A Defense of Painful Music
What does destructive music actually destroy?
I went to a show last night by the Silver Ring Thing, which encourages teenagers to vow abstinence until marriage so that their hearts will not be chainsawed by one another, and they can therefore have a complete and pure heart to give to their spouses on their wedding nights. These kids didn't seem too disturbed. There were no black fingernails or Hot Topic clothing, and most of their hair was flaxen in a way that my hair has never been or will be flaxen.
Three girls went onto the stage. One boy went onto the stage. A man described three scenarios in which the boy had sex with the girls on their first dates: one at McDonald's, another at a drag race, and the third one at one of those other things that people do that I forget that people do (such as the conditioning of hair so as to make it flaxen). The man then brought out a chainsaw and sawed a plywood half-heart into three parts. He gave the three girls pieces of the debris, crumbling wood and dust. They were told that they would have to take it with them everywhere they went. This represented the concept of baggage.
I got contemplative thinking that maybe I was carrying around pieces of people and have a jagged half-heart made out of plywood. But is pain bad? Is brokenness bad? Gandhi writes, “The quest of truth involves self-suffering, sometimes even unto death.” Consider the beauty of a sky that seems to have bled because of pollution, yet is washed pink by the moisture of clouds.
I enjoy sad music, that pleasure-pain sensation such as pushing floss against gums until they bleed. Elliott Smith has a chunk of my own wooden heart. There are many kinds of chainsaws, and only one of them involves genitals. I also like those dark numbers by Emily Haines, slouched over the piano, almost whispering the words. And then there's John Darnielle with his bitter, self-destructive, weirdly joyful rants about being 17 and getting drunk with a girl named Cathy and staring at one another, “twin high-maintenance machines.”
It's like Aristotle says, witnessing tragedy through art creates catharsis, a process in which those involved can get closer to their own truths — a process that is violent and uncomfortable yet also extremely liberating. Pain couples with love. It becomes transcendent.
I did a lot of painful truth-seeking last year. I would listen to Sigur Ros' ( ) as I walked the 2.5 miles home from the hotel where I worked the night shift in San Francisco. The city seemed like a deserted movie set full of huge dollhouses and beautiful churches that nobody went to. Homeless men slept under pink children's blankets. The album made me think about a bare plain with gusts of wind releasing sonorous moans such as the loneliness of a vagrant.
I went home and wrote Elliott Smith lyrics on my windowsill by the mattress on the floor because God, I was so emo, and kind of in love with him. I drank red wine as the light made a boiling prism of my room, and I sat in the corner between the dresser and the sill of a fireplace with actually no fireplace inside, and I would write these poems that took hours of the stare-trance as the lines coalesced within me and then became like cries along the plain, pages of snow with the ink-like footprints across it.
These poems, which I published online, were kind of brutal. But they helped me, and they said something true that I was able to understand because I had done the work and accepted the pain involved in finding it. Music, writing, art -- all of it can be about the joy of cruising 101 while the sun sets over the ocean under the cliffs. Or it can be about the cockroaches in your bathroom. Each creation performs a different function, and I don't know how to judge these functions as good or bad without become ideological.
You know, those systems of beliefs created so as to justify our lives and to make them feel meaningful.
I think about how Elliott's suicide occurred, the knife in his heart so much like that chainsaw in the abstinence skit: the skin breaks, and blood floods into the room or goes flaying, chunks and sawdust. I think about sitting there in my room with the red wine that I drank out of cheap Chinese teacups with kittens painted on them, and I think about my family, on the computer 3,000 miles away, reading my poems and wondering why I was so sad. People who travel to the sharp edges of the earth, who make themselves bear it and become wounded and scarred; perhaps their purpose could be to expose certain truths that are only found through suffering, “even suffering unto death.”
And about my heart, it's been hacked up by plenty of chainsaws. Yet to find resonance through music is to both accept the damage and nourish what is left.
[Elliott Smith photo: Autumn de Wilde]