Monday, January 25, 2016

Hold On: Songs of Hope on Shuffle

I'm horribly antisocial on airplanes. I put earbuds in my ears before I buckle my seatbelt. Then I plug those earbuds into my iPhone, and for the duration of the flight I do essentially nothing but listen to my music.

"My music" is, of course, a misnomer. I didn't make it; I only bought it. But I do identify with it, and strongly so.

On my most recent flight I found myself putting down my Kindle, closing my eyes, and resting in Shawn Colvin's cover of Paul Simon's "American Tune."

But it's all right, it's all right,
Just weary to my bones.
Still, you don't expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home.
And I don't know a soul who's not been battered ...

I had to actively suppress the urge to sing along, which is worse airplane behavior than actively ignoring your seatmates.

As the flight continued, I began to notice a recurring theme in the songs that tend to move me the most, a theme that responds to the lament in "American Tune." Here and there throughout my playlist is a plea, turning up somewhere in the lyrics, echoing either explicitly or indirectly the cry of yet another Shawn Colvin cover (this one from Tom Waits):

Babe, you've got to hold on.
Take my hand, I'm standing right here.
You got to hold on.

She sings that phrase dozens on times in one song. It's even the song's title. But as she sings it, she joins a chorus.

There's Regina Spektor: "Hold on—this is why we fight!"

There's David Bowie at his most compassionate—"Give me your hand! You're not alone!"—and at his most resigned: "If you think you're gonna make it, you better hang on to yourself."

There's REM encouraging me to "hold on," reminding me that "everybody hurts."

There's Colbie Caillet asking me to "take time to realize that I am by your side."

There's U2 inviting us to "take my hand—you know I'll be there if you can." Thirty years later they're looking for someone to return the favor in their song "Iris (Hold Me Close)."

And on and on. Other songs and themes move me as well, of course, but I'm struck by how recurrent this theme has become for me. I certainly know enough people—far too many people, in fact—for whom "hold on" has at times seemed the only encouragement left to offer. I certainly can recall my own moments where something as simple as holding on, to a friend or to God or to a dream or even merely to myself, has felt like an enormous leap of faith. I certainly observe, when I look around, a world full of people who seem to be barely hanging on, harassed and helpless, as the Good Book says, like sheep without a shepherd, for whom holding on is the only message that makes sense.

TWEET THIS: Songwriters plant themselves closer to desperation and world weariness than most of us.

I guess I'm not surprised this theme turns up so much. I think songwriters plant themselves much closer to the convergence of desperation and world weariness than most of us. The dream itself demands it: you don't flourish as a musician, a poet, without long stretches along the way in the hard country. Every feast carries memory of some famine. They see it, and they experience it, and they give voice to it. And we're reminded of our own need to hold on to something, to hold on for dear life.

An uncle of mine once told me that people who need crutches will find them. He was referring to my recent spiritual awakening, in my view, or opium-addiction, in his. I suppose he's right: We look for ways to prop ourselves up when we perceive that we can't stand on our own. But I find it hard to look down on people who are trying to hold on when they feel like everything is slipping away from them. And I find it encouraging that people who go looking for a hand to hold so often find it.

TWEET THIS: We look for ways to prop ourselves up when we perceive that we can't stand on our own.

U2's plea to "take my hand" comes from their song "Drowning Man," a riff on a scene from the Gospels where Peter attempts to walk on water and ends up needing Jesus to pull him back to the surface. It ends with the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Rise up with wings like eagles.
You'll run and not grow weary.

Behind the soundtrack to this universal longing is, I think, a universal conviction (however unconscious): However bleak the world becomes, there is a God who doesn't mind being a crutch, a prop. This God extends his hand to us, and transforms our desperate striving, our world-weary resignations, into free flight.

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