In the early scenes of the movie Silver Linings Playbook, the character played by Bradley Cooper has recently been checked out of a treatment center for mental illness. His anxiety remains at a boiling point. When he walks into his therapist’s office for an appointment, the song My Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder is playing quietly over the sound system in the office.
He stares at the receptionist and asks:
“Is this song really playing? This song is killing me. Can you please turn it off?”
It was the same song playing in his bedroom when he came home to find his wife engaged in sex with another man. He physically attacked the man. That crushing incident led to a nervous breakdown and a restraining order to prevent him from stalking his own wife.
His therapist purposely had the song My Cherie Amour playing as a test of his emotional stability. The song was a trigger for his anger and mental stability. “You have to find a strategy,” his therapist warned him.
More typically we tend to think of songs as inspiration for our best efforts. The music played at big athletic events such as marathons or triathlons usually features anthemic tunes designed to motivate, enervate and concentrate our mental energies on the moment. One wonders whether this dynamic is truly a sign of inspiration or desperation for motivation?
Clearly songs can have the opposite effect of positivity. Music from moments in our lives that were not so great can have a deleterious effect on our psyche. We recall music from the breakup of a love affair with a very personal and contradictory mix of wistfulness, doubt or unrequited anger. “Why did it end?” a breakup song might make us think. Or, “Why did I ever go out with them?”
Beast of Burden
Just this morning while running four miles on an indoor track, a song came on that made me think back to a college relationship. The Rolling Stones “Beast of Burden” was playing as part of a long set list of 70s tunes. It struck me funny that here, 30+ years after these tunes were released, the old associations still ring true. I remember singing that song as a bit of a joke to my college girlfriend. We were in the midst of one of those discussions college kids have about what their relationship means. Or does it mean anything at all? She was playing me against another guy she’d met back home. Later she’d make a real choice to date and marry someone else. So the warning signs were there, and the song almost perfectly captured the moment when it became apparent that we were definitely in love, but not for good.
I’ll never be your beast of burden
My back is broad but it’s a hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
I’ll never be your beast of burden
I’ve walked for miles my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
Am I hard enough
Am I rough enough
Am I rich enough
I’m not too blind to see
In fact there are hundreds of songs like these that bring back memories from our past. We use them as the “soundtrack of our lives,” to steal a cliche from a broad cultural meme. One wonders whether that’s really a good thing for us, long term. Are we all secretly locked in an emotional cycle like the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook? Are we constantly replaying the 1960s, 70s, 80s or 90s in our minds? Do we need to stop this right now? Find a new strategy perhaps?
Decade by decade
Music from the 1940s creeps me out. Music from the 50s, the decade into which I was late born, generally feels trite. Music from the 1960s is rich in personal history and growing up with the Beatles, Doors and Beach Boys. This was revolutionary music. Music from the 1970s filled my high school and college years. This and the late 1960s was Classic Rock at its most powerful. Music of the 1980s was reactionary yet always felt a little lost with exception of the Talking Heads, perhaps, and a few others. Music of the 1990s was bombastic, looking for its purpose. Music of the 2000s felt repetitive at times, but began to resolve itself with bands innovating sounds from the roots of rock’n’roll. The Black Keys come to mind. Arcade Fire. Cold Play kept on playing.
High and dry
As a denizen of all these decades I feel a bit like all this music washed me up on a beach somewhere. Or it makes me feel like a pale imitation of Keith Richards, high and dry but covered with the sands of time, I look back and think about all the ways we consumed our music as well. 45s. Albums. Tapes. CDs. MP3s. And now most of it is streaming. Through my Mac. iPhone. On and on we go.
The method of delivery may change, but the music remains largely the same. And each time we hear certain songs, we roll up on the same beach in our minds. We recall getting high to Led Zeppelin in the back of a cargo van with no seats to hold us still. Or we remember that time we were puking under a table at McDonalds from having too much to drink at a college weekend formal. And what was that song playing? Oh yeah, Baby Come Back by Player. “Any kind of fool could see…there was something…in everything about you…”
Singing our lungs out
Just last Friday night my girlfriend and I attended a production of the rock opera Tommy. The music was familiar in a strange way. All those lyrics, sung so many times over in our youth. Like a musical hook through our heads: “How can we follow?”
We sang that entire album in the showers after cross country practice in high school. But that makes me determined, in a way, to move forward in my musical tastes. One can certainly appreciate the hallowed halls of Classic Rock without getting stuck in time. Or are we truly deaf, dumb and blind like the lead character in Tommy? Should we stay in our Classic Rock confinement, or is it time to branch out? How dysfunctional is it to think that our minds and souls depend on old songs to create new and fervent memories? In other words, is Classic Rock really good for you?
The Rock Canon
There is indeed a retro appreciation that has grown up around classic rock, especially music recorded on vinyl albums. The universal idea that rock music sounds better on vinyl has produced a whole new market for vinyl records. My own turntable was fixed a couple years ago but recently stopped cold. Something in the direct drive motor must have given out again.
Or perhaps the Technics turntable quit in quiet testimony to recently announcing closing of the store chain known as Radio Shack. That’s where I originally bought my stereo equipment back in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Actually there is very little music in my album collection that feels good to listen to. My Bowie and Beatles and Eagles and Dan Fogelberg all still sound good. So does Joan Armatrading in that 80s sort of way. And Dire Straits. But there are so many other albums for which I just don’t have the energy or time to consider again. I won’t bore you with the names. Well, just one. Elvin Bishop.
So much of that music is tired out in my mind. It’s quite interesting to have satellite radio in my car with its choice of Classic Rock and Deep Tracks channels. But quite often a song comes on that I cannot listen to for the 1000th time and I just change the channel. Find something new, my brain keeps telling me.
Sure, on the way to Run Club on Saturday morning it sometimes feels good to pop on the 70s channel. One needs familiarity at that time of day. It’s enough to consider running 90 minutes without tiring your brain out trying to take in new music as well.
I don’t listen to music while I run or cycle. It’s generally too distracting. In some ways, it can be dangerous. I’m enough of a space cadet without having my attention occupied by the 536th listen to Space Cowboy or other 70s classic by the Steve Miller Band.
After all, we buy new shoes every few months. Shouldn’t we be consuming new music as well? Aren’t our brains worn out by hearing the same songs over and over and over again? Do our minds fatigue just like our legs when our shoes are worn out?
There is a Classic Rock station here in Chicago that calls itself The Drive. But I call it The Drain, because that’s what it does to all those old songs they play. Drain all meaning from them by repetition. It’s exhausting, like running or riding the same route day after day.
Perhaps its just one of the tarsnakes in life. Classic Rock is good enough to stick around, yet it also might be wearing us down without our knowing it. Like a brake pad rubbing the rear wheel. Life’s a drag sometimes.
Worn out soundtrack
Classic Rock is fine and has its role in life. Yes, it was definitely the soundtrack of my life. I’m grateful for that in fact. The Beatles alone made life worth living more than once. I grew up air guitaring to that amazing solo in the middle of Steely Dan’s Reeling In the Years.
I also love Stevie Wonder’s music, and in fact have my own (pleasant) associations with the song My Cherie Amour. It was playing all the time during a road trip with my best friend’s family to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. We camped that summer and the mosquitos were so bad outside that the boys were forced into the camper where my friend’s sisters were all sleeping soundly. Sometime early in the morning when the light was streaming in a slat trhough the camper’s curtains, I glimpsed a pale full breast in the early morning sunlight. And I was in love. My Cherie Amour. That’s a good memory, alright. Especially for an eleven year old boy.
Bruce Springsteen’s album The River is one of those albums that for me is chock full of angst-ridden songs heralding the 1980s, a breakup with a great girlfriend and the ensuing falseness of the Reagan era and all those newfound conservative yuppies showing up at parties with their polo collars turned up. It was a confusing, disgusting period one does not need reminders about. Some of those songs feel like a punch in the proverbial face. And it seems like much of the world is stuck in a cycle of such negativity. America seems confused right now by its own recent history. Perhaps its time we all moved on a little. Stopped living in the recent past as some sort of “better time.” Both the good and the bad in music have staying power. Being aware of these emotional triggers can be an important tool for mental health. One wonders if society as a whole does not need to consider a little emotional or sentimental hygiene.
There is music calling us forward if we pay attention to what it’s saying. Because it really is ironic that in some ways rock-and-roll has become its own brand of conservative voice in the world. This belief that Classic Rock is somehow a canon for our existence really is a bit warped as a worldview. We’ve learned enough from sex, drugs and rock-and-roll to last a lifetime or two, have we not? Let’s all vow to give something new a listen. It will do us all a bit of good.