Last summer, I managed to find myself cross-legged on a dock, overlooking the hazy emerald mountains that surround New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Sitting amid 12 other students, I awaited the start of an academic class that focused on the “uses of the erotic.” Did I attend this class because I assumed it’d be largely sexual in nature? Maybe. Nevertheless, in 90 minutes, the word “erotic” took on new, much more profound, meaning. The class utilized Audre Lorde’s 1974 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in which she boldly defines the erotic as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”
After familiarizing the class with Lorde’s definition, our instructor requested we go around and name what came to mind when we heard the word “erotic.” Immediately, the seductive beats of Chet Faker’s song “Cigarettes and Chocolate” flowed into my brain.
I’ve always chased the goosebumps, the body-inhabiting emotion that music sends through me. I vividly recall being the only kid in the fourth grade choir who volunteered to sing the alto part of “Carol of the Bells”(you may know this part as the “ding, dongs”). While all my peers begged to sing the popular melody “Hark, how the bells! Sweet, silver bells,” I preferred dwelling in the harmony; it was easier to get lost the depths of the blending voices, in the depths of my own feeling.
It goes without saying that nine-year-old me did not identify my soul-stirring response to harmony as “erotic.” But, as Lorde describes the erotic, music has always been “a reminder of my capacity for feeling.” Thus, I turn to music to enhance the feeling of my everyday experiences. Music holds the potential to summon the erotic, and illuminate our lives with what Lorde identifies as the “kind of energy that heightens our senses and strengthens all of (our) experiences.”
The value in the erotic, and music’s ability to access it, stretches beyond individual experience. One of its uses, according to Lorde, is uniting those who share moments of its electric emotion. She accents the erotic’s ability to “be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between us.” Emotion is humanity’s common ground, but it’s rare we allow ourselves to indulge in such rawness together.
I crave that rawness, though, and utilize music to ease the human connection-hindering fear of displaying intense feeling.
For instance, “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart has been the deliberate soundtrack to multiple “endings” in my life. The wistful harmonies of the chorus, “rivers ‘til I reach you” fueled the collective tears of my high school friend group before graduation — but only after the classic, “NO oh my GOD, this song makes me cry” remark. Though just a playful plea, it revealed the power music has over us, as well as our aversion to the vulnerability of the erotic.
Shared erotic connection doesn’t have to be somber, though. We’ve all been at that lackluster party that makes an 360 degree revitalization when that one guy puts on “Mr. Brightside.” Suddenly, the room is bouncing in nostalgic camaraderie to the tune of its infamous guitar intro. The night is heroically saved, and The Killers’ energy miraculously carries over into the night, alive even when that one girl (me) turns on “Macarena.”
Be it getting goosebumps at a choir concert, sobbing to the cliche “Rivers and Roads,” or head-banging to a dancefloor classic, both music and the erotic come in many forms — sort of like love. Lorde explains, “the very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects.” When we realize the erotic within ourselves, we’re realizing our deepest capacities for love — love for ourselves and love for others.
That tingly, wide-eyed magic that music ignites in me defies logic — it’s like momentarily falling in love — and it’s frighteningly vulnerable to feel so deeply. But when I find myself scared away, uninspired or settling, I know I have Chet Faker to tune me back into the erotic — Audre Lorde’s erotic — that I discovered on that dock last June.