blessed are les miserables (and other lessons from song lyrics)

As you may know, if you’ve been reading my blog for long, I tend to listen to a lot of music that doesn’t have lyrics, particularly my workday quadrivium of classic, ambient, post-rock, and movie scores.  So when I do listen to music with lyrics, I make sure they’re good lyrics.  Here are some observations I’ve made recently on some great song lyrics.

  1. 2009 was the year I fell in love with both the Harry Potter series and Coldplay’s album (which I still maintain is their greatest) Viva La Vida.  I got really invested in Snape during my first reading of the series, so I often thought of him–and still do–when I hear these lyrics from the last song on Viva La Vida: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.”  In those lyrics, I see Snape making the hard choice not to take revenge on James Potter’s child, and I see him turning his back on Voldemort and all of his Death-eaters.  Whatever you think about Snape, you have to admit those were brave things to do.
  2. Recently I’ve been listening to the song that goes “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.”  (Someone help me out here–is the artist I Am They or Bethel Music, or are those essentially the same thing?  I’m not hip enough to understand what’s going on with these “worship collectives” that are so popular these days.)  It’s the sort of song that I would generally say is a little too “on the nose.”  I admit it; I’m kind of a music snob, so I prefer subtlety in my lyrics.  But I’ve realized recently that sometimes a song that’s “on the nose” is exactly what I need.  Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I’m a child of God.  I’m thankful for this song.
  3. And now, a thought for this Ash Wednesday from my favorite musical, Les Miserables.  I’ve been thinking about the title (which is also the title of Victor Hugo’s novel, the musical’s source text) and how we never translate it into English.  I think that’s because we don’t have a word in English that exactly captures the meaning.  “The Miserable (People”) isn’t quite right because we’re talking about a specific kind of misery.  There’s a phrase in one of the songs that captures the idea well: “the wretched of the earth.”  Les Miserables is mostly about the poor, prisoners, and prostitutes–the rejects of society.  But it gets really interesting if you think of every character in the story as les miserables, including the supposed antagonist, Javert, who is a tragic character because he can’t accept forgiveness or even his own life as a gift.  “Les miserables” are similar to the people Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the poor in spirit”–the people who don’t have it all together, to put it mildly.  These people are blessed if, like Jean Valjean, they acknowledge their poverty of spirit; they are doomed if, like Javert, they try to deny it.  And, if we’re honest, these people are all of us.  So take that thought into Lent with you.

music about places

Some of my favorite music is the kind that tells a story about a place, or in some cases, not just a story but a whole novel.  In that latter category I put Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” which ranks with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in its ability to evoke a city with its depravities, deprivations, and transitory beauties all jumbled together.

Other music is less specific in its description, relying more on sound than on lyrics to call up a picture of a place.  U2’s The Joshua Tree instantly takes me out West, and I know that’s largely because of the album title, but it’s also in the music itself.  As proof of this, I don’t picture the southern California location of the actual Joshua Tree National Park when I hear this album; I actually think of somewhere more like where Nevada meets Idaho.  (N.B. My brother recently said that U2’s music is more American than John Mellencamp’s.  Harsh but true.)

Two of my favorite composers are Aaron Copland (his “populist” works) and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music would strongly suggest their respective countries even if they didn’t incorporate famous national folk tunes.  I just read something interesting on Wikipedia: Copland didn’t actually call his famous ballet Appalachian Spring; someone else gave it that title later.  His goal was just to write “music for an American ballet.” (  This probably explains why I don’t picture the Appalachians when I listen to it; I think of someplace flatter (hence bigger), like Oklahoma.  The point is that I definitely think of America.

One of my favorite things to do in the whole world is to listen to music while driving–any music will do, but the best is music that fits the place I’m driving through.  I love to turn on my Avett Brothers Pandora station while I’m driving back to Lynchburg, VA, after visiting my family in Pittsburgh, PA.  My route stays just east of the Appalachians, in the foothills, pretty much the whole way.  The Avett Brothers are actually from North Carolina (which is close enough), but the kind of music that comes up on the station is more broadly country–and here I don’t mean that extremely popular genre that comes out of Nashville; I mean from the country, the part of America that used to be the frontier back when all the fancy people closer to the coast were creating the United States of America on paper, although now it’s usually just lumped in with the East.  I grew up hearing this kind of music and didn’t appreciate it then.  Now I think it’s so beautiful it sometimes makes me want to cry.

Then there’s the whole category of music that I associate with a particular place not necessarily because of anything in the music itself, but because I had an early or memorable experience with that music in that place.  I still like to listen to my Coldplay library when I’m on an airplane (which is a type of place, right?), because on my first truly long flight, to the U.K. in 2009, I listened to their albums on my iPod all night, coming in and out of sleep to hear Chris Martin’s familiar falsetto.

I could go on, but I’ll turn it over to you.  What songs, albums, or artists make you think of places, because of either the lyrics, the music, or some association personal to you?

Kung Fu Panda eats, shoots, and leaves: A stream of consciousness

Hi everyone, I’m back. I’ve done many things during my regrettably long blogging hiatus, including looking at some pandas. Last week I was in San Diego for the International Writing Centers Association conference with two of my colleagues, and we went to the famed San Diego Zoo, which has a new baby panda who’s still too young to be on exhibit. So we watched the baby on the zoo’s webcam (you can too:, and we saw his grown-up friend (not his mother; she’s with the baby) live and in person. The employee working at the panda exhibit told us an interesting fact: Pandas can be very aggressive if provoked. (I know; they’re bears, duh. But they look so genial.)

This fact made me think of Kung Fu Panda, a great movie and the source of my favorite example of the importance of articles (I mean a, an, and the).  During the climactic battle scene, the evil snow leopard says, “You’re just a big fat panda.”  In response to which, Po, the title character, says, “No.  I’m the big fat panda.”  Really, that’s a brilliant piece of dialogue.  A lot of breath and trees have been wasted in discussing the best way to teach the rules of articles to English language learners whose native languages don’t have articles.  And actually, I learned at the conference last week a theory that incorrect article usage may be one of several “untreatable errors” that simply can’t be addressed with rules.  But I have the solution for everyone: Just watch Kung Fu Panda.

From my favorite example of article importance, I move to my favorite use of a punctuation metaphor in a song lyric.  Earlier tonight I was trying to read Hans Robert Jauss’s Toward an Aesthetic of Reception while listening to my iPod on shuffle.  Up came the Coldplay song “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall.”  Which do you think I was paying attention to, the song or the book?  I’ll be honest; I was dancing in my bed.  The punctuation metaphor occurs in (I think) the second verse of the song: “I’d rather be a comma than a full stop.”  Besides the fact that the British term full stop, like ginger and roundabout and a lot of other words, is inherently fabulous, the metaphor is quite apt and well-put.

At this point I was going to embark on a rant about how people should give another listen to the much-maligned Coldplay album Mylo Xyloto.  No, it doesn’t follow a neat story arc about the French Revolution like Viva La Vida does, but it still has some great songs.  Further ranting will have to wait for another time, however, because I need to go to bed.  I’ll leave you with the assurance that my next post will be more coherent, if not profound, and with this holiday wish, which I’m borrowing from a cute tin sign I bought at an antique store recently: “A merry Hallowe’en.  Scare up some fun, and have a spooktacular night.”

Swallowed in the sea

I wish you could hear the wind where I am right now.  Then you might begin to understand with me that the old literary commonplace about the wind sounding like a human voice–moaning, screaming, calling–is more than just an old literary commonplace.  It’s a blustery day at Whalehead Beach, the tide is freakishly high (at least it looks that way to landlubber eyes), and the ocean’s surface is frothy.  The wind sounds like the voice of someone lost at sea (sorry, another cliche).  A formation of large birds flies by, and I think of the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.  I am also thinking about the climactic storm at Yarmouth in David Copperfield, and also about a Coldplay song, as you can tell by my title.  I am so little acquainted with the ocean that apparently I am unable to think about it except in terms of books and music.

These pictures will make you think I’m exaggerating; I am too scared (and cold) to go down on the beach and get a better view.  Anyway, you would need audio to really get a sense of what the sea is like right now.