The Sound of Empathy: Finding Oneself in Songs
Ah, empathy. The pure rhapsody when we find a bit of ourselves floating in the universe. That moment when, upon completing a Buzzfeed quiz entitled ‘which Game of Thrones Character Are You’ that the answer confirms what we have always known. When our horoscope aligns perfectly. When the vague, haphazard ‘what ifs’ of the universe become specific details to which we go aha, that is me. We seek to find ourselves everywhere but within our own skin. And music is no different. We seek, in each rhyming verse, a kernel of truth about ourselves that makes us feel that we’re not alone. We search for empathy. Catharsis. Understanding. Empathy. And we find it, by whatever means necessary.
At sixteen, I remember clinging to the pole of the M101 bus, hurling itself up first avenue. I always stood. I had my headphones shoved into my ears and Martha and the Vandellas belted out ‘Dancing In The Streets’ and before I knew it, I was crying. It would be more eleven years before I looked back at this moment with any sort of critical eye. I wonder, now, what it is about songs that bring up in us tears – of joy or sadness or both. The conclusion I’ve come to is this: empathy.
What great art can do is evoke for the audience a new way of thinking, whether about the world or themselves is sort of irrelevant. Music, however, is one case where self-examination is particularly necessary, and a particular consequence. The arrangement of the notes, the instruments, the inflection of the voice is as haunting as a poltergeist, as an ancestor of our past.
There is an oft touted concept that the music we hear as a teenager stays with us. I think the music we hear during moving and important life events stays with us – no matter how small. The moments of significant beauty, joy, sadness, or pain. The soundtrack that we listened to at that moment, or because it touches, however ephemerally, on that moment like Proust’s madeleine, is what makes a song resonate throughout our lives.
Sad Girls Rejection Club
PJ Harvey has long been an icon of unrelenting feminine power. Growing up in the body of a girl has its challenges, and there are slews of YA novels, blogs, thought pieces, Taylor Swift songs, and academic lectures on what it means to be ‘a girl’. What it means to ‘grow up’. But nothing quite strikes home like “Somehow I’ll expect you’ll find me there / That by some miracle, you’d be aware”. It is a notion we all cling to; that we’ll find someone who understands our needs without us having to express them.
Growing up is shedding snake-skin. And in Silence, PJ Harvey distills and encapsulates this sense of longing and discomfort. Pithy epithets in her distinct wail are reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, of the disquiet of the female soul. She cries out: silence.
As a listener, it doesn’t quite matter what silence you are confronted with. Whether its ones’ own self-inflicted shame, the barriers one faces in the world, one’s own silence or the silence of those around them. There is a vagueness to the word, yet the emotional truth is so specific. We hear her cry out ‘silence’ and we hear, we feel, the silence that we face in our own lives. Self inflicted or prescribed, even if silence is for the best. ‘Silence’ embosses it against the fabric of our lives. It gives silence a name, a sound, a voice. And we find our own voice, as quiet as it is, within those lyrics – within PJ Harvey’s voice.
Sometimes songs speak to a specific feeling – loneliness, misunderstanding, heartache. But often the subject of the lyrics is ephemeral enough that we find our own meaning in them. In Johnny Flynn’s bare-bones folk song ‘Lost and Found’ we are taken on the journey of the protagonist, a “lonely radio / a makeshift show and tell / playing out the lives of the lost and found.” This meta-lyricism takes me, as a listener, through all the version of myself that I’ve been. Some are ones that I’m proud of, but mostly the ones I wish I could bury. It takes me back to walking the streets of Whitechapel, chain-smoking as I pondered a failing relationship. To the desperate sadness in thinking about loved ones no longer here. And yet, for someone else, the lives lost and found are completely different. Their own triumphs or failures.
The vagueness of the lyrics allows for breathing room. It allows each listener to find their own catharsis, and as such their own empathy within Flynn’s honeyed voice. ‘With a breath my body’s death’ is not one death. I hear in it the death of my father, my grandparents, my relationships, my former selves, my self-doubt, my insecurities. ‘Lost and Found’ becomes the lens in a kaleidoscope, shifting the listener’s view of the past – sad or happy, this self-examination creates a feeling of empathy between the listener and Flynn. That this one song provides the tool with which we can look back is enough to create an indelible bond.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall
Just like finding home outside ourselves, the struggle of belonging within ourselves can strike at any given age, in any given place. I have looked out over the East River and the Thames and wondered the very same thing: “who am I, what have I done”. In Benjamin Clementine’s ‘Cornerstone’, the very nature of belonging is the subject, and it is one very personal and specific to Clementine’s story. The abridged, twitter-length story goes like this: Clementine fled his London home at 16 and lived, homeless, before moving to Paris where he was discovered. This transitory life experience, not finding a place to call home, yet being ‘home’ in different places, is what makes Clementine’s music so heart-wrenchingly honest. It is this honesty that pulls you in, and helps you find your own truth within.
It is the kind of song that transcends place and age. For a lucky few, this feeling of homelessness is fleeting. But for many, it can last a lifetime. No height of sudden fame or being in your dream city can make up for being unquiet in your own skin. Clementine’s ‘Cornerstone’ taps into this very specific feeling. I have never been homeless, felt estranged from my family, or been discovered while busking on the street (but, hey, a girl can dream). Yet, when Clementine breathes out that alone, a box of stone ‘is my home, home, home’ I feel myself, too, in that box. And while my cities may not have the same skylines, and my life may have a different trajectory, his microcosm of a story – like memoir writing – becomes symbolic of the larger, human ache to find a place to call home.
Fault Lines of the Heart
Often times we find ourselves, and our homes, in other people. When those relationships break, thus begins the un-intertwining of lives. The art of breakup song falls, mostly, into two categories – the dumped and the dumper. Neither one makes you feel particularly good about yourself. It is a rare breed of song that somehow transcends that effector and effected boundary. Yet, ‘Redemption’ manages it. Whether this is due to the harmonies of the female voice beneath Turner’s particular lilt, or the poetic license within our own internal voice. Cognitive dissonance allows us to move seamlessly between the protagonist of the song, and the object of it as well. We have all laid in bed “with my feelings laid clear on the ceiling,” and felt “I don’t think I can do this”. And yet, we have also all been the one’s who deserved better. We cry for ourselves, for the pain we inflicted on others, or both.
‘Redemption’ asks the over-simplified questions that we often take for granted. “Is love really real? And can anyone hope for redemption?” As Judith Butler would say, “we are undone by each other.” It is both a sad and wonderful truth about life. Redemption has the protagonist take responsibility and also forfeit it. It a song of perfect hindsight, and becomes the perfect soundtrack to self-reflection.
The beauty of life is that we have all both been the one “left alone at that restaurant in London in winter”, and we have all been the one to leave someone else there. The beauty of music is that we find a home for all versions of ourselves in these songs.
The same way we assign faces to our favourite fictional characters, we assign the I’s and She’s and He’s and You’s of lyrics to people in our lives, or to versions of ourselves. These lives that evoke feelings of longing, sadness, anger, love, lust, betrayal – all the deepest human emotions that, in daily conversation with friends, family, sometimes our partners, goes unnamed. Unfaced. But in the quiet moments – with our headphones on a bus, in our rooms late at night, or in the middle of a concert – we confront ourselves through music.
The specifics of the song don’t matter. What matters is how we mould them to fit our lives, how we utilize them, and the very real tie we feel. A bond through catharsis and empathy to the creators of these songs, and the songs themselves.
All words by Gabriella M Geisinger. More writing by Gabriella can be found at her author’s archive. Gabriella tweets as @ellaquentt, and more of her writing can be found at www.gabriellamgeisinger.com.