Submitted for Your Approval: Five Musical Truths

Does this album contain music's most perfect moment? Maybe. But, if not, at least one album does.
Does this album contain music's most perfect moment? Maybe. But, if not, at least one album does. Album cover art
Music is the Big Bang. It explodes and its bits swirl and come together to create a universe of truths from its matter. Planets form, places for music lovers to stand upon and firmly plant our flags. These are five of those flags, music truths we pledge allegiance to and share with our fellow intergalactic travelers.

Beta Band Moments Feel Nice

The film High Fidelity is a music lover’s dream, filled with all sorts of musical truths. One of the best is when Rob, the record store owner and central character, declares to his employees he’s about to turn shoppers onto something they’ve never heard (and maybe sell a record or two). He tunes Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain” right at the beat drop. The store’s patrons ask “Hey, who is that?” and nod their heads to their favorite new song.

That scene succinctly but accurately depicts the thrill we get when we introduce others to a song or artist they’ll soon love. Of course, it’s partly about the self-gratification which comes from someone acknowledging our refined, impeccable music tastes. But, as true music lovers, we also recognize we’re sharing something wonderful with someone else. That’s the reason we’re here, as man and woman, to love each other and take care of each other, as Chrissie Hynde reminded us (if you’ve never heard “Message of Love” then let me know if I’ve just shared a Beta Band moment). Doing that through music feels nice.

Everyone Has a Song for a Departed Loved One

We live to hear and share music but those we live and share things with may perish. When they do, music helps our grieving souls. We recall specific moments or get general vibes from hearing songs which remind us of those we’ve lost. If you’re a true music enthusiast, this is obvious, but even those who don’t know “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” from “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” can still be moved to the memory of a lost loved one by music. Some melancholy tune we’ve never heard can summon these feelings in an instant.

Those songs over time also deliver warm feelings about the good times we shared. My folks passed away a year apart in the mid-aughts. If Flogging Molly’s “The Likes of You Again” scrolls onto my punk playlist, memories of drinking Miller Lite with my dad while watching a Houston Oilers game put a smile on my face. The Oilers were terrible and we just kept believin’ (and drinkin'). Sometimes I’ll stream Tata Vega singing “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” from The Color Purple to think about my mom, who loved that song and loved being a sister among 12 siblings. We had an ancient camcorder, the sort that recorded on VHS tapes, in the '80s and Mom lip-synched the entire song for posterity, hamming it up as only she could. I loved her but was glad she let Tata do the singing while she emulated the song and all its sassiness and wisdom, two of Mom’s best traits, even if singing was not.

3 Seconds of Unfiltered Emotion > 300 Words

I love lyrics, most folks who love music and love writing would say as much, but what is at the very heart of some songs is sometimes conveyed in just a few seconds. It’s less about lyrics than emotion, that feeling that comes through and gives you goosebumps or ASMR if you’re lucky enough to experience it, or even “the vapors,” as they used to call that feeling which hits when Madonna sings, “I’m not the others, I’ll do anything, I have no shame - I’m on fire,” on the 1983 track “Burning Up.” When she sings the word “fire,” I start looking for an extinguisher to save her (and myself).*

The best example of this, in my opinion, comes in the Prince song, “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” The song is one of the highlights from one of the best albums of Prince's career. In it, he’s begging for the chance to know a lover better and wonders if they would be closer if he was, you know, her girlfriend. At its core, this is a pleading song, like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” or James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” As he often did, Prince did it better than pretty much anyone else. In “If I Was Your Girlfriend” he does it with the single word, “please.” By the time he gets to it, he’s made a fraught case for knowing his lover better, so much begging and so many words to veil his pleading. When he finally just bursts with an imploring “ple-eee-ease” about two minutes into the song, all his painful desire comes gushing out in an extraordinarily convincing way. Prince could do more with a few seconds than many could with entire careers.

We All Have (Or Should Have) Soundtrack Songs

One night some decades ago, my wife and our friends arrived to a dance club called Blue Planet just as the DJ was beginning to spin Digital Underground’s “Freaks of the Industry.” We literally walked into the club to the opening strains of the song and when we did the camera panned our way for everyone to see. We were fanned out and framed at wide-angle, moving in slow-motion, like Tarantino was directing. At least that’s how I remember it all these years later. Real life is at least as interesting as whatever film you’re gonna watch on Netflix tonight and it’s more interesting when music sets the tone.

It was my happy surprise to learn that I was not alone when I asked friends what line from a song made them “break the fourth wall” in their real lives like Ferris Bueller in the movie. A song which, upon hearing it, urged them to literally turn their heads towards an imaginary camera to sing or mouth its scene-stealing lyrics to an imaginary audience (or surprised road mates if they happened to be listening in the car). They answered with everything from “Well, well, you, you make my dreams come true,” to “Hot tramp! I love you so.” Life can get mundane at times. It’s nice to know we can “star” in this weird sort of “movie” with an incredible soundtrack all our choosing.

We All Have (Or Should Have) A Perfect Moment in Music That is Not Up for Debate

Roberta Flack’s late 20th century masterpiece, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” encapsulates the tenderness, the thrill and the promise of something life-changing which occurs the exact moment we first gaze upon a soulmate. Consider whomever that person is in your life and allow yourself to recollect those moments. Maybe it was a chaotic scene, something seemingly at odds with the gentle vignette Flack presents. Doesn’t matter. Pare everything away from the surroundings of that specific moment and all that is left is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

Flack takes her time, drawing out lines and killing us softly with her song. That deliberate pace and the hushed tones do two things. They afford listeners time to quietly and deeply contemplate that significant “first time” in our own relationships (Mine? Awkward and 15, in a church recreation hall during a quinceanera rehearsal. There were at least 15 other girls in the room but my eyes fixed upon just one whose lovely face I still see every day, 40 years later).

More importantly, this song leads to music’s most perfect moment. The truth is, we all should have one. I can’t be convinced that anything else in recorded history is more perfect than the last 45 seconds of this song. There are close seconds – “Golden Slumbers” through “The End” on Abbey Road, the crescendo on "Clair de Lune," the best songs my own musician kids have ever written – but none is as perfect as the climax to this song. Flack’s notes climb higher and her voice strengthens as if she’s just realized in the song’s waning seconds what she’s been singing about all along. Then, she stretches out the last notes and allows us to fix our mind’s eye one last time upon the face of our loved one before we’re back to mowing the grass, checking the mail or punching in for work. Whatever comes next, those 45 seconds always sustain me until I can see that face again.

*For the full effect of this example, skip to the second time Madonna sings this line in the song, at the 2:53 mark. The first time around it’s effective but the second time she sings the line will melt the record if you're listening on vinyl.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.