There is this song.
I have listened to it obsessively. Usually at night before I turn off the lights. As a remedy, as a tonic, as an anthem for the work I’m doing and the work I hope to do.
I’ve written about music and memory before (see here), but this is different. This is about now and the way this music spurs me on in the current social and political climate.
This song is a spark. A spark that is a component of the antidote we need in these dark times of hate, intolerance, and evil.
It’s from a movie I’ve never watched and perhaps there’s a risk in viewing only one four-minute segment from a feature-length film. This video is also now almost a year old. I only discovered it because of YouTube’s algorithmic operation. The same algorithms that have contributed to so much of the strife and misinformation that contaminate our news and information diets.
The song is from the movie The Greatest Showman. “This Is Me” is sung by Keala Settle who plays Lettie Lutz in the movie (Annie Jones in real life), the Bearded Lady and one of P. T. Barnum’s original nineteenth century cast members. Leaving aside the nature of Barnum’s commercial project and even the commercial project from which this song is drawn, absorb the lyrics as you watch the video.
As much as the words move me, there is magic in the choreography. It’s that magic that pulls me in — every time. That resonates in my heart. The earthiness of the stamping feet, the power of the arms punched into the air, the rhythmic staccato of the bodies swaying. It’s solid, it’s demanding, it’s asserting the right of these bodies to exist as they are in all spaces. In the light, not the dark, in amongst you and me. In amongst us all.
There’s that moment when the performers are suspended in air. They’ve transcended the chains of exclusion and the labels of derision to float above their cares and their worries, but the truth is in the thud of their landing. That landing on two feet. That is when they reclaim their place. The true power of their existence is in the human groundedness of their experience.
And as much as I appreciate the beauty of the production values in this video, the version of the song that I treasure is this one.
Here, Keala Settle is not singing the song from the character’s perspective. As authentically as she might inhabit the character in the film, she is not Lettie Lutz. That is the masquerade.
In the workshop version, Settle embodies the song. She embodies the essence of the words, the heart of the matter. Here, she is singing her life story. She is reliving every struggle, every hurt, every joy, every triumph, and every hope. It’s that uncloaked look into who she is, who she is without adornment or disguise, that opens up the whole performance, hers and that of every other person in the room. You can see it in the ecstatic communion of their spirits and voices.
And the universality in the message of this song, the truth of it, is that we are all different. Our differences do not make us less than any other. They only do so when others associate difference with inferiority, with lack, with less-than.
Unfortunately, it is also a truth that those with power and privilege have gained their rank through a long historical process of magnifying and demonizing difference. Manipulating fear to validate sacrificing others for profit and prestige. For control.
So, there’s a radical — if not revolutionary — message in this song despite the fact that it’s embedded in a cultural artefact that itself is a product of our systems and structures of consumerism and privilege.
And it is this.
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious
Each and every one of us.
And don’t let them, those who benefit from the exploitation of difference, ever tell you differently.
If they do, fight back.
Do not give them a platform to amplify and broadcast hateful messages.
Vote them out.
The current climate in BC’s public education sector is fraught with emotion, tension, and conflict. As I look around for some words of comfort, here’s what comes to mind:
“Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin’: “Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right!”
Bob Marley, Three Little Birds
A song by Bob Marley who, in addition to sharing his music with the world, played an integral role in resolving the crisis in Jamaican politics many years ago. By thinking of song and music, I’m not trivializing the contentious issues we face. I’m recognizing the way in which music helps us.
Music is central to our lived experience, individually and collectively. It may have even been a precursor to spoken language. Our cave ancestors likely communicated with rhythm and percussion long before they could yell out, “Run for your lives! Saber-tooth on the loose!”
Like smell or taste, sound can carry us down memory lane. It’s as if we each have a soundtrack to our lives.
As a pre-teen living in Beirut, I idolized Fairuz. There are many songs I associate with her, but one that has lasted with me, even as I’ve lost my fluency in Arabic, is a childhood chant from a decades-old movie which I’ve never seen. Did my grandmother teach me the words to the chorus? I don’t remember, but listening to it now, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLb-n6OUfyk takes me back to a time — which may sound cliché — of innocence. It was before the Lebanese civil war which started in 1974. It was also the year we moved to Vancouver and I had to leave my family, my friends, all I’d known for the past five years, behind.
Thinking back to my high school years in West Vancouver is … well, let’s just say I prefer not to. Although a fluent English speaker and a capable student, I struggled to establish friendships in a new and different cultural environment. While Grade 8 went smoothly enough, Grade 9 was one of social isolation and misery. I think of it as my year of tears. From then through to graduation I continued in my role as a nerdy misfit, but I did find a circle of friends in Grade 10 which helped me tremendously. I recall many songs from this era, but Meatloaf’s album Bat Out of Hell stands out. My friend, my guardian angel at the time and with whom I regret losing touch, had bought the record (yes, it was the days of vinyl!). We’d sit in her room listening to the songs and it likely won’t surprise you that Paradise by the Dashboard Light occasioned much giggling — we were teenage girls! — and was played over and over and over again.
I’ve been thinking about music a lot lately as I watch my son discover the soundtrack to his life. I hadn’t expected his vibe to be so alternative and I believe that may be more a reflection of the paternal influence in his life! I may have introduced him to pop, musical theatre, and classical, but he’s introduced me to the charms of Laurie Anderson (which I have to admit elude me somewhat), Moby, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and Janelle Monaé amongst others. For our visit to Tofino during spring break, he was in charge of the playlists for our drive over and our evenings in.
And because I can’t stay away from education for too long, let me just say I don’t think there’s enough music in our schools although where there is music, fantastic work is being done by educators. I believe this is true of the arts in general: they are in danger of being underrepresented, on a general basis, in our curricula and the practice of day-to-day teaching and learning.
Why do I think this is an issue?
Because the arts, music and others, transport us beyond the limits of our humanity. They are universal, they are boundless, and they are the greatest expression of our potential to be creative, to create.
Music and art help us to defy gravity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3g4ekwTd6Ig