The Lost Art of Listening, Part 6: A Scarcity of Mind

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[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 5: The Case for Nostalgia by Leslie E. Thompson.]

When I was twelve years old, my parents bought me the 10th Anniversary Concert recording of Les Misérables on VHS. I’d begun to demonstrate a zeal for musicals, starting with the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, which I listened to on repeat until I could sing you the entire thing through—with all its varying parts—from start to finish. The only other musical recording we had was a VHS of CATS (which I also watched repeatedly and will unabashedly defend), and my parents figured that they ought to guide my budding passion toward a higher quality of musical theatre. Hence, my introduction to Les Misérables.

To this day, I can vividly recall sitting at the foot of our tv (way too close to the screen) watching that concert over and over again. I can still feel my eyes locked wide in wonder, how the orchestral music hit me like a tidal wave and soaked into every cell of my little body and left my skin buzzing. I can still feel certain lyrics engraving themselves into my bones, and others that seeded in my mind to grow slowly over the years before blooming.  

I tell you this to demonstrate that I get it. I came up somewhere between the cassette tape era that Andrew and Jennifer described and Drew’s era of the iPod (though of course, I eventually got there too). Mine was the time of the CD—played on a clunky portable-CD-player that bounced against my leg, causing the track to skip every fifteen seconds or so, and a lavender boombox on my nightstand where I transitioned when the skipping got too aggravating. I understand what it is to have to wait for new music, to be forced to listen to one record at a time, to pore endlessly over the liner notes and learn the background of each song and its creators. I understand how scarcity can make a thing more precious.

It’s easy to take experiences like that and conclude that scarcity is the superior musical experience. Drew likens our interaction with music to that of food and discusses the difference between consuming and savoring. Surely, we’re more prone to savor if we get only one meal a day, and we’ve had to scrape and scrounge to get it! I picture him hobbit-like at his metaphorical table, tucking into a delicious supper for which he can name every ingredient and treasures each flavor in its full magnificence.

It’s an alluring image, but for me it begs the question: where is that meal collected from? In a place of scarcity, how do we encounter the music that we come to treasure? My parents introduced me to Les Misérables, Leslie talks about discovering music in her youth group, and Andrew reminisces about drooling over the tapes in his friend’s car and later offering album suggestions to his daughter. In a posture of scarcity, we’re compelled to collect our music from the people around us, from our families, and friends, and those we interact with day-to-day.

There’s a certain beauty in that—a sense of community and commonality in beloved things (again, I think of hobbits with their close-knit culture and common, simple values)—but there’s a danger in it too. When our music is gathered by proximity, we risk only being introduced to and reinforcing our own cultural tastes. If we aren’t careful, what seems like depth can become entrenchment, and darkrooms can become echo-chambers.

When our music is gathered by proximity, we risk only being introduced to and reinforcing our own cultural tastes. If we aren't careful, what seems like depth can become entrenchment, and darkrooms can become echo-chambers.

Shigé Clark

I’ll be forever grateful to my parents for guiding me toward Les Mis; yet, that same, thoughtful guidance would have never sat me down in front of the marvel that is Hamilton—in fact, it would have firmly steered me away. In the culture I grew up in, rap was generally viewed with disdain (the couple “safe” exceptions conspicuously being white guys, irrespective of theological richness), and the minute a cuss word showed up in the lyrics, forget about it. Coming from that culture, when people started telling me about this new musical where American revolutionary history meets rap and hip hop, I thought, “Well, that sounds terrible.” It was YouTube that recommended the video of Lin-Manuel Miranda being laughed at in the White House as he debuted Hamilton’s opening song, piquing my curiosity enough to check it out. It was Spotify that offered me the chance to listen to the soundtrack, when my skepticism of something outside my usual tastes would never have led me to risk the money and level of commitment to buy the full album on CD. No one I knew was listening to Hamilton (in fact, my friends and family were actively scoffing at it); no one was going to lend me their copy or vouch for its excellence. If the time of musical scarcity had persisted, Hamilton would have remained this peripheral thing that I heard about sometimes, some musical out there in the nether that people with different (clearly lesser) artistic tastes were raving about. I would never have experienced one of the most masterful and moving works I’ve ever encountered—one that, among other things, depicts the power of God’s forgiveness in a way that nothing has for me since Les Mis.

After I’d fallen head-over-heels for the work, it was YouTube again that offered interviews from the creators and cast. There I learned about the influences that shaped the writing and composition, seeing for the first time the artistry that goes into rap and the unique capability it has to tell a story where other lyrical forms would fail. There I began to learn about the lineage of unfamiliar genres and those who helped form them. There my perspective on my country’s history was challenged by those who were seeing themselves in its founding story for the first time—a feeling that I’ve never had to face, despite being a third-generation immigrant.

My new respect for this artform opened my mind to a thousand other works and artists that I had before automatically dismissed, and the accessibility of today’s music put them all at my fingertips. Beyond the rap and hip hop artists it sent me to, appreciation for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work also lead me to his first musical In the Heights, where I got a second helping of raw perspective from a story set in an immigrant-dominated neighborhood, along with a healthy heap of Latin-American music influences that I had been similarly closed-off to. Far from surfing, each new discovery was like diving into a pool of water and exploring a hidden complex of caves, knowing I could swim deeper and deeper and never reach its end, and eventually resurfacing, just to dive into the next one. What Drew described in his article as “skipping across vast distances of data, but hardly ever stopping to taste what we’ve consumed” has for me, instead, been a tumbling down into endless, branching rabbit holes of ever-increasing depth, emerging in a Wonderland of music completely alien to my own experience.

Here’s why this is important—music, I think more than anything, is dripping with the experience and perspectives of our fellow humankind, each an inimitable shard of God’s own image. It’s too easy—natural, even—to find the aspect of God’s nature that most resonates with us and cling to it, calling it good, calling it best, as though God Himself and all His image-bearers aren’t more multifaceted than we could ever hope to begin to grasp. If we aren’t careful, scarcity can become an excuse to maintain our blind spots in perpetuity.

I’ve used Hamilton and my own cultural expansion as an example, but this concept is limitless in its application. Jennifer references our staff discussion of Billie Eilish, and how she and others like her speak to a generational perspective that is key to understanding some of our biggest current struggles (in that same conversation, Chris introduced me to the works of Mac Miller and Juice WRLD, who speak in that same space, and whom—I think it’s important to note—I would never have been willing to hear about, much less check out, if not for the way Hamilton had already opened me up to new forms of music). Mark Meynell has spoken to how Shostakovich’s symphonies can teach us about the experience of those who suffered under Stalin’s control in the Soviet Union. After last year’s Hutchmoot concert, my friend said that she almost walked out of Ella Mine’s remarkable record Dream War because the darkness it addresses  was so uncomfortable for her. It’s just not how she thinks or wants to see the world, she said—but she stayed, because she recognized that this was some people’s experience, and she wanted to understand.

Sure, we can stay in the Shire and revel in the Berry-esque beauty of knowing every path and neighbor’s name, but who among us would rather have stayed in the Shire than travel with the Fellowship?

Shigé Clark

And isn’t that the glorious divinity of it? The opportunity to step into another person’s perspective and feel it in a way that only music allows? We call music the universal language for a reason—it has the potential to be the most uniting force in existence. It can introduce us to levels of empathy we could never have imagined. Or it can be a source of further division. Scarcity of music carries on its back the risk of scarcity of mind, where we wrap ourselves in our warm, comfortable genre coats and throw on a nostalgia scarf for good measure and remark to each other how the world isn’t cold. To Leslie’s well-made point in the previous article, this doesn’t mean we need to be ashamed or can’t feast joyfully in the music that most resonates with us. After all this time, Les Misérables is still my favorite musical, and probably still the one I’ve listened to the most. But I needed Hamilton. I needed In the Heights. I needed the expansion of perspective that’s led to the 467 songs on my Musicals playlist.

And you know what? This ubiquity of music hasn’t diluted the depth in that expansion. Are there songs and artists on my playlists that I know nothing about, and albums I’ve skimmed through, failing to give them a fair chance? For sure, and certainly there’s more to those artists and their works than my attention has credited them. But that’s only because I’m busy engaging just as deeply with other works as I ever engaged back in my times of scarcity. The fact that algorithms lead me away from Hamilton to discover the scope of other works hasn’t stopped me from soaking it up just as deeply as Les Misérables. I have sat in that same, rapt attention, with the same wonder thrumming through me, digging into every note, line, rhyme, refrain, and devastating detail of its 2hr23min soundtrack. In fact, as Chris alludes to in his post on the topic, the availability of the internet has only increased the depth with which I engage art. I’ve been able to dig further into the history and complexity of Les Misérables through the internet than I ever could have hoped to through a book of liner notes.

Scarcity may call to us like the close-knit community of the Shire, but the splendor of the Lord of the Rings stories is that our heroes leave, and are made better for it. Andrew describes ubiquity as “the glut of new music at our fingertips,” but I see the current ubiquity of music less as a smorgasbord arrayed before us to gorge on without tasting, and more as the whole wide world opened up at my doorstep, waiting to sweep me away. If the constraints of the iPod are for Drew like Bilbo sitting down to savor a meal in its full magnificence, then YouTube and Spotify have been Gandalf beckoning me from my doorway with a company of dwarves at his back. 

“I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging.”

Sure, we can stay in the Shire and revel in the Berry-esque beauty of knowing every path and neighbor’s name, but who among us would rather have stayed in the Shire than travel with the Fellowship? Would we really forego the unfamiliar beauties of Rivendell, Lothlórien, Moria, Rohan, and Gondor? Are we really content for our world to be so small, and our knowledge of the greater story so limited? And—as Jennifer alludes to in her post—perhaps traveling there and back again not only serves to expand our perspective and edify us as people, but will even serve to make us realize and appreciate, all anew, the familiar things we loved before.

Click here to read Part 7: Can I Get a Witness? by Pete Peterson.


6 Comments

  1. Helena Sorensen

    @helena

    I loved this, Shigé! My parents seemed to have a similar philosophy about “safe” music, and I have to laugh when I think of them shaking their heads at “Christian Rock” and then handing me and my brother “Lovely Ladies.” 🙂

  2. Charlie

    I’m trying to imagine the world of scarcity that you describe. I’ve never known such a world. In my world, growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the ’60s and ’70s, I never lacked exposure to or access to a really diverse range of music. My first rock concert at age 12 was Chicago’s first arena tour when they passed through Philly. My first live classical concert was the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was 13. I saw dozens of major rock shows ranging from Springsteen’s first ever arena show to The Dead to Pink Floyd to… To this day, I still see the Philly Orchestra. And operas at The Met. I can’t stomach Andrew Lloyd Weber, so I’ll grant you that. And how did I hear about these things? FM rock radio, classical radio, friends who knew more than me and pulled me in all kinds of directions. We had no Internet, Spotify, nor iTunes. I remember seeing posters around Philly announcing the first tour of a new band The Cure. That’s how I heard about stuff. Even my infatuation with The Punch Brothers came about by listening to a music show on NPR eight years ago. And yes, record jackets (the LPs, with the Sgt. Pepper’s pop-up figures!) were a way to go deep with the music and musicians. Is today better regarding access, breadth, and exposure? Sure. And online deep-diving does get you more than we had in those days. But I think your conclusion that life is far more diverse now than it was then is based on your startlingly limited exposure, imposed perhaps by cultural norms (I lived in South Carolina in the summer of ’73 and they didn’t seem to know about much other than the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd), parental restrictions (my goodness, did I have to hoodwink my mom to get out the door to the blue smoke of a Dead concert), and perhaps locale (e.g., NOT near a major city). What we have now is less constrained access to things. But the music was always there.

  3. Steve Guthrie

    @steve-guthrie

    This is such a great reflection Shigé! Thanks so much for these thoughts. I also think this is a really important issue for RR folks to wrestle with going forward. How do we continue to celebrate the artists and stories and music that we count among our influences (Lewis, Tolkein, Berry, MacDonald, etc.), without becoming ingrown and insular?

    Art (and music) is one of the most basic ways that a people or culture define themselves. (“We are the people who sing *these* songs, who tell *these* stories, etc.”) And so as you point out, it can be one of the best ways to begin to learn another culture. The flip side of that is that art (and music) also can be a way a people or culture define themselves *over against* some other group. (So “we are the people whose music sounds like *this,* NOT *that.*”) It’s interesting in fact, how often this was the case in my high school growing up! The different social cliques clustered around different musical styles: the metalheads, the punks, and so on. If you were a metalhead, admitting that you liked a rap song was grounds for excommunication (and vice versa). On the one hand, it was awesome that something like music could draw together a group of people with similar tastes and interests, and become the core around which they built friendships. On the other hand, those shared interests sometimes became a barrier to other groups of people.

    The big challenge (which I think the conclusion of your article suggests so clearly) is learning how to be *both* deeply rooted and deeply open! “Hospitality” is a good category here, I think. It suggests real openness, welcome, and a love for strangers. But it also suggests that you are rooted somewhere; you need to have a home if you are going to welcome people in to it. Anyway — terrific article Shigé! Thanks so much!

  4. Kara

    @karajanechase

    I love that you liken our listening possibilities to places like Alice’s Wonderland. You encourage us to new frontiers and that IS exciting. It reminds me of Andy Gullahorn’s “Brand New Song”.
    One of my son’s is always willing to educate me on the finer points of twenty-one pilots; they are out of my comfort genre for certain but I can’t deny my appreciation. Thank you for writing this excellent piece, Shigé.

  5. Matt Wheeler

    @mattwheeler

    Fantastic thoughts here, Shigé! I truly appreciate all the parts of this series – so many different, valid perspectives.

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