Sunday, May 22, 2011

Five Essential Songs

The AP Language teacher at my school has this great final assignment for after the big test where she asks her students to choose five songs that have "staying power" in their lives. The "Five Essential Songs" assignment rounds out the year and serves as an apt point of reflection for the students, all graduating seniors. As I have taken a new job in California and am going through a commencement process myself, I thought it would be fitting for me to join with the seniors and submit my own list for inclusion in their collection.

The first thing you should know about my list is that it was nearly impossible to choose only five songs. I actually first started thinking about this nearly a year ago when the 2010 AP Language students presented their lists. A first pass through my music library yielded over 500 "drop dead, desert island favorites." Like Rob Gordon in "High Fidelity" I had to come up with some kind of criteria for narrowing it down.

First, I tried choosing one song from each major period of my life: childhood, high-school, college and young adulthood, marriage and, finally, starting a family. But this left out too much -- musically and emotionally. Next, I tried to pick songs for five pivotal moments in my life but, at the risk of sounding emo, that definitely skewed the list toward the dark and heavy. I finally decided that I would choose songs that, if you had never met me before, would give you a pretty good sense of who I am. That made it easier for me to weed out songs that I couldn't live without but that didn't have much to do with my experience of life on this planet (i.e., "Folsom Prison Blues").

So, at long last, here are my five essential songs for submission on Wednesday:
  1. "(Nothing but) Flowers" by Talking Heads
    The narrator tells of a world reverted to pristine natural splendor, a development he once welcomed only to find that he misses the mess and machinations of industrialized modern life. I have a theory that this song is a good-natured rebuttal to "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell. In that song, Mitchell laments that "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." In "Flowers," David Byrne retorts, "if this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower." This song speaks to my playful side and my appreciation for that most hipsterish of literary devices, irony. It also speaks to the fact that, as a technology professional, I have some ambivalence about my place in the natural world. I'm all for organic vegetables and low-impact living practices but I'm sure I would be quite useless in a world rendered free of iPods, smartphones and alternating current.
  2. "Feelin' Good" by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, performed by Nina Simone
    One of the greatest songs ever recorded. What I love about it, though, is that its meaning seems to shift with my emotional state when I hear it. At good times in my life, Simone's words spur me on, validating that everything is as it should be. Beset by tragedy, her voice sounds tinged by knowing weariness, acknowledging the gulf between how I should feel and what I am actually feeling. The amazing thing is that I can continue to hear the song both ways without losing one or the other; the irony never brings me down when I'm up, the triumph never mocks me when I'm down.
  3. "Into the Mystic" by Van Morrison
    This is the song that my wife and I first danced to at our wedding. More than that, the nautical imagery captures the sense that, high tide or low, wherever the wind may take us, together we are embarked. Morrison sings, "I want to rock your gypsy soul," and that's exactly how I feel whenever our life together takes us in a new, unexpected direction.
  4. "Lateralus" by Tool
    If I have a theme song, this is it. The music has a complex 9-8-7 time signature. Upon discovering that 987 was the 17th value of the Fibonacci sequence -- a mathematical pattern of integers where each subsequent value is the sum of the previous two -- Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer and lyricist was inspired by the spiral described by the numbers, which is often found in nature: inside seashells, ferns and pine-cones. He even arranged the syllables of each line to match ascending and descending values in the sequence. The result is a call to live a life of unexpected exploration, "drawing way outside the lines." The path of my life is not linear; if I had to pick a shape to describe it, a spiral is as apt a description as any. My interests have always been all over the map, which made it difficult to find my footing as I struggled to find a college, a major, a career. Fortunately for me, I have discovered that I do not have to follow one straight path and I have stumbled upon a field that allows me to "embrace the random." The song also warns that, "over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind," advice that I deeply value but often have trouble following.
  5. "Easy Plateau" by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
    The downside of having a "gypsy soul" and following a circuitous path in life is that it can leave one feeling unmoored. "Easy Plateau" captures the oft-thwarted desire for stability and simplicity in my life. As my wife and I embark once again on an entirely new adventure, I definitely feel the pull to find "a place to rest my head." The line, "my head ain't full of nothing but cats and rocking chairs," is hilarious but sometimes frighteningly accurate. What's great about Adams, though, is that he knows himself well. As easy as the plateau promises to be, he acknowledges he'll only be able rest "for a little while."

1 comment:

  1. Good choices, man. I'm so happy for you guys, and even happier you'll be closer. I always feel confident that life works out for you guys because you're such wonderful, smart people. I love you guys, rub Jen's belly for me. :) And play those songs to her tummy! Babies can absorb music in the womb!