow into my curiosities and their accompanying doubts.
While French vocabulary words and the Periodic table came relatively easy to me, the beginning of high school made it difficult to hang onto the loveliness of the world Billie Holiday’s energy conveyed. The chaos of my life, albeit all too typical, seemed irreconcilable with the idealized notions I harbored of youthful mirth and maturation. Though I enjoyed the music I played and the books I read and the miles I ran after school, I barely managed to maintain friendships rooted in anything but an implicit brotherly camaraderie inculcated by our all-male school. Furthermore, I struggled to square my ideal of a purposeful life with the aimlessness I felt in the rigid monotony of my school. The music on my phone was the only constant antidote I could procure against such myopic passivity.
For my first months with a car, I listened to Middle Brother’s folk-rock masterpiece “Blood and Guts” on repeat. Driving home from cross country practice in the early evenings of winter, I would sing along in a breaking falsetto to Taylor Goldsmith’s full-throated belt: “I just wanna get my fist through some glass/I just wanna get your arm in a cast/I just want you to know that I care.” Seeking passion in any form, I lost myself in the excessive and the grotesque that made that song so powerful. One early morning, however, driving to school in the gray-cold, one of the song’s quiet verses finally struck me:
The older we get, the older we are
I woke up this morning, driving my car
And that is not how it’s supposed to be
Am I killing time or is it killing me?
The first time those words sank in, I remember having to pull over, but perhaps that’s the fiction writer in me, embellishing my life with fabricated details to construct a more compelling narrative. No matter: I recognized my own approach to life in those lines, going through the motions so thoroughly and so uncritically that I could hardly distinguish my commute to school from the respite of sleep I had just left. I had resorted to music to help deal with the hopeless passivity I had subconsciously nurtured, so it was music that shook me awake.
I kept “Blood and Guts” in mind as I began to re-evaluate my life. I picked up the guitar with a new ferocity and wrote innumerable poems of middling quality. Emboldened by my recent self-actualization, I engaged with people with a newfound confidence and ease that led to friendships that are still strong today. I even started dating, broaching new kinds of connections whose intimacies were as lovely as they were subtle. All the while, I was listening to the Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” which told me to “decide what to be and go be it,” so I spent two more years in high school doing just that. Old friends graduated, and new friends turned up to fill the void. On the guitar, I had started learning simple acoustic folk that I would play in my room with a friend instead of with a band on stage. I got more out of my school’s classes and opportunities than ever before.
My last few years of high school cracked open a degree of curiosity about the world that made me impatient to move forward, and I wanted to do my education justice by using it as a starting point for a lifetime of learning. I knew there was a broader world beyond me, but I had no conception of what it might contain. I decided to take a detour before college to live in Bolivia, participating in a generously funded gap year program that promised I would learn to see the world and myself in an entirely different way. Moreover, I was excited to get past my solipsistic little self into a world whose wonders a boyhood of listening to music had promised me.
When I got to Bolivia, the writer in me finally began to understand Toni Morrison’s go-to advice to her writing students: “You don’t know anything.” I realized how I had spent my life up to then in a bubble of luxury and privilege, where so many of the struggles I had met had been results of personal or cultural constructs rather than simple facts of life like I had presumed. Away from the mechanized oasis of a Nashville private school, now I could more purposefully and genuinely interact with the world at large. I volunteered with a water justice organization, learned to cook, started speaking Spanish, and began conceiving of life in a manner previously unimaginable to the suburban counterpart of my past.
All too familiar with the college essay trope I’ll call the “mission trip confessional,” I still fail to discuss what I learned while abroad without lapsing into horrendous clichés. Throughout the summer after my return home, I rambled about environmental catastrophe and capitalistic exploitation as though they were lofty concepts accessible only to the most thoroughly trained minds and souls, which surely included my own. Looking back, I’m sure I just sounded like a caricature of a graduate student at Berkeley in the sixties. Nonetheless, I knew I had changed, but I couldn’t articulate how. My only real solace, then as before and still, was music.
This time, my soundtrack was Calle 13’s “Latinoamérica,” a song extolling the beauties and griefs of Latin America to which I had listened nearly every day on my year away. One day in July, I was driving with my high school girlfriend, with whom I had stayed together throughout my year abroad much to the detriment of our relationship. I put on the song, hoping to use music to explain to this non-Spanish speaker what I had otherwise failed to clarify about the tender disdain and rugged love I held for the world. Residente rapped about the beauty of “los versos escritos bajo la noche estrellada” (the verses written beneath the starry night) or how “aquí se comparte, lo mío es tuyo” (here, everything is shared, what’s mine is yours). As the song crescendoed, the background singers chanted how “yo canto porque se escucha” (I sing because I can be heard). I pulled over to the side of the road, letting myself go in a massive fit of tears that I can only ascribe to a paragon of classical catharsis. Sitting in a car on the side of the road and still sobbing, I turned up the song even louder. “Listen,” I asked my girlfriend whose arm was around me while I tapped the dashboard along with the percussion. “It’s like a heartbeat.” What a way to confront the rhythm that unites us all.
Going to college for me was hard. I struggled to transition back to the sanitized world I had been so excited to leave, even if I was returning to an apparently upgraded version. Furthermore, it took a long time before I began meeting anyone who shared my interests or desires, my dreams or frustrations, and I still clung to my mistaken assumption that my high school girlfriend—my first true love—would one day solve all my problems, even if she couldn’t do so right then. So often in my first semester, I sat in the stairwell outside my room, singing songs and playing the guitar for the rest of the dorm to my peers’ approbation and censure. When I wasn’t throwing these staircase concerts for imaginary audiences on Saturday nights–when everyone else was out partying on Prospect Avenue–I was throwing myself into ancient books and new music. Whenever I confronted my doubts, I had The Head and The Heart to reassure me: “And I know that you feel like you’re not getting what you need right now / But give it a night / Wait for the light.” Otherwise so unsure of everything, I was certain that if I pondered it all alongside the music, I might find some of the answers I sought.
Things started to make a new kind of sense when I began to seek out my own path, instead of just grasping at whatever was thrust before. I took more courses, made new friends, and learned more about the world and myself. I told people about my heart, and they listened and understood before they told me about theirs. I adjusted more and more as the year went on, so well that I eventually began to thrive. When life seemed to be better than ever before, I realized that I had fallen in love again and not just with a new person. I also fell back in love with the wonder of a world and a life both as beautifully terrible as they are terribly beautiful. In celebration of this, my new girlfriend and I would sit in our rooms and sing each other our favorite songs, sharing our unique perceptions of the wonder of the world.
The sharp precarity of pain that defines so much of the world never disappeared for me, but it did blur for a while. For the first time in a long time, I was remarkably happy. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I reconnected with a loving girlfriend, several great friends, and promises of possibility and hope of how I might engage with the world and, if I worked hard enough, maybe one day even leave it a better place than I had found it. If you had asked me then what vision I myself would have harbored for a better world, I would have referred you to any of my favorite songs and their endless expressions of grief and gratitude and possibility.
It was a little too good to be true. This new happiness wasn’t a tidy ending, just the next chapter of a big life that’s still only just beginning. Throughout my second year of college, I tried reconciling this absurdity with itself, leaving me frequently overwhelmed. I was confused by the messiness of this world, a place at once so bright and so dark that it is, by its very nature, unfathomable. The closest I’ve ever found to an explanation comes in the conclusion to Walt Whitman’s masterpiece, “O Me! O Life!”, where the poet suggests, “Answer / That you are here––that life exists and identity / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” With all due respect to one of our greatest American poets, he neglects a crucial part: the great musical score of that “powerful play,” whose ragged melodies guide us along as we stumble through our scenes.
Somehow, music redeems even the maddest universal discord by giving it a shape, something to cling on or stare at or point to and say, “That’s it. That’s why.” But sometimes it takes just the right song. In November of last year, some friends and I went to see Sara Bareilles perform in Philadelphia. Halfway through her show, the singer announced to her adoring audience that she would sing the song “Orpheus” off her newest record Amidst the Chaos. My hand was interlocked with my girlfriend’s when she leaned over to whisper into my ear, “This is my song for you,” before nestling her head into the crook of my shoulder, where she remained for the rest of the concert.
Loves may come and loves may go, but love will never desert us. If I ever need a reminder, I can just put on “Orpheus,” where Sara Bareilles wants to “somehow make a meaning of the poison in this place.” She doesn’t pretend to have a real answer to the madness inherent to existence. Instead, she just prays, “I hope my love was someone else’s solid ground.” For me, it certainly has been and surely will continue to be. Wherever she may be, I hope she knows that.
I have remembered each of these moments and many others over the past six months, during which we’ve wept for unjust deaths, become enraged by the incompetence our highest leaders, and reckoned with a warming and burning world, all of which is catalyzed or exacerbated by a globally threatening disease. In this time of upheaval, I struggle to recognize even the most familiar as I continue to grapple with a seemingly unceasing force of suffering. Cornel West reminds me, however, “you’re only as strong in your hope as you are in your wrestling with despair.”
Last year, I had a moment of hallucinatory clarity after exiting a late-night Lyft back to campus from the movies. The world, I suddenly realized amid the early morning chill, was incomprehensibly grand and thereby rife with wonder and possibility. Enthralled to the depths of the night, I soliloquized to my friend over voicemail about how lucky I felt that this world existed, and how we, of all beings, got to live in it, but I hung up the phone disappointed. My words had failed to express any real meaning but were instead just brief variations around some unidentified theme. Then I realized that the only sufficient conduit for my joys would be all those lyrics and melodies I had relied on for as long as I been able to articulate my feelings. Hoping to approximate the stars in their apparent galloping across that New Jersey night sky, I roamed for another hour, singing to the sleeping campus. Then I woke my girlfriend with a phone call and asked her to meet me in the courtyard, where we danced in the rain.
I am writing now to remind myself that I never left that world. This new one I was thrust into six months ago is actually the very same one I already found so normal and so surreal. This world is equally full of beauty and wonder and sorrow and decay and, perhaps most of all, paradox: contradictions whose constant overlap only heightens the joys of goodness or exacerbates the pain of grief. But in the words of Denis Johnson: “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?”
Even now, I hope I can still find “that world,” whatever it may be. I just have to look a little harder. Right now, I’m searching for it in the connection between you and me, as I try with these words to encapsulate my lonely little heart and pass it on to you. But in the end, I will always find it in plinking pianos or rollicking saxophones or my quavering voice, all tender and aching to be heard.
Jack Gilbert was onto something when he wrote that, “We must admit that there will be music despite everything.” Notice, however, that the poet frames this affirmation as a challenge, calling upon all of us to realize that, amidst even the grandest and most inconceivable chaos, we can always find some solace as long as we can call a tune to our lips or to our hearts.
This is that “everything” Gilbert refers to, this massively overwhelming world that we all too often doubt we can bear. Yet here we are, both despite and because of its madness. We are alive, and we endure, even if sometimes our only guide is a song.