1 Music, Ink.: Why Music?


Monday, September 1, 2014

Why Music?

It is very late, and I am up because in 30 hours, my senior year commences in earnest. So naturally, instead of getting rest or working on college apps, I wrote this unrelated essay. Enjoy.

            By now, my answer to “why music?” is a well-choreographed dance; I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember, I started musical theater at six, piano at seven, songwriting at twelve. I’ve written over 200 songs, but not all of them are good. And so on. It’s almost gotten so that I don’t like answering the question, almost avoid it, because I can’t stand to hear the parade of words marching from my mouth, my tongue a conveyor belt leading to an uninteresting final product.
            The first time I said something that caught my own interest was in my video essay for GRAMMY Camp LA 2014. I recorded it on a camera with a dying battery, uploaded it, and didn’t look at it again until long after camp had ended, a late night in August when the nostalgia had overtaken me and I longed to remember who I had been before I was irrevocably changed by those 10 days. I heard myself say, “not all my songs are good, sometimes they’re bad, but I think it’s important to keep writing anyway.” Those last three words caused my sleepy head to snap to attention. What a motto to have for myself. Keep writing anyway.
            That sticks out to me because it’s not just about music. It’s about everything, about life. Work by perspiration, not inspiration, the whole bit. Keep writing anyway, even when you’re out of good ideas and everything you generate is subpar. Keep writing anyway, because once you push through the crap, you can get to the good stuff. Write a hundred terrible songs, and then the hundred and first will win you a Grammy. As Chuckie Sullivan said in Good Will Hunting said, “keep your ears to the grindstone.” Keep writing anyway.
            Now, I am setting out to answer “why music?” in a more compelling way than “because it’s always been music.” Admittedly, that’s still a compelling answer, but I’m a songwriter, gosh darn it, so there is certainly a better way to say it.
            So, why music? When I force myself to sit and think about it right now, there are a million reasons. One, because it’s two in the morning and, in a desperate attempt to expand my music knowledge, I’m starting an expedition into jazz greats, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton. As the first track in his Library of Congress sessions begins—“Alabama Bound” and the story thereof—I feel an instant connection to my heritage, musically and ethnically. The strains of the South, the voice of an aging black man singing and speaking over gentle jazz piano, and I am reminded of where I came from. Just the sound of his voice—a man I never met and have no relation to—makes me smile. Why music? It gives shape to an identity I never even knew I had.
            Two, because while at GRAMMY Camp this past summer, I formed relationships faster than I ever have in my life, and those relationships are more meaningful than any I’ve ever forged. Music brought us all together in a way I could only have dreamed about before. Everybody at camp understands what it means to share music, be it music that you’ve written or a song you love by someone else; to show someone a song that matters to you is to give a little piece of yourself, to uncover a secret tile in the mosaic of your soul. And at camp, when I wrote with the other songwriters or played them something of my own, I swept the dust from my own stained glass windows and exposed the colors I was so desperate to show. The tingly, heart-stopping fear of revelation was dulled in the face of their acceptance. We were all on one team there. And if they felt anything that I did, I can only hope that I did the same, that I made full disclosure feel safe. Why music? It breeds love and compassion for people I didn’t even know I needed.
            Three, because, long story short, there have been dark times in my life. Everyone experiences ups and downs, and I’ve been up and down with the best and worst of them. I have written and heard songs that I truly believe saved my life. Music is catharsis, it is therapy, and it is a friend that listens when no one else will or could possibly understand. Music always understands. There is an infinite library of music about an infinite set of subjects. I can always finds a song that gets me. And when I can’t, I write one. Why music? It rescues me when I am at my most unlovable, or celebrates me when I am at my most triumphant.

            I wrote all this because I don’t want my answer to “why music?” to be mechanical or automatic. I want my explanation to be grounded, but ever-changing. I want to be inundated by reasons to love music, to have a wealth of examples of how music made me smile or laugh or cry, of how it divulged the dark secrets of a seemingly beneficent universe or shed light on something I never thought could shine. I wrote this because music matters, and I want to do it justice. I want my answer to “why music?” to be as poetic as the lyrics I admire and attempt to write. Why music? Because. Because everything.

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