A playlist for isolated lives (2020)
Click a song title below to jump to the corresponding section:
In times of distress we are fascinated by calm, peace, and plenty—sometimes in the sense of what we gave up or was taken from us, sometimes in the sense of what we desperately wish to have for the first time.
Calamities often direct our thoughts to utopia; sometimes by clinging to an outdated notion of normalcy, but often by realizing what we had wasn't good enough. Two frames explain most of our thoughts: sacrificial and aspirational utopias are, respectively, the cost of our current condition and the reward for enduring beyond it. In other words the sacrificial utopia is what we left behind, and the the aspirational utopia is what we hope lies ahead.
Utopia is often presented lyrically without reference to society—rather, lyricists envision beautiful nature scenes and, occasionally, a natural world growing from the soil made fertile by a decomposing humanity. What does love mean in calamity and its imagined, bookending utopias?
The backslash is a purely digital reference—it is not an English punctuation mark but rather a typographical mark exclusive to digital contexts. Its most prominent role is to show file paths in Windows; the construction Calamity\Love indicates love inside of calamity.
The backslash can also mean to treat something normal specially or something special normally. Either way, what comes after the backslash in this context is treated differently, and I think we love differently in calamity. Whether love is usually special or normal I leave up to others.
Love is known for its celestial highs and abyssal lows. In the context of calamity, this range remains: love lost, love sacrificed, love undeserved, love forbidden, love unobtainable, and love universal. All make an appearance in this playlist.
Many of the incarnations of love presented here carry compound meanings—throbbing dance rhythms accompany misogyny and social isolation, electronic textures mask ended love, and in at least two instances romance is rejected—once in favor of emotional intimacy and once physical intimacy.
“Tengo de Xubir al Puertu”
Manual de Cortejo (Courtship Manual)
Rodrigo Cuevas, Raül Refree (Traditional)
This is a traditional song from Asturias, an autonomous region in northwestern Spain. It has been covered many times by folk and art music performers. This version, particularly with Refree's production, is incredibly modern and situates the folk song inside a contemporary heavily-produced pop paradigm. The various filters over Cuevas' voice also seem to suggest an unreality or suprahumanness in the earlier part of the song: computerization, veiled ethereality, and otherworldly cautionary tales all come to mind. The combination of strummed strings and vibrating electronic pads in the beginning squarely set the stage for a dual occupation—traditional and contemporary music co-habitate rather than compete in the song.
The song tells the story of a person separated from their beloved by a mountain during a snowstorm. The storm seems to have particularly high stakes since the narrator says “Si la nieve que cai cubri'l senderu / Yá nun veré nel monte lo que más quiero” (“If the falling snow covers the way / I will never see the one I love most on the mountain.”) Why might this be? Why will the narrator never see their beloved again? Are they carrying something necessary to their loved one’s survival? Will they die, lost in the snowstorm? Will the snow stay forever? It doesn’t seem to be the danger itself that compels the narrator up the mountain because they say, “Tengo de xubir al puertu / Que allí ta la que me quiere” (“I have to go up the pass / Because there is the one who loves me”). It is love that motivates the journey, so the danger is separate from the love.
There seems to be some gender play going on here. In the first stanza, Cuevas sings “Que allí ta la que me quiere” (Because there is the (female) one who loves me), and in the third stanza he sings “Yá nun veré nel monte lo que más quiero” (I will never see the (male) one I love most on the mountain). This subtlety is also present in Cuevas' live performances, not just as an idiosyncrasy in the studio recording. In several other versions of the lyrics, the word “la” (female one) is used in both instances, and in other versions the third stanza lyrics even translate directly to “I will not see the girl I love the most,” dispensing with any possible pronominal bush-beating. There are a couple versions I found with the same idiosyncrasy, and they seem to be the same dialect (one which none of the other versions are in); I think it's actually an Asturian dialect of Castilian rather than a dialect of the Asturian language (for several linguistic reasons we don't have the time to get into). I just like that there's some ambiguity here.
Beginning with “Ai, amor!” in the second half of the penultimate stanza, Cuevas' voice is harmonized by a pitch shifted copy of his voice. In the last stanza, multiple copies of Cuevas' voice (some pitch shifted and some not) sing responsorial lines from both sides of the soundstage. These lines focus around the lyric "Si la nieve resbala" ("If the snow falls"), painting an image of layers of vocal snow filling up the mountain pass.
In an interview with La Nueva España, Cuevas describes some of his musical influences. "He estado muy influenciado por el rap y el reguetón últimamente. Todo lo que me llega lo intento filtrar, y mezclado con la música tradicional, ha salido esta fórmula.” (“I’ve been really influenced by rap and reggaeton ultimately. Everything that comes to me I try to filter, and mixed with traditional music, it has led to this formula.”) Cuevas also talks about his decision to root himself in traditional music, saying “Me basé en la música que escuchaban nuestros güelos por la radio, para demostrar que había muy buena calidad y que hoy siguen pudiendo tener vigencia.” (“I based myself in the music that our grandparents listened to on the radio, to show that it was good quality and that continues to be valid today.”) Five of the 15 songs on "Manual de Cortejo," the album on which "Tengo de Xubir al Puertu" appears, are in Asturian. Pop songs in Asturian are few and far between, and releasing a first full-length album with one-third of the songs in Asturian is a symbolic move on Cuevas' part.
In an interview with Shangay, Cuevas comments on his view of tradition: “La tradición es moderna, es la vida contemporánea, teniendo en cuenta el pasado y el legado.” (“Tradition is modern, it’s contemporary life taking into account the past and legacy.”) This feels like a kind of love as well. A reading of this song that takes this statement into consideration (which is undoubtedly a stretch but which I find pleasant) is that this is a love song to Asturian folk music. Cuevas needs to “go up the pass” (do the work or perhaps make a change) in order to help preserve (or perhaps popularize) the music of his grandparents.
“If the World Was Ending—Madism Remix”
If the World Was Ending
JP Saxe, Julia Michaels, Madism
The world isn’t ending, but the world as we know it has been ending and continues to end even as it is remade.
The lyrics here address this idea many of us have about reconnecting with lovers or friends that we weren’t really in for the long haul with. There’s something simultaneously fantastical and real about this repeating question—“If the world was ending, you’d come over, right?” It turns out that the answer is in many ways “No,” at least in the way the song proposes the question. People aren’t reconnecting with long-lost friends or their recent lovers. Quarantine sex isn’t happening for most people who don’t live with their current partner(s). Many people have found themselves in a static state, not reaching out to others or connecting with people at all, fatigued by a slow burn ending with no finality in sight.
What has happened in terms of reconnection is people moving back in with their families (see roles of family vs. friends/romantic partners), often in the form of flight from metropolitan areas to suburbs and rural areas. Some of these moves have been involuntary, such as college students (including international students) whose universities shuttered on-campus housing options with little to no warning or those who have had to deal with employment issues and affording the cost of living on their own. The precise precarity of this pandemic is centered around shared physical presence—more restrictive than even physical contact—with other people.
This is a remix. The original is downtempo with a pared down accompaniment. There’s something very contemporary (or perhaps the word is human) about a danceable, largely electronic song about the importance of socio-emotional connection in an apocalyptic context.
There is something very enticing in these lyrics is the idea that “all our fears would be irrelevant” and “There wouldn’t be a reason why / We would even have to say goodbye.” People are very afraid right now, and there is a craving for an ending of any kind so we don’t have to be afraid anymore. There is a further potent notion in the combination of “You weren’t down for forever and it’s fine” and the idea that forever isn’t on the table anymore. This stands in contradiction to this is our current paradigm where people are still getting married. And while many wedding ceremonies have been postponed, many couples have been getting legally married even sooner than they had originally intended.
The following screenshots are from comments on the official music video on YouTube (Screenshotted 05/27/20). They capture the recontextualized meaning of the song in the Covid era.
The Band’s Visit (Original Broadway Cast)
In The Band’s Visit, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt arrives mistakenly in a small Israeli town where they are stuck for a single day and night as they await the bus that will take them to their intended destination. The leader of the group—Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria—has dinner with Dina, a woman who has kindly offered to host them for the night.
In “Omar Sharif”, Dina recalls the Egyptian movies that she and her mother would watch on Friday evenings—starring actors such as Omar Sharif—and the Egyptian songs she would hear on the radio, including those by Umm Kulthum. This nostalgic recollection strikes a chord with Tewfiq, who remembers the same movies and music from his own childhood.
This kind of nostalgia feels very prototypically adult. Like, the remembering of things from childhood that maybe you haven’t thought about but that you actually really enjoyed or loved. For me, this looked like rediscovering anime and manga—which I was very interested in as a child but felt discouraged from enjoying in some way?—and being able to enjoy it on my own without any weird feelings of parental or peer judgment or disgust.
This is also the kind of conversation or thought that happens when people are stuck together. “Do you remember the time when?” “Oh my goodness, that makes me think of this moment from my childhood when….” In particular, my best friend and I have intentionally stuck together via our daily telephone calls. Memories we didn’t know we shared have come out along with many others we did not share.
This also feels very real to me for the media I consume now. In some ways because I don’t really relate to culture in general. In other ways because I’m constantly on the lookout for music, television, and movies to consume that are from other cultures, and often in languages I don’t understand (as Dina does not understand Arabic).
“Téir Abhaile Riu” (Go Home With You)
This song tells the story of a young woman named Mhearai who, against the advice of others (presumably sisters or friends), looks for fun and love among the sailors in Galway—a bay city in Ireland renowned for its culture, music, and dance.
I’m interested in (absurdly) interpreting the song in the context of a pandemic. It suddenly becomes much darker. In this recontextualization, the song becomes about a reckless young woman disregarding a stay-at-home order and ignoring the very practical advice of her female compatriots.
Even without an absurd re-interpretation I’m not sure what exactly happens or whether there’s a happy ending to the song. Mhearai is clearly looking for a hookup and dance serves as a euphemism for sexual activity, e.g., “We’ll reel away till the break of day / And dance together till morning.” Mhearai’s fellows are telling her to stay home “Mar tá do mhargadh déanta.” (“Because your match is made.”) Is Mhearai attempting to find love or rejoice in her freedom before her arranged wedding?
In the original Irish Gaelic lyrics, one verse translates to “It doesn’t matter who did it or who didn’t / It doesn’t matter who did it, Mary / It doesn’t matter who did it or who didn’t / Because your match is made.”
There’s also pressure to “Marry the piper.” It may be women teasing a younger woman but also has some questionable interpretations.
“D&D + Asexuality”
Hey, ace people can love still that’s chill. I love the rejection of the amatonormative concept of love here. In particular, one thing that strikes me about this song is the singer’s insistence on highly valuing platonic relationships. He describes loving his friends while not having any interest in them sexually—this explicitly values non-sexual intimacies in a way rarely heard in music.
Such an earnest interest in people’s interests, non-sexual physical connection, and spending time with people communicates a really lovely feeling
“and so I come to isolation”
Moses Sumney and Taiye Selasi
One of the greatest, wide-spread tragedies of the modern era is loneliness.
The pandemic has forcibly isolated us in many ways, and surrounding events have contributed to this; we’re experiencing physical, emotional, social, and ideological isolation. A common symptom of calamity is separation, often permanent, and not uncommonly from those we love.
Fans del sol (Fans of the Sun)
Oques Grasses (Fat Geese)
Here we find a future utopia where everything grows in the waste/manure of what came before as a metaphorical phoenix.
“Bancals” sets the stage boldly: “All the malice in this world will bury it / and peace will grow in the manure.” The lyrics place us immediately in a post-dystopian future, likely the result of some great war. The calamity is never mentioned by name, and the song focuses on the after of and recovery from tragedy.
The suggestion of a violent event is referenced again in the line “Que sobren armes i falten gronxadors” (“Weapons will be left over and swings will be missing.”)
The lyrics emphasize the power and beauty of nature and its eventual replacement of artificial materials. At the least, there is an observation of an opposition between nature and artifice.“Faré la revolució i em faré un hort” (“I will make the revolution and make myself an orchard.”)
There are continual references to the human and the natural—overthrowing whatever oppression is preventing this utopian world from emerging and then actually bringing about a renaissance of the natural (and agricultural), e.g., “Acabarem omplint les places de bancals” (“We’ll end up filling the [city] squares with terraces”) and “les males herbes aniran a dins els bancs.” (“Weeds will grow on the banks”).
The chorus is centered around a play on words. “A la merda tot” literally means “Everything to shit” and has two superficial readings: one along the lines of “To hell with it all”—dismissive and potentially angry—and the other more like “It’s all going to shit”—things are getting bad. The wordplay is of course in that if everything turns to literal shit, then there will be growth from it as fertilizer afterward.
“Make Out in My Car—Sufjan Stevens Version”
Make Out in My Car: Chameleon Suite
Sufjan Stevens and Moses Sumney
This song feels very about one moment, one feeling. The lyrics entertain but seem to ultimately reject the idea of both romantic intimacy and sexual activity past first or second base.
The original version of the song appeared on Moses Sumney’s album Aromanticism, and Sufjan added the lyrics “And though I’m dying to / Fall in love with you,” changing the meaning but keeping the core of the feeling in the song.
Despite these fairly modest goals, the verses use poetic, religious imagery in opposition to the original version’s straightforward, conversational text. Love is “Commissioned by the holy one” and “Sacred as the sign of our sensation,” but the protagonist asks only for an act typically associated with early relationship stages and (especially when not followed by sex) teenage romance.
There’s something to be said about Sufjan and Moses both avoiding discussion of their sexuality and singing together on a track that seemingly sanctifies and denies romantic love. I think there’s also something here about a relationship in its early phases or perhaps a relationship cut off by quarantine. Like, nobody has fallen in love when they start dating; that’s seen as a much later phase in a relationship. So “And though I’m dying to / Fall in love with you” makes a lot of sense as an early stage of a relationship, especially one that was just beginning and now has no potential for continuation.
To phrase it differently, making out in a car with somebody is something you do when you’re growing or nursing a new relationship, not something you’re liable to do with your partner of 15 years. The Make Out In A Car stage of relationships is like an environment in which you can consider falling in love with someone, especially for all those alloromantics out there.
On a personal note, there is a story I can’t get out of my head when I listen to this song. A boy I went to high school with once told me about how a girl asked him if he wanted to be M.O.B.s (an initialism, not an acronym!), and he was like, “Sure?” and then it turned out M.O.B. stood for Make Out Buddy and so they made out in his car a lot for a while, and that was the extent of their relationship.
This song has more than one travesty going on. Obviously this guy is a misogynist and it’s super unfortunate that the women in his life are experiencing emotional trauma by the fact that this man is incapable of handling emotion.
This in itself though means that this man has likely undergone traumatic male socialization, evident in lines like “And now he’s eating alone / With the glow of his phone”, “As he scrolls through the night / Won’t even let himself cry”, and “They’re the reason I keep running”.
The calamity interfering with love here is simply masculinity; loneliness, emotional illiteracy, and lack of empathy are all symptoms of contemporary masculinity.
Frank Ocean, Sebastian
This story is a virtual calamity—a disconnect between understandings of the online world that leads to a disconnect irl.
This track focuses on virtual affecting the real; an unwillingness to engage in virtual interactions despite constant real world interactions seen as a sign of infidelity.
There is a commentary here on love in the age of social media when not everyone has the same view of the function of social media.
“Drugs and the Internet”
~how i’m feeling~
This song seems to be about the reaction to a bad breakup (a personal struggle (calamity)) in which the response to the trauma is isolation and self-medication.
While in this song the isolation appears to be voluntary (or, more likely, self-inflicted), those of us dealing with the pandemic have had this situation thrust upon us en masse. We’ve traded our personal interactions for virtual interactions, and many people have found themselves slipping back into old bad habits, including various addictions. While the analogy might be imperfect, it seems that Lauve “[giving] up all [his] friends for drugs and the internet” is a decent metaphor for popular experience at this time.
In the lines “And I don’t wanna hit delete / On all the parts of me that they might hate” Lauv hits on a key point about experiencing crisis—we come face to face with ourselves more often; we’re confronted by our nature and our choices in a much more self-aware fashion than we do in daily life. We make hard choices, and—in this crisis, at least—we are spending so much time alone that we’re more able to consider the parts of ourselves that we show or experience when other people aren’t around. See “I wonder what it feels like / To be more than I am, I am”.
The Upbeat, danceable, and catchy feel with bouncy melismatic hook creates a certain irony given the lyrical content. Lines like “I sold my soul”, “Am I a winner yet?”, “All the parts of me that they might hate” are contrasted with a major key and bright timbre.
“Unworthy of Your Love (feat. Zoey Deutch)”
Music from the Netflix Original Series The Politician
Ben Platt, Zoey Deutch (comp. Sondheim)
The original context for this is very dramatic but if you ignore that (as this performance has), the song also has internet/teen vibes, which is how it was recontextualized in this version. It turns out obsession/insanity can read as teen angst? Whoops!
The song comes from Assassins by Sondheim where it is a duet between John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme. Although it is impossible to tell from the song alone, each character is singing to someone far away. Hinckley is singing to Jodie Foster and Fromme (a member of the Manson Family cult) is singing to Charles Manson.
The song sounds sweet until the context is introduced. Hinckley was obsessed with Jodie Foster (beginning when she was 14 in Taxi Driver) and settled on his plan to assassinate the president to impress her. His original target was Jimmy Carter, but he switched to Ronald Reagan after the new president’s election. He moved to New Haven when Foster started attending Yale so that he could stalk her.
At trial he was declared not guilty by reason of insanity. 35 years later he was officially released with a laundry list of restrictions, including not being allowed to possess any Jodie Foster memorabilia.
This version comes from The Politician on Netflix in which characters played by Ben Platt and Zoey Deutch are playing characters in a production of Assassins by Sondheim. In the original Assassins context, both characters are directly aiming to cause tragedy, allegedly in the name of love. More of a Calamity→Love moment. The goal of the calamity was love.
In The Politician, the two characters are running mates in the student body president election. Each is, in their own way, using a personal calamity to generate love from the student body to earn votes. Ben Platt's character's best friend has died by suicide, and Zoey Deutch's character is thought to have a terminal illness.
This is the political metaphor that the song demonstrations: politicians use their personal tragedies to create narrative chess pieces in the political game. All the while, both characters are also having rough spots with their partners and are genuinely expressing feelings ofr being unworthy of their love.
All around, a semiotically dense performance with rich interpretive possibilities.
“Ne me quitte pas” (Don’t Leave Me)
Olympia 1961 (Vol. 6)
I have listened to a lot of versions of this song, including the same artist’s studio recording and Nina Simone’s version (also wonderful!). This version just hits different, especially as Jacques Brel stares into your soul (see video below).
I once had a professor play this in my music semiotics class as a discussion-starter for whether music is capable of expressing emotion (the answer was no, and using this was an absolutely masterful set up!).
Obviously a calamitous event in a (romantic) relationship has just happened here. Presumably a woman has decided to leave the (male) narrator, and he begs her not to. In the opening lines he admits that things have not been perfect: “Il faut oublier, / Tout peut s’oublier, / Qui s’enfuit déjà. / Oublier le temps / Des malentendus / Et le temps perdu” (“We must just forget / Yes, we can forget / All that’s flown beyond / Let’s forget the time / Of misunderstandings / And the wasted time”).
Then we get bargaining. The narrator offers grandiose impossibilities—pearls of rain, a kingdom of love. He is clearly desperate. A second round of bargaining follows, more crazed than the first. Now he invents stories about their relationship—allegories suggesting great passion and great pain—all while painting himself squarely as the victim (which he may be, I’m not trying to say anything).
A series of lovely metaphors of rebirth, life after death, and the circle of life follow. Surely their love will be stronger after experiencing such hardship!
Then the narrator sacrifices all his agency. He will no longer cry or talk, only hide. For me the most heartbreaking lines come at the very end: “Laisse-moi devenir / L’ombre de ton ombre, / L’ombre de ta main, / L’ombre de ton chien.” (“Let me be for you / The shadow of your shadow, / The shadow of your hand, / The shadow of your dog.”)
For me this is so especially sad, because the extreme degree of his desperation becomes apparent. Not just in the reduction of agency in general, but in the obliteration of a meaningful relationship. His proposal is a power relation, not a romantic relationship. There is no mutuality, no reciprocity. She dances, smiles, sings, and laughs; he hides as a shadow’s shadow.
This song is entirely grief. There is no apology, no reconciliation. Only pain.
Brené Brown says, “Heartbreak is more than just a particularly hard form of disappointment or failure. It hurts in an entirely different way because heartbreak is always connected to love and belonging.” (Rising Strong 142) She also says, “If what I’m experiencing is heartbreak, then grieving is inevitable.” (Rising Strong 145) (original emphasis).
This is why I’m absolutely willing to forgive the narrator for addressing someone this way. Normally I would find this kind of statement unacceptable. Since there’s no responsibility taken and no attempt to communicate openly about challenging aspects of the relationship, I usually wouldn’t feel too bad for the guy. It’s kind of like when someone cries because you called them out for being toxic and that made them feel like a bad person. However, I think of this as more of a hypothetical address, the kind of thing you would blubber to an imaginary version of your beloved as you rock back and forth in the fetal position on the floor of a room littered with dirty laundry, paper plates, and an entire box of used tissues.
On a linguistic/emotional level, I’m enamored by all the different ways Jaques says “Ne me quitte pas.” The pauses, unreleased consonants, lengthenings, shortenings, and syllable deletions lend all 23 presentations of the phrase different emotional energies.
“Res No Es Mesqui” (Nothing Is Scarce)
Antología Desordenada (Disorderly Anthology)
Joan Manuel Serrat
This is another Catalan song about a utopia with heavy use of nature imagery.
The imagery is so delicate and tender:
“El sol surt i s’ullprèn / i té delit del bany” (“the sun goes out and watches and has the delight of a bath”)
“I tot ric com el vi i la galta colrada / I l'onada del mar sempre riu” (“and everything is as rich as wine and red cheeks / And the sea wave is always laughing”)
“un somriure fi / que es dispersa com grills de taronja” (“a thin smile / that scatters like orange segments”)
The song originally appeared on a 1977 album dedicated to the poetry of Joan Salvat i Papasseit, a socialist-anarchist poet of the early 1900s. His poetry was essentially forgotten after his 1924 death, due largely to the Francoist dictatorship from 1936–1975 that forbade the usage of minority languages in public in Spain.
The Nova Canço (New Song) movement in the ’60s showed a resurgence in writing and performing songs with Catalan lyrics. The album itself was a dedication to new democracy in Spain, and it was released in fear even after Franco’s death.
The original recording of this song was released when Joan Manuel was 34 years old, and this version is from when he was 71. There’s such a significant difference in timbre, interpretation, and meaning between the two performances. It means one thing for a 34-year-old to say “Res no és mesquí, / perquè els dies no passen; / i no arriba la mort ni si l'heu demanada” (“Nothing is scarce, / because the days do not pass; / and death does not come even if you have called it”) and quite another for a 71-year-old to say it.
Joan Manuel was born during the Francoist era; essentially his entire life before this song existed in a calamity of great magnitude for the Catalan people. Knowing that this song was released less than two years after the death of a terrible dictator, the abundance and everlasting spring of the song feel natural; now that the calamity is over everything is beautiful.
“I Love You/What a Wonderful World”
Love and War
University of Pretoria Camerata (arr. Johnson)
This piece is an unabashedly sincere presentation of love for one’s fellow man. Lush harmonies and a warm choral tone situate us clearly in the context of passion for community.
In our current context we can read this text two different ways. This is either a look back at all the little interactions we took for granted that now seem so important and missed or it is a look forward to a post-pandemic life in which we can all be together once again.
The chorus here has a meaning of togetherness and community—hearing so many voices united with a positive message during difficult times signifies unity and wholeness. There is a kind of social health associated with the possibility of the existence of choral music, manifested in its physical vocality.
In some ways, nearly all of the events described in this song are possible right now or in almost any crisis. We can still see “skies of blue / And clouds of white”, we can still watch babies grow, and people around the world can still open up, even if not physically.
Are we doing this virtually? Zoom parties, Roll20, virtual ensembles, etc. Or is what we are doing a desperate attempt to recreate an impossible, physical manifestation of love? I find that no matter how much I participate in these virtual gatherings, I simply do not feel the kind of atmospheric, enfolding love of physical closeness.