If you weep when you hear that song, it’s your own fault.

Fashion (Canada) - - CONTENTS - By Greg Hud­son

Mu­sic makes us cry. And that’s to­tally OK.

Puff the Magic Dragon” was one of the folk songs in my mother’s reper­toire that she’d sing to us on long road trips. I may be bi­ased, but I al­ways loved her singing. She would also sing to com­fort me when I was up­set—which was of­ten. I was one of those sen­si­tive, self­con­scious kids who aren’t con­vinced that any­one cares about them. When she sang me to sleep, she would never choose “Puff.” That would have been coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, since I couldn’t lis­ten to it with­out weep­ing.

Maybe, de­spite con­sis­tent protes­ta­tions from Pe­ter, Paul and prob­a­bly Mary (the peo­ple who made Puff fa­mous), you still think “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a thinly veiled ode to cannabis, the same way that “Lucy in the Sky with Di­a­monds” is ru­moured to be about LSD. But that oh-so-hi­lar­i­ous drug the­ory falls apart af­ter the first verse. By the end, you re­al­ize it’s clearly a song about the tragedy of grow­ing up and the pain of be­ing left be­hind and for­got­ten. Truth­fully, “Puff the Magic Dragon” still wrecks me. I mean, read these lyrics: “A dragon lives for­ever, but not so lit­tle boys. Painted wings and gi­ant’s rings make way for other toys. One grey night it hap­pened, Jackie Pa­per came no more And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fear­less roar. His head was bent in sor­row, green scales fell like rain. Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane. With­out his life­long friend, Puff could not be brave, So Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly slipped into his cave.”

I main­tain that “Puff the Magic Dragon” could be a kind of Tur­ing test: If you don’t get choked up by that last sen­tence, you’re clearly some kind of an­droid. I iden­ti­fied with Puff. I was the youngest child in a big fam­ily, and some­times I felt over­looked. Be­ing left be­hind and for­got­ten by some­one you love was as heart­break­ing and cruel as it was in­evitable (at least to lit­tle me).

Lately, I’ve been think­ing about why we cry. When life is rel­a­tively steady, it’s not that you will never cry—a movie will still touch you, the odd ar­gu­ment or in­sult will make you tear up—but it doesn’t feel re­mark­able. But, when you ex­pe­ri­ence change—like, say, a sep­a­ra­tion or di­vorce, or even a new re­la­tion­ship—sud­denly you no­tice your tears. It’s at times like these I no­tice that mu­sic, more than any other art form, per­haps, out­side of in­jury or ther­apy, can re­ally choke me up.

Last year, in an episode of his pre­dictably un­pre­dictable pod­cast Re­vi­sion­ist His­tory, Mal­colm Glad­well ar­gued that coun­try mu­sic is more able to jerk your tears than any other genre of mu­sic, es­pe­cially pop. Ac­cord­ing to him, coun­try lyrics are more spe­cific and more hon­est than the broad metaphors that make up much of pop mu­sic. Sad coun­try songs are like a sniper’s bul­let aimed at your heart. It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter whether the story or sce­nario de­scribed in your favourite Ge­orge Jones song (“He Stopped Lov­ing Her To­day,” for in­stance) re­flects your life or not; what mat­ters is that it seems to be about a real per­son singing about real feel­ings. (The fact that Jones seemed to live a life re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the lives he sang about, even if he didn’t write all the songs him­self, also helps.)

Think­ing about how “Puff the Magic Dragon”—which isn’t a coun­try song— af­fected me as a child (and still af­fects me »

as an adult), I think Glad­well was wrong. Mu­sic’s abil­ity to make us cry isn’t de­pen­dent on genre; it’s de­pen­dent on us. Folk, pop, coun­try, rap, what­ever: The types of songs that make you cry are as var­ied and chaotic and per­sonal as the tragedies and neu­roses, small and large, that break your heart in real life. When I asked the Face­book hive mind what songs get them cry­ing, I re­ceived some pre­dictable an­swers, but mostly they were all dif­fer­ent, all suited to the per­son sug­gest­ing them.

Call it cre­ator bias: Glad­well is a writer who must as­sume sole re­spon­si­bil­ity for con­vey­ing his ideas and so he places a lot of sway on the lyri­cist. But speci­ficity is in the ear of the lis­tener. The big­gest, broad­est rock song will make you weep just as pow­er­fully as the most idio­syn­cratic torch song if some­thing about it res­onates with you. Songs aren’t bul­lets; they are viruses. Your re­ac­tion de­pends on your emo­tional im­mune sys­tem, your fam­ily his­tory and, in some cases, how tired you hap­pen to be.

While I was writ­ing this, I lis­tened to “Vul­can, AB” by The Ru­ral Al­berta Ad­van­tage (RAA) dozens of times. It’s not even three min­utes long, but it has be­come my adult “Puff the Magic Dragon.” I cry nearly ev­ery time I hear it. And it only seems to be get­ting more pow­er­ful. It starts with an or­gan that sounds like it’s com­ing from a church base­ment, which is fit­ting: The song is about fall­ing short of the ideal, the same way an or­gan—es­pe­cially that elec­tronic one—reaches for, but falls just short of, ho­li­ness. It sketches a love that’s in “slow de­cline” be­tween two peo­ple stuck in Vul­can, a small town in Al­berta. If this were the kind of coun­try song that Ge­orge Jones sang, those peo­ple would have names, pro­fes­sions or some telling de­tails, but this song doesn’t give us any of those “Jack and Diane” specifics; it gives us this: What would specifics of­fer here? How would know­ing some per­sonal de­tail make the fu­til­ity, the know­ingly false hope, the ex­is­ten­tial punch of promis­ing faith you don’t have any more painful?

But, of course, it could just be me. Ac­tu­ally, no. It is just me. Any­one can see that the song is sad, but—as a man still rid­ing out a failed mar­riage that was built, like most bro­ken re­la­tion­ships, on hope and lies that you don’t want to ad­mit are lies— I’m es­pe­cially re­cep­tive. I was weak­ened al­ready. Of course these words, as broad as they are, keep push­ing me over the edge be­cause they never stop be­ing true.

In his pod­cast, Glad­well pro­filed the song­writer re­spon­si­ble for some of coun­try’s most heart­break­ing bal­lads, in­clud­ing the songs that made Jones fa­mous. He lived a hard life and poured that re­al­ness into his work. That’s another rea­son, ar­gued Glad­well, that coun­try songs are so pow­er­ful. They have a cer­tain in­tent born of ex­pe­ri­ence.

When I spoke with Paul Ban­watt, RAA’s crazy­im­pres­sive drum­mer, he was al­most hes­i­tant to tell me the story of how “Vul­can, AB” came to be. He knew the song touched me and didn’t want to ruin it for me. I told him that he would only prove my point. The truth is, it’s not a bal­lad wrenched from some per­sonal heart­break in the Prairies. Ban­watt wanted to write a song that in­cluded a Star Trek ref­er­ence so they could play it at a reg­u­lar in­die rock Star Trek show he put on. Then, af­ter nearly 10 years, they tweaked it in the stu­dio (“it came to­gether in 20 min­utes”) so they could add it to their third al­bum. So, not only is the song not spe­cific; it’s al­most ac­ci­den­tal.

“I think it’s all about con­nec­tion,” Ban­watt told me. “It can come from a lot of places. I wouldn’t put all the power in the words. Whether it makes you laugh or cry or dance, it’s what­ever moves you.” Oth­er­wise, why would in­stru­men­tal mu­sic make us cry, too? Why would I find my­self tear­ing up on the el­lip­ti­cal ma­chine while lis­ten­ing to a par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing guitar riff in a Me­tal­lica song?

Glad­well’s the­ory is cleaner, and there’s a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion in be­ing able to fit songs that make you cry into a tidy tax­on­omy. But it doesn’t take into ac­count that mu­sic pro­vides us with an op­por­tu­nity for re­flec­tion: that mo­ment when you re­al­ize you’re cry­ing while lis­ten­ing to a Ke­sha song (and not “Pray­ing”—be­cause of course you’re gonna cry dur­ing that one) and you stop to ask your­self why. Be­cause if it’s not the spe­cific story the song is telling, then that tells you some­thing about you.

“Oh tonight our love was on a slow de­cline Waitin’ on an empty heart to unite And I’m gonna tell you lies, gonna let you down Gonna break your heart, gonna grow up now Gonna try, gonna fight, gonna for­get how Well I’m gonna wake us up, gonna break us out Gonna steal your heart, gonna save us now Gonna try, gonna fight, gonna fuck up now.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.