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Why Music is Powerful (even when the lyrics are ridiculous)

My students often think I make absurd claims. Here is one they sometimes struggle with:

“The music is the power behind the throne. Good lyrics cannot redeem wicked music.”

In short, my argument is that music has a spiritual quality. It has the capacity to bypass rational discourse (and your worldview filters) and go straight to the subconscious. Music speaks the language of emotion. Emotional memory is chemical graffiti, spray painted on the walls of the subconscious. That’s why when you get some certain song into your head, it takes a move of the Holy Ghost to dislodge it. You wake up hearing it. You hum it in the shower. You can’t remember the words, but you can remember the tune, by God.

Music lodges itself far more deeply than do words. You can hear two notes from a song and instantly recall the whole thing, out of nowhere, as it were. Bam! Suddenly a whole melody – one which perhaps you have not heard since childhood or adolescence – comes rushing in from a dusty broom closet in the dungeon of your memory to be as fresh as the day you first heard it.

Music is like the night janitor. Those who are being served often overlook their importance, but at their own peril. These are the folks who are making the rest of your life possible. More importantly, they know where all your stuff is, including the skeletons, and in which closets. They know this because they have the master keys.

In my job, I have one key and it only opens my office. My key will not open my boss’ office. And yet do you know whose key can? That’s right…the night janitor. Are you catching this paradox? Someone who would typically be thought of being at the very bottom of the pyramid – someone who is little more than a nameless face carrying brooms and garbage – has a key the boss’ inner sanctum. And me, trusted with the responsibility of shepherding students, the most precious possession which the school or their parents could possibly offer – no key.

Music*has*a*key. You may think the lyrics are what matter. And they do, in their way. But like me and the janitor, it’s not so much that one of us is more important – it’s that we have different functions. In his function, the janitor has a nearly unrestricted range of movement. He can come and go between any set of doors, late at night, when nobody is there to pay any attention. He knows the alarm codes. He could let anyone in he wanted, do anything he wanted.

What I am trying to say is that music is the janitor. It roams free wherever he wants. So, you better trust him. You better believe his character is good. You better know, because you’ve literally given him the keys to your castle.

But we can take this a step further: music can be so powerful, in fact, that the lyrics cease to matter. You can have lyrics which are totally ridiculous yet still be entirely taken by the music. Take as a case study the White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes (more recently repackaged by Pentatonix). If you are not familiar with the original, take a moment to listen before reading on.

[You listening to the video.]

Now that you have listened…do you have any idea what these lyrics are saying? I really have no frickin’ clue. And they repeated eight times. I even looked them up. It didn’t help. It seems vaguely like someone has dropped a baby named Michael whose skull gets bashed in and bleeds out into the snow. Rolling Stone quotes the songwriter as saying it was about a time when his friends ditched him in middle school. Are you following? Are you following? Are you following?

In fact, it doesn’t really matter. Does any of that sound like a Christmas song to you? That’s certainly how Pentatonix re-recorded it. Why can they do that? Because the lyrics are superfluous. Completely useless. In fact, their vagueness actually makes it more useful to today’s mass merchandisers – those slippery lyrics can mean whatever you want them to. Excuse my relativistically-induced heartburn.

Now with this in mind, re-watch the video. Stop listening to the lyrics. Just give them up for lost. Watch the story instead – the claymation filmette. Tell me what you think about how the music words as a soundtrack for the film.

[You watching the video.]

Welcome back. The video is quite remarkable, isn’t it? If you are a person in a healthy emotional state, or at all literate, you will be struck by how touching it is. Old men returning to their youth – father time – the earth’s cycle of death and the rebirth of life – these are timeless themes. (See what I did there?) How seamless the film and the music interface! The heavy and irregular thump of the drum pushes along the story, using tempo and voices to build emphasis until its eventual climax as the wheel of time spins back from the vigor and summertime of youth to the quiet resolution of winter’s twilight. And the whole time your head simply cannot help bobbing – it’s an involuntary reaction.

It’s catchy. It’s sticky. It’s wake up with it at 3 o’clock in the morning with it in playing your head until you want to bang your head in the snow. This all goes to demonstrate the original claim: that lyrics cannot change the music, because the music sits in the driver seat. Whatever the music IS, those lyrics cannot make it become otherwise. At the end of the day, dad gets to choose which hotel you’ll be staying at, so shut up and put your headphones back on.

After today, I suspect you’ll carry the visual “seasons of life” video you viewed here with you, attached to this music, in your memory. When you hear this song again next Christmas, or whenever, you’ll think of it. Maybe you’ll even remember that I said you would remember it, and you will smile. But do you know what? You’ll still not know what the heck those lyrics are saying. You’ll just hum. Hum hummm hum hummm…with scarves of red tied round their throats…hum hummm.

If you are still not convinced music has a master key, you proceed at your own peril. But be careful, for I hear it ends poorly, in the cold red snow of summertime.

Blerkins is an eclectic blog of scholarly reflection and cultural commentary for folks who still believe that Western civilization has merit; and that life is far too interesting to give up on, or waste on television.
Our audience tends to be people exasperated with the world but too idealistic to give up on cultural engagement; who swim in a world seemingly devoid of truth, yet are too ethical for hedonism.


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