Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Power of Song

Dead Head

“Not by might and not by power
but by spirit a-lone, ("ruach")
shall we all live in peace”

(Debbie Friedman)

The Power of Song

The prompt for this week is “Power” which brings to mind a song. It is a song based on a biblical phrase but I am not going to be making a religious statement in this Sunday Scribble. In fact, what comes to my mind at present is the power of music. How many blog posts have I titled with the lyrics of a song because one popped into my head? Songs package words and memories in a way that the words alone cannot do. The biologist in me understands that song will be stored in different parts of the brain than words heard or read. Even in a foreign language, it is easier to learn words that are encoded as a song. Do you know the words to Frere Jacques? Most of us probably learned it as school children and retain at least some of the words whether or not we later learned to speak French. There may be a Spanish song or two you learned that way as well.
Songs attach to memories like smells did in Proust’s Swan’s Way. (I must admit here that I never did manage to wade through even one volume of Proust). While I write this, I think of the lyric (not inspiring by itself): “All right now, baby it’s all right now.” It immediately takes me back to four years of Stanford football games. The band played this every time a goal was scored. Even thinking of it makes me feel “all right now.”
I’m sure we all wish the songs we remember are the ones we especially admire and want to remember. Sometimes the ones that stick are pretty annoying in fact. “I’d like to teach the world to sing. . . . “ Yada yada. “You, you’re the one, you are the only reason. . . .” “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. . . .” Commercial jingles seem to have the most, and worst, staying power. There’s that power word again.
How about annoying songs from your teen years, the top 10 that played in the car while you commuted to school? At the risk of dating myself, do you remember the Paul McCartney song, “Silly Love Songs?” The one with the lyric, “I love you” repeated four times? Or that delightful tune, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”
Then there’s the Carly Simon song that made me want to cry: “That’s the way I always heard it should be.”

Their children hate them for the things they're not;
They hate themselves for what they are-
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.

Not exactly an advertisement for getting married.

Go back further into my childhood and songs of despair. Think of the Stones’:

“And if you take more of those / you will get an overdose / No more running for the shelter / of a mother's little helper”

Wikipedia tells me that the drug of abuse in this song is Nembutal. Makes me glad barbiturates are not a commonly prescribed drug nowadays.

Other sad songs I remember from my youth include: The Beatles’ “All the lonely people.” Check out the lyrics here
and see if they have the power to make you sad; also listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence:

"People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share"

Or their version of Scarborough Fair:

"Tell her to reap it in a sickle of leather
(War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
And to gather it all in a bunch of heather
(And to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten)
Then she'll be a true love of mine."

Songs of love, loss, wounds, war and betrayal. All the powerful themes of the 60’s and 70’s as well as those of the new millennium. The other day I heard some young people listening to a new song I didn’t recognize. What caught my attention was the use of the word “suicide” repeatedly in the lyrics.
As a mental health professional, I periodically am asked by parents if they should be concerned about their teen’s listening preferences. The songs are too dark, they say, or too violent. Do we really believe that music has the power to enslave the adolescent mind? To turn the thoughts to death, murder, hate or despair? Did Marilyn Manson’s music provide a spark for Columbine?
Read some music lyrics yourself and tell me what you think. Check out the lyrics of Hood Figga by rap artist Gorilla Zoe here. I can’t print them here, too nasty.
Lest you think I believe all rap is bad, here are a few lines from another rapper, Eminem:

“You got some issues Stan, I think you need some counseling
to help your ass from bouncing off the walls when you get down some.”

This is a sad, scary song but can be read as having a positive message. At least, that is how I chose to hear it.
So what do I tell the parents? To take away their kid’s I-Pod? To censor their listening? Generally not. Some music is inappropriate for young children just as some movies, TV and video games are. Music with overt references to drugs, sex and violence is not appropriate for an eight year old. Use some judgment, guys. I have to confess that I heard the soundtrack to “Hair” many a time when I was a preteen; it was one of my mother’s favorite albums. These are the cleanest lyrics from one song:

"Join the holy orgy
Kama Sutra

I had no clue what I was singing (honest, officer). Did Hair change my life or moral outlook? Highly doubtful.
No, I tell the parents to listen to the music their kids prefer. Go on-line and read the lyrics. Discuss them with the kids. Tell them you don’t like how this song demeans women, glorifies drugs, or speaks about self destruction. Ask them why they like it. Parents miss an opportunity if they simply ban music.
Music does have power, good, bad or indifferent. To sell a product, to disseminate an idea, to change a mood. But its powers are not magical. Obviously we are more than the sum of what we listen to. Otherwise I would be a sex-addicted, Burger-King-loving, love-stricken-yet-unmarried, drug-abuser. What songs had power over you as a youth? Which ones stuck in your head, for better or for worse? Tell me a few of your musical memories.


Kris said...

Hihihi, oh, I love this post. Made me giggle and it made me think. I'm going to add this to my list of upcoming topics to blog about in the future! :)

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent post, music really does have that power. My musical memories are a mix of my parents' music (Nat King Cole, Glen Cambell) and my music (Human League and Squeeze from when I was growing up, African music while I lived in Malawi etc)

I think Marilyn Manson is much misunderstood...

Rayne said...

Music has always been a big influence on my life also. I use it to motivate me, put me in a better mood, choose music that will match what I am writing.
To this day Phil Collins and Genesis still transport me back to the '80's and my high school years.
I remember being very young and merrily singing away to Elton John's Bitch is Back without a clue to what I was singing and my mother's shocked and appalled expression when she finally caught on to what I was singing.

GreenishLady said...

Because I'm now working with young people, I've been wondering about those questions too - and had noticed that song with "You make me suicidal, suicidal..." recently on the radio every time I switch on. It makes me uneasy. Because my son was an Eminem fan, I listened to his stuff, and found "Stan" to be meaningful, as you do. Music certainly has powerful influence on moods - even without lyrics, the music itself can affect us. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Lexi's Mom said...

Two or three years ago my daughter and I were discussing eminem. She liked his music, and I was pretty set against it because of the negative vibes associated with rappers, and with him in particular. Somehow she found an interview with him (from Newsweek I think), and had me listen to her reading it during a long-distance drive. After hearing it, I changed my views. Zeke and I listened to a lot of eminem together from then on, including that disturbing song whose lyrics you shared. She shares all her music with me and we discuss what it means to her and how women or men or minorities or whatever are portrayed in it and what the ultimate message is. Those suicide-glorifying songs that are so hip right now bother me, but she seems to recognize the negative messages and put them into a larger context. I guess I think the most important way of dealing with music and kids (as with everything), is to keep the lines of communication open and to be willing to listen to their perspective. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Tumblewords: said...

Ah, the power of song. I think we get a double dose of power with a combination of lyrics and rhythm which makes song very powerful. Nice post with lots of food for thought - but the thing that really captured my attention was the LP bowl. :)

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Good post. I missed visiting and had to come by!

Love McCartney, he's written some of the best lyrics ever. Man.


I like a great many styles and genres of music, and all for different reasons and at different times. It does tie in to where I am at, how I feel, what I am doing.
Today? Sunday morning? The beautiful blue blue blue colorado sky is cloudless and it's 78 degrees and the leaves are all changing. There's a nice little breeze. It doesn't get better.

I've had Maroon 5's 'Sunday Morning' on repeat for an hour. I'm a repeat offender... play it over and over...

Just close my eyes and enjoy.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

ren powell said...

I am a huge fan of Hair- the ballad Easy to be . . . I cry every time I hear it.

There are also songs that make me nauseated to hear because they are so strongly tied to unhappy events or eras.

So much to think about- and yes! music has power (even for those of us with a bit of a tin ear). thanks.

Larry said...

Mostly I remember sad song like Tuesday's Gone With The Wind by Skynyrd.-I remember everything by Zeppelin because I listened to them so much.-It is true that many memories are directly connected to songs.

Rethabile said...

Brilliant post. That Carly Simon song, what a poem, huh?

JP (mom) said...

Wonderful take on the prompt ... music is powerful and can trigger memories and feelings - for me, it's the Doobie Brother's "Takin it to the Street," Pink Floyd's "Money" and Jim Croce (countless songs) that bring bad the 70s of my youth. Peace, JP/deb