Music is such an important part of how I think about the world. At the most fundamental level, we can see that music transcends boundaries of both politics and language. It is something we can all agree is beautiful at times, even as we disagree about almost everything else. Music is so universal - its grip on our very souls goes so deep - that some plants are rumored to dance to the right tune. Music gets into our brains, literally.
Music is political. Rock-and-roll does not happen without the wars that its legends sang about, both cultural and military. Songs and chants are the language of rebellion; they have sustained many a crowd of protestors. From ancient war songs to the camps of Occupy Wall Street, conflict and music go hand in hand. Music is used as torture. It has been used for crowd control and as a component of psychological operations.
Music reveals what words often cannot. When we disagree, it is often a sign of just how extreme our differences are. Consider the categorization of “other” music as the “devil’s tune” by people in every era; and of course today. Music might have played a big role in making civil rights seem possible for many young American teens of the 1960’s. Citizens of today face many problems that are just as daunting, from globalization to the environment and economic inequality. One of the deepest problems with our times is the extremism of our divides. This is on display everywhere from our governments to our diets and certainly in the sounds we all groove to.
Music divides us. In many ways we could argue that the difference between Hip-Hop and Christian Rock is emblematic of the great divide between the inner cities and the ‘burbs of the United States of America. In other ways our country tunes and the twang of strings tell us that the life out on the land is never easy. An emotional tune reminds us of the looming threat of violence that awaits us if we do not build a better tomorrow and bridge those divides. Today’s urban rhymes of sneakers and diamonds seem superficial to some. But the truth is that those who really face the hard choices that burden us with evil actions are usually not unscarred from their encounters. Hip-hop might be violent, judgmental, and sexual. But so is the society that we have created. Many middle-class conservative Americans feel that they are entitled to success, so they pray to a forgiving God who rewards devotion. They sing tunes about love and faith. Urban youths sing “FUCK THE POLICE” because 25% of black men in the USA end up behind bars. The God of Job reigns over their struggles.
Music is the genius that we can instantly recognize. Even after 200 years of population growth, scientific breakthroughs, and general progress, Mozart is universally acknowledged in Western society as the gold standard of prodigy. Music is poetry, and it’s greatest practitioners can leave us feeling awed. Music is the savage beat that we dance to. The melody we cannot resist. It is a fundamental part of what makes us human. And the awesome thing is that it is always changing, even today.
Music brings us together. From church choirs to ritual chanting (be it in a crowd at a church, or a football game), music connects often connects deeply to our sense of right and wrong; it can appeal directly to our spirit. Humans are social animals and homo sapiens are survivors if we are anything. Let us hope that at the end of our days we might look back and sing songs of unity instead of cries for redemption.