Music and loneliness in the age of the virus

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 2:41pm

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Illustration by Avital Dayanim

Heat emanates from the womb of bodies that surround me. Our movements are synchronized, like gravity has mistaken hundreds of us for one singular being. Branches of purple light beams extend from the ceiling of the stage to the back of the bar. 

The concert hall smells like sweat and beer. I don’t like the taste of beer. I’m often teased for only ever craving two elementary beverages: water and chocolate milk. But in the GA section at the Majestic Theatre in Detroit, I find comfort in its bitter scent and in the familiar way it glues my feet to the floor. 

As the music starts, my sight rests on Taylor Meier’s sunburst-finish acoustic guitar. I’ve played guitar since the 7th grade, but I still find myself in disbelief that its sound, which I can only describe as the instrumental equivalent to my therapist, actually exists. The band sings the lyrics I know by heart:

I was in the corner  

Drinking from the punch 

Yeah you were in the kitchen  

Cuttin’ up a rug  

No need to complicate it  

I had fallen in love 

With you, so underrated 

Something fillin’ up my lungs 

I take a deep breath and open my eyes. 

One more day in isolation, one more day staring out the window, imagining I’m somewhere else. In a parallel universe, I’m at the Caamp concert I had bought a ticket for months ago. It’s been ten minutes since a reminder on my phone informed me that, in this alternate dimension, doors for the show had officially opened. I make a mental note that my calendar is no longer a credible resource for any upcoming plans, which are virtually nonexistent (no pun intended).

Social distancing is an effective solution for slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but it has come with its own consequences. I’m aware that it’s a privilege to be upset about canceled concerts when the economy is collapsing and people are dying. On top of all of that, mandated isolation is detrimental to our mental health. I worry that the damages will be irreversible. 

The act of separating human beings might be exacerbating the spread of loneliness, which is an epidemic in itself. Loneliness is already a huge public health issue in the US. More than three in five working Americans report feeling lonely, and there has been a 13% rise in loneliness since 2018. John Cacioppo, founder of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, believes that being alone or with strangers is a catalyst for loneliness. So I wonder, is physically being with friends or family the solution? 

Oftentimes, loneliness doesn’t have to do with the physical. The loneliest I’ve ever felt was a couple of years ago. I found myself in the midst of a deep depression, a state of mind in which no one close to me could understand. My friends and family tried to support me, but they were unable to resonate with my emotions. This disconnect made me feel even more isolated. In order to fill my mind with something other than hopeless thoughts, I found solace in music.

Music became my companion, my partner, my friend. I relied on it for empathy, and it almost never failed to make me feel understood. It also helped me understand feelings I had a hard time identifying on my own. Loneliness. Jealousy. Resentment. Self-contempt. Ugly feelings that, when boiled down, were rooted in fear. The only thing worse than feeling like absolute shit is feeling shame for feeling like absolute shit, and music validated my experience.

Why couldn’t the people in my life offer me what music so effortlessly could? Was it that they were unable to empathize, or rather, that I was so far off from ‘normal’ on the emotional spectrum that I couldn’t connect to those who were emotionally stable? I found myself wondering what it is about music that brings people emotional fulfillment.   

I decided to Facetime my friend Daniela to ask about her connection to music. She’s an avid EDM-listener and arguably Avicii’s number one fan. At summer camp, we’d fight over who got to deejay during clean up, and she won every time (looking back, I don’t think my angsty acoustic tunes would have motivated any 10-year-old to scrub the bathroom floor anyway). It had been a while since we had discussed her love for EDM, so I asked her what it was about the genre that spoke to her.

“I think the beat,” she responded, “And the sense of unity that it creates between people. I think what’s really special about EDM is that it’s a unifying experience.” 

I thought about my own experiences with EDM. It’s a genre I used to loath, and it wasn’t until recently that I began to value the brilliance of electronic music. This happened in part because I took a music class, where I attempted to learn Logic and Ableton, two digital audio workstations used for recording and editing audio files. By learning about the various steps that go into creating electronic music, the experience of listening to it was forever changed. I finally understood how complex the production process really is. 

It took me a long time to appreciate genres that deviated from my parents’ music tastes. Growing up, I was repeatedly exposed to 70s folk and rock and roll, and I think that’s all I used to believe music was supposed to be. We would take boat rides on the Long Island Sound and play Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” on full blast:

Wendy, let me in, I wanna be your friend

I wanna guard your dreams and visions

Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims

And strap your hands 'cross my engines

I was too young to understand the lyrics then. Now, I’m overcome by the poetic word choice, the specificity, the imagery, the rhyme.

Springsteen was only one of many artists I was taught to admire. My dad is a major deadhead, having gone to at least 100 shows. He showed me artists like Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers Band, and Simon & Garfunkel. My mom’s CD collection included female icons like Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Through their love for music, I found my own. 

This past year, I’ve had one-sided love affairs with artists from various genres (070 Shake, Bon Iver, and Sabrina Claudio, to name a few). But there is one artist in particular who I consider my celebrity soulmate. Before I tell you who she is, I’d like to preface with this: I am not one of those mega-fans who posts pictures of famous people and their dogs from ten years ago paired with unrelated captions like “my friend’s uncle got coronavirus today. #bored”. But I am, for lack of a better word, obsessed with Taylor Swift. 

It took me a while to accept my fate as a “Swiftie,” but now it’s impossible to deny. I’ve learned to hide my bewilderment when people boast that they find her annoying or untalented. I’ve learned to accept that what I find exceptional, others might find average, or even subpar. And I’ve learned to expect that mainstream anthems like “Me!” will always overshadow songs like “Innocent,” a melodic showcase of what I consider to be profound lyricism:

I guess you really did it this time

Left yourself in your warpath

Lost your balance on a tightrope

Lost your mind tryin' to get it back

Wasn't it easier in your lunchbox days?

Always a bigger bed to crawl into

Wasn't it beautiful when you believed in everything?

And everybody believed in you?

It’s widely assumed that these lyrics are directed at Kanye West after he infamously stormed on stage during the 2009 VMAs to steal Taylor’s award out of her hands. Yet, when I listen, I see pigtails and Cheetos-stained fingers. I feel the blood rush to my head as I hang upside down on the monkey bars. I smell low tide and Expo dry erase markers and Play-Doh and blown out birthday candles and bubble gum amoxicillin. Her songs transport me back in time. 

I don’t know if Taylor introduced me to the power of lyrics, or if my connection to lyrics drew me to her. What I know for sure is that my love for Taylor’s music extends beyond the parameters of her fame. She provides a source of comfort that is reliable, consistent, and loyal, qualities I can’t necessarily expect from the people in my life. I guess it all comes down to trust. People will come and go. I trust that the songs I’ve always known and loved will continue to be there for me, indefinitely. 

… 

Just a couple of weeks before social distancing began, I found myself in the middle of the dance floor at The Belly Up, an intimate venue in Colorado. As I waited for electronic/indie/pop producer Big Wild (Jackson Stell) to take the stage, I rubbed my hands together to get warm. My fingers were still half numb from the hour I had spent waiting outside in the cold without a ticket. Thanks to a random man who had traveled a whole three and a half hours from Denver for the show, and whose friend ditched him last minute, I’d scored a spot in the crowd. As I lingered alone in the company of strangers, a woman who looked to be in her late twenties with black banana curls and dark red lipstick tapped me on the shoulder.

“What’s your name!”

“Aliya, what’s yours?”

“Leah? I’m Steph! Nice to meet you Leah! You here alone?”

“It’s Aliya. Yeah just me, what about you?”

“I’m here with a few buddies. I just got divorced so we’re here to celebrate. We’re on molly. Want some?”

Thankfully, the 5th grade DARE program prepared me for this moment, and I politely declined. She proceeded to stroke my hair throughout the night, but I barely noticed. I was in a trance as I let my body fall in sync with the beat, high on music and life. I didn’t need to roll to feel the euphoria. 

I was alone at the concert, but it didn’t feel that way. Without prominent lyrics to trigger memories of the past or fantasies for the future, Stell’s music brought me fully into the present moment. I felt just as connected to the music as I did to those around me. Our bodies were submerged in sound as our minds transcended into a realm of elevated consciousness. In that moment, I think I understood what Daniela meant when she said she valued EDM for its ability to bring people together. Unlike the music I grew up listening to, Stell’s music is all about the here and now. 

...

In the middle of my conversation with Daniela, I took a moment to observe the small sliver of her room I could see through my iPhone screen. Above her headboard were three vertical skateboard decks that serve as a canvas for Basquiat’s Irony of Negro Policeman. I had forgotten about this piece of room decor. I found myself slightly perplexed that my friend, a white female, had resonated with a painting that depicts the paradox of a Black man enforcing laws that were created to inhibit the freedom of Black people. It’s a blow at the white-dominated establishment. 

I decided to save that conversation for another time, but it briefly reminded me of my white friends who love rap music. According to an article in The Western Journal of Black Studies at Washington State University, “rap was created and continues to exist primarily as a young, African American (predominantly male) rhetoric of resistance primarily to issues of race.” 

My classmate Austin, who previously expressed his admiration for rap artists, agreed to Facetime me about this phenomenon. I don’t know much about the kid, other than the fact that he’s in my English class, he’s an acting major, and he’s white. I wanted to hear why he felt a connection to rap music, a genre that originated in the hip-hop culture of urban, working-class Black communities.

I noticed that his hair looked neat and short as if he had recently gotten a haircut. Then, a quick reality check: there are currently people protesting for the freedom to go to their local barbershops. He clarified that what I was really noticing was his newly shaven beard. It was good to know at least one of us has their shit together right now. 

When I asked Austin why he likes rap music, he replied, “There’s this dark euphoria. It’s put me into a more fast-paced life. And it’s those hard hitting 808s. Which is the bass. It’s that deep booming sound that you hear, that is honestly satisfying in certain frequencies. Accompanied with the high hats, you got a kick drum — ”

I cut him off. “Wait, are you, like, a big music guy?”

“Oh yeah. My good friend and I started dabbling with Ableton a long time ago, and now when we listen to music, we know why we like it. The instrument and sample selection is super important, right? And the way you EQ certain sounds, and the way it’s mastered. I can’t help but think that most people, when they listen to music, don’t really know why they like it. They don’t think about the individual aspects coming together.” 

I agreed. I wanted to continue our conversation but I’m a horrible multitasker and my dinner was burning in the oven. So I told Austin that I needed to go soon and I had just one more question for him: could he explain the lyrics to one of his favorite rap songs? He told me to look up “Butterfly Effect” by Travis Scott. As I read the words out loud, Austin recited them along with me from memory. 

For this life, I cannot change

Hidden Hills, deep off in the main

M&M's, sweet like candy cane

Drop the top, pop it, let it bang

Austin explained that the Hidden Hills is an area of Calabasas where flashy celebrities live, M&Ms refers to MDMA, and drop the top alludes to a Lamborghini. Even though I got the gist of each individual line, I still didn’t get what the song is about as a whole. Where does it all come together? Despite Austin’s crash course, I begrudgingly began to accept that I’m just not cultured enough to understand this kind of abstract lexicon. 

But no, that’s not it. I know that’s not it because there are songs with lyrics I really love but don’t completely understand. “Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens speaks of the rose of Aaron’s beard, which is a reference to Aaron Rose, the founder of Roseburg, Oregon, and possibly also a biblical allusion to Psalm 133. I have absolutely no emotional attachment to Oregan or the bible. The song still makes me cry. 

I’m not sophisticated enough to fully understand Sufjan, either, but there is something about his music that speaks to me and my own experiences. I wish I could name it. I wish I could figure out why I can be impressed by Travis Scott’s wit, but still unable to connect to his songs on an emotional level. 

For many people, dare I say most, poetry isn’t easy to dissect. Yet, each word is intentional and provocative and can create an emotional response in the listener. While my white friends who listen to rap music can’t necessarily empathize with the lyrics, they can appreciate the instrumental composition and clever word play. Maybe this appreciation is the source of their connection. Maybe one doesn’t have to personally relate to a song’s story in order to be captivated by its genius.

I walk into the kitchen. These days, I can usually go about life with an effortless ability to ignore the reality of the world outside. Yet, my fear of the pandemic has a tendency to creep into my mind when I least expect it. Staring into space, I anxiously contemplate the faceless abyss that is my future. What lies ahead? The fear of loneliness is almost as devastating as loneliness itself.

Having my mom around can make things easier. We lift each other up. We also, unfortunately, can bring each other down. In such close quarters, it’s like our moods are as contagious as the virus. I’m a pretty sensitive person, and I often take in the perceived emotions of others at a detriment to my own well-being. Sensory Processing Sensitivity is found in around 20% of the population. People with this trait have hyper-active mirror neurons, which signal how to empathize and reflect the emotions we perceive in others. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a kinder person. In fact, the build-up of emotions can cause me to become irritated by situations others might easily let pass. What interests me most about the mirror neuron system is that increased activity is also related to a heightened emotional response to music. This is about all the information I know by heart, so I decide to explore the world wide web to learn more.

As I scroll through numerous studies, I find bits and pieces of information that describe me so well I’m on the edge of my seat. I’ve never been into astrology, but I can imagine this is what it feels like to discover your rising sign knows you better than you know yourself. I read that sensitive people are known to dislike rap music and gravitate more toward acoustic instruments, low voices, and minor chords (me). They are typically unable to listen to music while doing work (me). And they are more likely to have synesthesia, the neurological condition that causes the brain to process data in the form of several senses at once (me?). Okay, I probably don’t actually have the latter, but when I think of guitar chords, they each have a different color association (G is brown, C is yellow, E is blue, and A is red). Before I misdiagnose myself with this sought-after artistic condition, I should probably acknowledge that apples are red and corn is yellow and it’s highly possible, in fact quite probable, that I’m just always subconsciously thinking about food. 

Those with high music appreciation are referred to as musically hedonic. If there’s one person I know who fits the musically hedonic profile, it’s my friend Adam, who has public playlists on Spotify titled “In His Feelings” and “Feel Good Bops.” His favorite artists are Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and Doja Cat. If we’re using favorite artists as a way to measure one’s general well-being, I’d say I’m a bit jealous of Adam, who naturally resonates with lyrics like “I'm Meryl Streep to all these bitches, they can't do what I do.”

When I spoke to Adam about his music taste, he told me he feels “chills” when he listens to his favorite songs. “Chills” is the word often used to describe the feeling of hearing a song and having an emotional reaction to it. Really, it’s a physical reaction; people who enjoy music show an increase in heart rate or skin conductance, where skin momentarily becomes a better conductor of electricity due to arousing external stimuli. 

I sit with this thought. It’s fascinating that humans interact with the environment in such subconscious and subtle ways. I often forget how much of my existence is out of my control. It’s all just part of the human condition. When I acknowledge that my experiences are universal, I release myself from the pressure of being me. My story is a human story that has been lived before and will be lived again. 

Brené Brown, a professor, lecturer, author, and one of my favorite podcast hosts, once said, “What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” When I remind myself that I’m human, I feel less alone. Physical isolation leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads people to feel isolated in their struggles. We must keep in mind that this pandemic is a human struggle and that the world is in isolation together. It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance, an oxymoron of sorts, that we’re seeing on a global scale.

Tonight, I sit by the window. I am fully present in my solitude. I watch fireworks from miles away high-five the sky and fade into the darkness. I need a remedy, a metaphorical blanket, a sonic hug. Instinct kicks in, and I lean down to pick up my guitar. It’s in arms distance, like a dog sitting patiently by my feet, waiting to be fed. My fingertips yearn. My wrist loosens. I long for what comes next, the vibrations of sound that will reverberate through my body. I begin to play.

Aliya Falk is a recent graduate from LSA with a bachelor's degree in Organizational Studies and a Minor in Art and Design. She can be reached at aliyafa@umich.edu.