Friday, November 21, 2008

Facing the Music: The Two Stevens (and John Darnielle)

I'm dedicating this weekend to music. You might ask: "how's that different from most other weekends thus far?". Well, first, thanks for the question. Second, it's not going to be dedicated (just) for listening but also for a rather heroic (and probably futile) attempt to start and finish the one-before-last of my papers, which deals, surprisingly, with music. More specifically, it deals with the controversy of whether music plays a role in human evolution and if it does, what is that role.

To do this, I will need to describe two of the main sides in this controversy, namely that of Steven Pinker (music is an auditory 'cheesecake' and Not an adaption) and that of Steven Mithen (music and language both developed from the same proto-musilangauge with music having a distinct role to play in human evolution). Naturally there are other views (such as one that claims that music is an adaptaion without any specific claims to a joint music-langauge progenator), but I do have to set bounds for this paper (and besides, those other researchers may not be named Steven...).

As this question deals with evolution it has no clear and resounding answer - which is a good thing (there would be no controversy otherwise!). Personally, I'm not sure I want this issue resolved. Having a mystery such as music in my life seems almost like a privilige in this rather explained age. Why Do we love and need music when it does not seem to have any survival-related benefit (or so some claim)?

To me, music definitely has survival related benefits. As most who know me may guess, a large part of my nutrition is actually non-physical in origin. So apart from the usual soul food, music is top in my dietary requirements. There are all sorts of musics and songs: some dietary, some require longer digestion periods, other are quick on the ear (and tounge) and just melt away. And there are those that provide energy and inspiration for the short and long runs.

The Mountain Goats' "This Year" began for me as such a song: an upbeat, determind melody with the repeating chorus saying "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me" (and the final lines closing in "there will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year"). For a tough a year as I'm having, what could be more fitting?

But a caerful listen to the lyrics (and the other songs in this beautiful album) revealed a more complex story. The determination in the song was now filled with pain and resolve born out of past fear and experience. The hope to hold on for just one more year had possible departure or esacpe at its end rather than your ordinary "prize". This is because this song deals in painful earnest with the lyricist's history as an abused child, and specificaly describes one day of temporary escape from it. All of this hasn't hindered this song's capacity for inspiration; it may even have increased it (even if for some additional reasons).

The video clip below perplexed me for a bit as the storyline (the band being held hostage and forced to sing) is somehwat odd and does not deal directly with the lyrics. However, it may be delivering the message as a metaphor by Darnielle being forced to finally tell his story, a sort of a theraputic endeavor. So music does serve a purpose, it seems.

The Mountain Goats - This Year {MP3} (from The Sunset Tree)
The MP3 will be hosted for a limited time only and is intended for introductory purposes only. I recommend buying The Sunset Tree as it should be listened to as a whole album.
The Mountain Goats' picture is from their page.

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