When I was an adolescent, I attended church camp most summers. Each year it was a week of being in close proximity to a couple hundred other hormonally charged Christian kids where we had daily bible studies, morning and evening church services and ample opportunities to get our lives back on track with God. Away from all of our worldly influences, we were shown just how terrible the world was, and how important it was for us, as Christians, to stay as separate from it as possible.
One summer, after returning home from church camp, I took a hammer to my record collection. No good Christian should listen to, much less own, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” so I set up my record-destruction operation on a cement slab in my mom’s driveway and pounded away on my small stack of vinyl. I don’t remember everything I destroyed that day, but in addition to AC/DC it included albums by Queen, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
I didn’t feel good about destroying my records, at least not for long, but something I’d heard at camp made me think that listening to certain things was wrong, that the wrong kind of music would taint me, and that something about me was bad if I liked certain kinds of music. Better to remove it from my life altogether than be temped to listen to it. That’s the message I got.
I didn’t wreck all of my records. I kept Chic’s “C’est Chic” because even though going to dances was not acceptable in one of my two homes, I spent hours making up dance routines in the basement of my mom’s house to the song “Le Freak” because it was, quite simply, the best dance song in the universe. I was pretty sure God wouldn’t mind my dancing as long as I didn’t do it in public and as long as I didn’t make my moves too sexy.
I also kept Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” album. “The Logical Song” spoke to me and I listened to it over and over again. For this middle school girl who lived two different lives in two different households, who couldn’t yet articulate all the questions stewing inside my brain, it was nice to know that other people felt lost sometimes. I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…
Whoever preached the sermon that inspired me to clean up my record collection did understand one thing about music. It’s powerful. Even though it can be logical, mathematical and scientific, it has the ability to go beyond those things. It has the ability to work its way into you on a much deeper level. At least that’s true for me.
In high school, after my boyfriend of two years left me broken-hearted, I wore out my cassette of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” by rewinding it too much. Alone in my room, I wallowed in my pain listening to “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” about a million times.
My musical obsessions have changed over the years. In fact, they change from week to week or month to month. One thing stays the same though: I find a piece of music that speaks to me, that touches me at some deep level, and I listen to it so many times that I suspect other people would think that I’m insane if they knew the extent of it.
In June of 2014 I discovered Jason Isbell’s album “Southeastern.” In my car to and from work each day, I played the song “Elephant” again and again and I swore that I’d learn to write songs, that I’d be happy never writing anything ever again if I could just write one song that was as good as that song.
After my dad died in 2007, I heard Martha Scanlan’s version of the old hymn “Ten Thousand Charms” and listening to it helped me mourn not just the loss of my dad but also the loss and isolation I felt over no longer believing the same religious teachings of my youth. Listening to the song helped me articulate that I was mourning more than just my dad.
Currently I can’t seem to get enough of Kurt Vile’s two most recent albums “Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze” and “b’lieve I’m goin’ down.” For whatever reason, they are meeting me where I’m at at this point in my life.
I won’t even get into my obsession with old-time fiddle and banjo music for this blog post. But one life-changing, serendipitous musical encounter started one day when my children were small and I was listening to NPR while driving them to town for a swimming lesson. The show on the radio featured a segment about a music festival being held in North Carolina. I heard clawhammer banjo being played and I immediately started crying. Not just crying, but had-to-pull-the-car-over-and-collect-myself crying. I have no explanation for it, but before that moment I’d never experienced a sound searing itself right into my soul. Remarkably, I met one of my dearest friends that week at those swimming lessons. Her name is Kate and she is one of the finest old-time banjo players that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and I’ve met a few. Soon after that I picked up a fiddle for the first time.
The thing with music is that what speaks to me isn’t necessarily what speaks to another person. Some people might hear a fiddle tune in a minor key and to them it sounds like nothing more than old-fashioned screeching. I, on the other hand, might hear a tune and feel compelled to listen to it hundreds of times and then play it hundreds of times. I don’t have a great explanation as to why music is so personal. Maybe it has to do with genetics. Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe there is something that goes way back to the core of our being, something that on some level still defies explanation.
It’s this unknown, hard-to-understand aspect of music that gives me the ability to respect genres that don’t necessarily resonate with me. In this life we’re always on the lookout for something that connects us to our people, our spirit, ourselves. We’re longing for something that makes us feel alive and engaged. What does that for one person will not necessarily be the thing that does it for someone else.
The rock and roll albums I busted to smithereens in my youth might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have had questionable lyrics, but they weren’t doing me any harm. I can think of plenty of things that did hurt me when I was a kid, and music isn’t one of them. The same is true of the rap music at the Tenana Valley State Fair last weekend that was so rudely interrupted. The performers might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have been rapping about serious issues, but they weren’t hurting anyone.
Those responsible for freaking out at the Tanana Valley State Fair last weekend did not get away with their decision to interrupt the music and kick the performers out of the venue. They’ve been sufficiently shamed through newspaper op-eds and comments and have ironically given the rap duo more attention than they ever expected. But I wonder what kind of message the censors sent to those few people in the audience who perhaps related more to the music of Starbuks and Bishop Slice than the other more “acceptable” acts. Censorship is tricky that way. Besides the blatant messages it sends, there are many more that are subtle: You don’t fit our ideal of what it means to be Alaskan. You are different and therefore unwelcome. Something must be wrong with you if this is the kind of music you enjoy.
All of those messages are similar to the ones I heard when I was a kid at church camp in the early 1980s. Thankfully, the music spoke to me louder than those messages. And for all those Alaskan kids who love rap, or punk or electronica or any kind of genre that might scare the socks off of those who manage the Tanana Valley State Fair, I say turn up the volume. You’re as Alaskan as any of the rest of us.