“One good thing about music; when it hits, you feel no pain.”
- Bob Marley
Music seems to have the power to heal.
Maybe not always, certainly not completely, and obviously more mentally than physically. At least, I know it does for me.
Actually, I know it does for you, too. In 2001, a study by neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill University in Montreal concluded that people listening to pleasurable music activated brain regions called the paralimbic areas, which are connected to euphoric reward responses, like those we experience from sex, good food, and addictive drugs. Those rewards come from a gush of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. As DJ Lee Haslam told us, music is a drug.
In the case of this past weekend, a painkiller.
As I write this it’s less than 24 hours since the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. It’s a profoundly sad morning, I think for a few reasons. I am sad at the loss of potential in a young life over too soon. I’m sad at the lack of available justice in this case. I’m sad about the sheer awfulness of the law in Florida. Mostly though, I’m sad to be reminded of how we just don’t seem to have the ability to treat one another with the dignity that we, in our best imaginations, believe we deserve.
It’s at times like these that I find myself dreaming of music. Whether it’s a distraction from sadness or a desperate need is hard to say. This morning, I picked a few specific songs. Among its many properties, music’s capacity to add perspective, clarity and (hopefully) relief is what I’m after.
With your permission, I’d like to share a few of the song’s from this morning’s playlist:
- “What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s brilliant anthem asks a simple question in the wake of the “Bloody Thursday” police brutality incident at an anti-war rally in 1969. The song asks us to consider the totality of our actions before committing to them out of blind, dumb passion. The groove is almost mystically sympathetic and, if you let it, manages to bring the kind of calm civility we should all hope could prevail in a confrontation between two thoughtful people.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” – Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen wrote this song in the wake of the horrifying killing of Amadou Diallo in February of 1999. Diallo was shot 41 times by frightened police who had misidentified him as a dangerous felon on the streets of the Bronx. The details are online for you to find if you don’t remember it, but the chorus echos a simple, unalterable truth of life in the U.S.: “It ain’t no secret, you can get killed just for living in your American skin”. This truth seems all too real this morning. The song builds from a whisper to a relentless scream and back again. As the final chant rises, I can’t help but wonder how many more times it will be appropriate to play this song. I imagine this is one song that Springsteen himself would like to outlive…
Below, Bruce performs it in Florida, shortly before George Zimmerman was arrested.
“Ohio” – CSNY (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
This is one of the earliest protest songs I remember hearing. Similar to Gaye’s number above, the song responds to a brutal overreaction by those who felt their authority was being threatened. In May of 1970, National Guard soldiers were ordered to open fire on (some claim “above”) a peaceful protest at Kent State University in Ohio. 4 students were killed. CSNY manages to turn a marching rhythm into a call against authority – almost as a conceptual ‘fuck you’ to the National Guard itself.
“Redemption Song” – Bob Marley
Bob Marley wrote this ultimately hopeful guide to dealing with one’s own humanity after he had been diagnosed with cancer. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Marley comes to this after gazing into the face of his own impending mortality. The voice that asks me to “emancipate myself” from mental slavery and reminds me “that none but ourselves can free our minds” seems to know whereof it speaks. It’s a good reminder for today. The lilting rhythm reminds us to keep moving forward, even if it has to be slowly…and to sing while you do so.
“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy
I have a strong memory of a university prof telling me, during a lecture, that he was proud to live in a time (the late ’90s) when Chuck D’s particularly genius lyrics below were becoming an anachronism. Sadly, my prof has become the anachronism. What’s more interesting is that this song went from being a sign of the times in the ’80s to a prophecy for the new millennium.
“To revolutionize make a change nothin’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same, Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless”
I can’t help but think we’ve gotten careless.
“Killing In The Name” – Rage Against The Machine
I have found, in my time, that there is no type of frustration with society for which I can’t find at least some relief from a very loud listen to this song. Turn it up and enjoy.
It is true, of course, that listening to these songs won’t really change anything. It certainly won’t rectify the things I’m sad about today. I fear the kind of change our world needs is going to take far smarter folks than me, and a hell of a lot of time.
But, if things are going to get better, it’s going to have to start with less sadness.
And music – music is perfect for this.