Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ups and ups and ups (a riff on Mary Newberg Gale's "The lost art of the album")

In some of my slower moments of the past couple of weeks, slower moments forced upon me when my body decides without my permission to slow down for a while, I've been playing with iTunes, looking for some favorite music from long-past days.  It's a nostalgia exercise, primarily.  I'm not particularly a prolific consumer of popular music, but here and there a song or an album that got connected to a particular occasion in my life bobs to the surface of my murky memory and demands to be remembered.

The latest such object of impromptu recollection was Billy Joel's album The Stranger.  It's a pretty significant album in that performer's career, with successful singles like "Movin' Out," "She's Always a Woman," "Only the Good Die Young," and other particularly effective tracks like "Souvenir," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," and the title track, which particularly stayed with me from my experiences in the summer of 1981 as a student in Georgia's Governor's Honors Program.

The Stranger is not quite a concept album; it doesn't have the unifying structure of classic concept albums like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.  The album is at least somewhat unified, though, by a strong sense of place and character, and a sometimes-overwhelming sense of being in a place where the ceilings were lower, the exits were fewer, and the visions were dimmer than in other more sun-splashed precincts.  Some of that had stayed with me, even these thirty-some years later, even though I never in fact owned the album in any form.

So for whatever reason, this week finally brought me to the point of gathering The Stranger into my iTunes library.  I had to decide whether to stick with the basic album or to go for a "legacy edition" which also folded in a near-contemporary live concert with some other good Joel tunes like "Angry Young Man" and "She's Got a Way."  (To the degree it matters, I went for the latter.)

It was in the midst of this rumination that Mary Newberg Gale, one of the pastors at my church back in Kansas, put up a blog entry on the demise of the album.  Read that reflection for yourself.  We'll wait.

Done?  Good.

To be fair, the connected, coherent album has not always been a feature of popular music.  It wouldn't be a stretch to observe that most albums of the early heyday of rock and roll were little more than disconnected strings of songs.  The aforementioned Pet Sounds certainly was a significant example of creating a more unified collection, along with others such as the Beatles' White Album, or Led Zeppelin IV.  Even albums that didn't necessarily qualify as thematically unified narratives could nonetheless display other means of achieving coherence and wholeness (I'd point to Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the aforementioned The Stranger among many others).

It's certainly true that iTunes has been a big part of discouraging whole-album consumption, but I'd say that was the "cleanup hitter" clearing the bases after other factors had weakened the structure.  I don't think it's too much of a stretch to implicate MTV as such a factor; the individual disconnected videos strung together by that service in its younger days emphasized the individual single as a distinctive, stand-alone product by adding the whole visual structure around it, whether a simple concert setting or a more complete narrative structure.  Sometimes the effect, it seems to me at least, was to atomize for its viewers albums that actually did have some level of coherence -- one might think of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA here.

While there are still a few counterexamples one can find on occasion, something like Green Day's American Idiot, I'd agree that the album as a unified thematic or musical statement is not a primary concern for many performers or consumers of popular music.  Singles now get released as singles, with no particular connection to an album at all (Justin Timberlake pulled this off just in the past week, with something called "Suit and Tie").  But I don't really mean to pursue this line of thought so far, let any real popular music scholars accidentally descend upon this blog and remind me that my specialty was nineteenth-century American classical music and not popular music and would I mind shutting up, thank you very much.  No, really, my interest here lies elsewhere.

Mary Gale goes on from her thoughts about albums to more general tendencies in the society that consumes those individual song downloads and leaves the rest of the album to rot.  She says,

"Our reluctance to dive deep, to wait for the vision to develop can be found everywhere.  We live our lives attempting to jump from one mountaintop experience to another, avoiding the descent into the valleys."

Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon, is it?  Charles Schulz pointed this desire out in his Peanuts comic strip years ago.  When a depressed Lucy confides to Charlie Brown a bout of depression and he replies with the cliche about life's ups and downs, Lucy responds,

"But why?  Why should it?  Why can't my life be all "ups"?  If I want all "ups," why can't I have them?  Why can't I move from one "up" to another "up"?  Why can't I just go from an "up" to an "upper-up"?  I don't want any "downs"!  I just want "ups" and "ups" and "ups"!"  

Or, since I brought Billy Joel up earlier, one can go to the lyrics from his song "I've Loved These Days" (no, not from The Stranger):

"Now as we indulge in things refined,
We hide our hearts from harder times."

On occasion you'll find churches that attempt to fulfill that wish.  With slick production values the music will take the audience congregation from peak to higher peak to higher peak, generating the emotional high that will be assumed as proof of the presence of the Spirit.  Or in a different tradition, the preacher will perform that task, building from a restrained beginning to a frenzied, maybe even hysterical climax.  The church will sell you books about living on the mountaintop or living "your best life now" or promise you that you'll get rich if you give all your money to the preacher, again selling the "ups and ups and ups" philosophy of life under the guise of Christian living.  Far from acknowledging the "downs" or the valleys of life and their formative power, "downs" are frowned upon as signs of weak faith.  One isn't allowed to grieve, not for more than a day or two, before it's time to get back to work and "move on."  One can't get angry about facing cancer surgery without being told that you're not being a good "conqueror" (yes, that happened; I don't even know what that means).

Seriously, how do you even know you're having an "up" if you don't have any "downs"?  I'm not asking for any more downs any time soon, for sure.  But it is false and destructive to pretend that these "downs" won't happen.  To pretend to be able to skip from "up" to "up" to "upper-up" is ultimately soul-warping and life-stunting.  The patience and contemplation and vision that are born of the "downs" are the times when we grow.

I've had my "downs" pretty much in spades for about the last six months or so.  Being in radiation treatment with oral chemo was plenty challenging, and I got off the hook of having more traditional chemo.  Even having surgery, I have to realize that it ended up not being nearly so severe as it was anticipated to be as I was being wheeled off to surgery.  Still, it's been challenging enough.  I won't pretend to know how I'm specifically growing (or not) as a result of this particular valley experience.  It's frustrating and irritating and sometimes painful.  I don't always handle it well.  Still, I know that if nothing else, I'll be a different pastoral caregiver than I ever would have been before.  I'll be a different person.  I am a different person.  Hopefully, a better person.

That doesn't happen in an "up".  You gotta listen to the "downs".  That's where the still small voice is heard.

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