“I’ve got a pain in my neck, because I keep looking upNothing But Thieves, “Take This Lonely Heart”
I’m searching what’s coming next, but it won’t come from above
And there’s a hole in my chest – and I’ll make it my own”
December 2019: I am in the shower, taking longer than usual so my wife will not realize what I am doing in there. My hands are in a prayer position, fingers pressed to my mouth. I retreat into the to aqueous curtain to shroud whatever sounds are now coming out of me. I am unraveling at the seams because, after 10 years, I stand before the end of the universe.
The revelation comes from a song I have heard several times before. Lost in the lyrics, I feel everything that song had to offer in rabid anguish. Pain, guilt, faith, youth, age, strength, doubt, a newfound sense of purpose, then… SNAP!
It hits me: I don’t need music anymore.
My emotions, as they were from 2019 and prior, were symbiotically tied to whatever music I was listening to at the time. This is because, as a 20-year-old, I was lagging behind in emotional maturity and I thought stuffing my brain with more music would expedite the process. From there, I tried to listen to music from the perspective of the artist since my views were, admittedly, rather shallow.
In that time, I unintentionally built a network of shortcuts to what brings me joy, pain, jealousy, sorrow, fury and any other emotion on the spectrum. I can access any emotion with the flip of a switch. I tripped the “Newfound Self-Respect” switch one day in the shower and was overcome with emotion. Oops. It is quite the power.
I tend to skim surfaces and hide behind wit and nonsense when writing about personal mumbo jumbo. My social presence in recent years has become calculated and guarded, which is why I attach my woes and triumphs to discussions about music. Whatever I had to say, music would be my conduit and I would remain safe. After 10 years, the process changed my views considerably.
This strategy of reviewing music and letting manifest as an all-consuming passion actually comes with a subtle hollowness. I connect to just about everyone by discussing music taste, but conversations usually fall into the technical aspects: This guitar solo is a gift from the heavens. That piano is a masterclass in human dexterity. Those vocals are CLEAN. These discussions are what the music is in its base form and fail to capture the transformation the art form takes when impressed upon you. From someone who cannot keep rhythm on a tin can, technical discussions fail me.
Since I use music as a reflection of self and since I am seldom willing to share what I see in the mirror, what good am I now as a music-focused writer? And faced with the realization that I no longer subsist on music, everything I write now has to either be authentically me or inauthentically linked to a song I had no part in creating. Both scenarios frighten me.
In December 2019, I was waiting in the shower for my convulsions to stop because I could not explain this breakdown to my wife. Seven months later, and I am having trouble explaining this to you.
I’ll try again: It’s the end of the universe.
Uni-Verse = One Song
I return to this old, dusty site to remind myself how it all began. It sits at the top of every page, my non-setting sun: “Uni-verse = One Song.”
In dedicating this blog, The Music Roundtable, to musical discussion and my own self-discovery, I was subscribing to the hope that if anything could unite the world and be our absolute truth, it would be music. What vessel could better explain the purest state of man than the most powerful form of art?
But music exists in infinite forms, which is not good for mass consumption. So this savior had to be refined so it could be easily consumed. It had to be one song. So I set out to find that song.
I started by opening myself to every avenue of music I could access and not letting anything pass. When I started in 2010, I was a cheap novice getting my music from iTunes’ home page. By 2014, I became a music-listening proficient. By 2016 I had become an eater of worlds. By 2019, I had become something else entirely.
If you had the world’s attention and could play any song to dissolve all traces of evil from our petty souls, what chords could cleanse your fellow man? If we could bring about monumental and lasting change, does any instrumentation have the power to move mountains? Whose voice can purify air? John Lennon? Nina Simone?
“If ‘We Are the World’ couldn’t do it,” my late step-father once lamented, “then nothing can.”
Youthful dreams tend to reach for the stars. So it’s a sad day when, at the end of your crusade, a meager 10 years of wisdom is enough to disprove the decade you spent learning that lesson.
But if I have learned anything in the past 10 years, it is that there is nothing definitive in the squabbles of man. Mathematics and sports, yes. But right and wrong, justice and evil? No.
I sought to understand music at the level of an obsessive for some greater understanding of the world from different perspectives. I have to believe I achieved that. I ascended past cynicism, past irrational reactions, past crack-pot analysis. It took a while, but I am proud of what I was able to do here.
I gained other handy tricks as well. I can craft playlists of any ilk in a matter of minutes. I can summon tailored recommendations to any of you just by willing it so. I can listen to an album that is bad and tell you exactly why it is good. Because music is magic. But even magic has its limitations.
I never did find that one song. I never will. I found individual songs that could make each of you kind, steadfast and brave. But the world is too big for such simplicity, so the quest is done. I am packing up.
I am hereby retiring my New Music Friday playlists. I am retiring from my rigid listening schedule. And I am retiring my yearly top-10 lists, as I will be ill-equipped to comment on such matters.
The drones over at your favorite entertainment site will still be churning out their hip year-end lists, where they examine the lasting effects an album has on the sociopolitical landscape without directly acknowledging the work itself. As if music could be used for such a trivial purpose.
At least we will all have that. That, my friends, is what the end of the universe looks like.
Embracing the Multiverse
Before I leave this realm for good, I would like to share one story from my youth that took on great meaning during this writing (as if I have not written enough).
My family used to have a tradition of opening one small gift on Christmas Eve, before the big day. During a pivotal age in 2001, I chose the gift I knew I needed most.
The gift had the undeniable physique of CD, the only one I had asked for. And it was, undeniably, the most life-altering Christmas gift I have ever received. This album would soon deconstruct the comforts found in an album collection that included Backstreet Boys’ Millenium, *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached and Eiffel 65’s Europop – the unrelatable music with which I had grown up.
To stifle my pre-teen angst, I put on the album: Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. The guitars and turntables sent shrapnel through my veins, the pummeling rap verses altered my foundations, and the vocals, both angelic and demonic, blessed me with emotional range previously unventured. I was attune to something I had within me but no one ever addressed: rage, helplessness and self-doubt. Top-40 pop stars did not sing about these back then.
For the first time in my life, I heard music that was made for me. For the first time in my life, I had someone telling me, “We’re going through this, too.”
That album, at least for that moment, was everything to me. It also opened up a vast new world of rock and metal that aligned with my status as a struggling adolescent while showing me what darker paths may await. This would help me avoid many of those same fates.
I did not have the best emotional support system during this time and in subsequent years, so I turned to music. I would attend family gatherings hiding between headphones. Music would come to know me better than any of you. Music taught me more than any textbook. Music made me feel more alive than the very air I breathe.
Over the years, as I have changed, I have found the music to match. There were my emo Dashboard Confessional years, my voraciously positive Jason Mraz years and my infamous Jared Leto man-crush years. From depression to existential joy, I leaned on hundreds of thousands of diverse anthems to carry me through.
So there can never be just “one song.” I would not have made it through life with “one song.” We do not live in a universe – we live in a multiverse. One where access to what we cherish and love will help push us through strife, embrace triumphs and enable us to look inside ourselves in new ways.
As I have released myself from my self-imposed shackles of trying to find the “one song,” I have only just started realizing the weight I left behind. From what I learned that day in the shower, I can now listen to what I want because I like it, not because I need it. Songs no longer define me. To that thought, I am overcome.
There are many more lessons and perspectives from which to learn, and I will embrace them all in good time.
But, today, I like who I have become. So that is who I am going to be for a while.