I went to a really great concert last night (hollah at Mr. Anthony D’Amato of The Live Debate!) and before the music got started, the emcee read excerpts from an email that the president of the Boston Conservatory sent to the incoming class of freshmen. The email–or maybe it was the transcript of a speech–was about the importance and power of music. It went into the Greek concept of music as tied to astronomy because as astronomy explores the relationships between visible, large, external objects, music explores the relationships between small, invisible, internal objects. He told the story of Olivier Messiaen, who wrote the “Quartet for the End of Time” in a concentration (according to Wikipedia, perhaps instead of POW) camp.
The basic message was a beautiful one. That out of camps in which people struggled to keep up the energy to stay alive, to stay warm, to find enough food, there still emerged art. That somehow music and poetry and painting could be as essential as warmth and the avoidance of persecution, not just for a handful of obsessives, but for many, many people facing one of the worst horrors imaginable.
It got me thinking about music, of course. I think we all have music that has changed our lives (hopefully for the better). And I’d like to spend a little bit of time remembering some of the music that has shaped who I am and that spoke to me over my life, sometimes when I was very happy, and sometimes when I was in a very low place. You’re welcome to chime in too.
Where to begin. We have an embarrassing number of home videos that show me singing and dancing in my own little cabaret acts. I couldn’t tell you what most of the songs were (I think Patsy Cline was involved at some point?) but I do know that from an early age, Friday nights were for pizza, the Beatles, and Elvis.
In fact, one of my father’s favorite stories to tell is how, on the way to preschool one day, I was chatting away about what I was planning to do and what I was looking forward to, and I mentioned my boyfriend. My parents asked, “Laura, you have a boyfriend? Who is it?” And I looked them dead in the eye and said, in a way that conveyed “Duh” perfectly, “Elvis. You know. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
In elementary school, I was in love with the song “Daniel,” originally written and performed by Elton John, but in my head and heart always covered by Wilson Phillips. I would walk around the playground singing it to myself, always disappointed when the song didn’t last the entire 15 minutes of recess. I think part of the reason it resonated was the line “The scars that won’t heal.” At that age, I was still pretty close to having had my “operation,” and the scar on my nose was visible enough for me to be self-conscious of it. I think I still put Vitamin E cream on it every night before bed to help it fade. So Elton and Wilson made me feel a little bit less alone.
Fifth grade saw the advent of my obsession with “Les Mis.” I don’t even remember how it started–did I see the production first, or did I demand to see it because I already loved the music? Either way, we didn’t have it on CD. Instead, every day after school, I would come home and put on the record, sitting as close to the record player as I could with the record jacket in my hands, following every word. I had to restrict myself to listening once a day because I didn’t want to ever get sick of it. And of course, like every adolescent girl, my anthem was “On My Own.”
That one had some mileage. I’m pretty sure Eponine helped to comfort me through several unrequited crushes. You can’t really blame me–it would still be years until “Single Ladies” came out.
Then. Of course. Who could forget “My Heart Could Go On.” To be fair, I wasn’t the one in my friend group who was the most obsessed with “Titanic.” My friend Randi saw it at least four more times in theaters than I did. But I’m pretty sure that I recorded that song off the radio onto a cassette for myself, and I know I taught myself to perfectly imitate Celine Dion–so much so that one day when we were driving to the Museum of Science and the song came on, my friend Meghan told me that it wasn’t fair when I sang along because everyone knew I sounded just like Celine.
This was all, of course, in the pre-iPod world. Soon, though I didn’t know it, everything would change, and a wider variety of music would become a daily necessity.
Let’s speed up the playing time a little bit. In high school there were lots of musicals. The TransSiberian Orchestra’s “Beethoven’s Last Night,” which had a perfect Mephistopheles. For awhile I was drawn to villains and characters other than the ingenue, partly because of I wasn’t the heroine type, casting-wise. I discovered “Bat Boy: The Musical!” which initially really freaked me out and then became my favorite musical, and I saw it twice in Boston, then weaseled my way into a production in the fall of my freshman year of college. My character crush on Edgar was so strong that I actually dated the guy who played him, realizing only after a few months that actors don’t always embody the things you like about the characters they play.
Also in high school, a particularly strong crush on someone who happened to be in a band and happened to play this song and happened to dedicate it to me made “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls a song with which I had a very complicated relationship for some time.
In terms of musicals, which it might be obvious I am drawn to, we had “Ragtime” and some Cole Porter and some Gershwin. The “Someone To Watch Over Me”/”But Not For Me” combo lingers in my psyche to this day. There’s “Assassins,” which still can make me shiver, and “Oliver,” which I wanted to live in as a child, and “Parade.” In fact, most of the musicals I love the most are the ones that aren’t particularly cheery in theme. It was around this period that I really began to appreciate how well music can express complex and dark emotions. Sure, a happy song can be a lot of fun, but there’s nothing quite like wailing your soul out. If I had had the voice or guitar chops for it, this would be about when I would have devoted myself to “the blues.” I mention all these musicals because, even if it sounds silly to have listened primarily to showtunes, that’s what sent me down the path to starting to write music of my own and to taking on the challenges of starting a business. In a very real way, this is the music that changed my life, that gave me a direction and a purpose.
I don’t want to devolve into just a list of “music I like.” That would go on far, far too long, of course. But if we’re sticking with “music that saved/changed my life,” I have a couple more entries to add.
There’s the lullaby my mom used to sing, which I still sometimes sing to myself when I’m upset or just need to wind down for bed: “All the Pretty Little Horses.”
When I was still really fighting my panic stuff but started trying to get back into the working world, as soon as I woke up I would start playing the soundtrack to “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” I would listen to “Into the Fire” several times a day because it made me feel like I could keep going forward. I would listen to the entire show at work because I needed someone else’s story to keep me from focusing on my own. I knew I was getting better when I stopped feeling like I couldn’t even have a moment that was unscored.
The first time I got dumped, Beyonce was my best friend. “Irreplaceable” still features highly on my go-to girl power song list.
Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl” encapsulates how I feel about the pressure to be bland and sweet. “Don’t Stop Believing” will always be the anthem of my a capella group in college, the first group of strong, supportive women I’d had since Girl Scouts. “Oxford Comma” is happiness and college spring. And “Unlovable” is the first song we wrote the people came up to tell us had moved them.
I’m so grateful for the music in my life. I might not be here without it. I certainly wouldn’t be as happy as I am today.
To quote the sage Rihanna: “Please don’t stop the music.”
How about you folks?