What Does It Mean to Escape into Music?

When fighting doesn’t feel like an option, can music be a medicine through distraction?

by Phil Witmer
23 December 2016, 10:36am

Int he 2011 anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, its heroines collect trophies after each battle that (literally) cleanse their souls of the cynicism that they have accumulated. Failure to do so causes them to lose hope and become the very demons they fight. To the same effect, thinking of human feelings as a consumable resource is as useful as any method of compartmentalisation. In the winter of 2016, our collective hope is drained and we turn to media to make sense of the world, to find some way forward. Many necessary pieces of protest music have emerged this year from the likes of not only YG, but also Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, and both Knowles sisters. But, by and large, though, the business of making songs about love, dancing, and flexing is still booming and shows no signs of slowing down.

What popular music has meant as it has interacted with socio-political history has evolved over time. In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War and a tide of social change in the U.S.A. was soundtracked by rock and soul and folk, along with various intersections of the three. The period was quickly canonised. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan became president and ushered in an economic reform that widened the wage gap, throwing whole communities into a deeper pit of poverty. Synthesiser-based, campy pop songs held court here, meaning that the decade was never taken as seriously as the Vietnam era by rockists. To hear it from those who wear rose-tinted shades, society has become steadily more distracted from that point onward by reality TV, the encouraged vanity of social media, and last but not least, pop music. Maybe that's alright.

Music is a barrier and also fuel. Losing oneself in a song is as much a ward against exterior misery as it is a reminder to keep going, to start somewhat fresh and anew. To dismiss lightweight music as an opiate de-legitimises the work of talented creators. While the Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye is a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter and of awareness for Toronto's Ethiopian diaspora, he's also the "Starboy" who rode through 2016 in a variety of expensive cars without a care and scored the second-largest debut week of the year. The number one song in the U.S. is "Black Beatles," a song that defies any analysis deeper than it being fun as hell.

As MTV News editor Jessica Hopper stated, music is not going to get "better" under the Trump regime, but why was there even an implied consensus from others that current music was "bad" to begin with? The idea of music needing a political purpose to be valuable undermines so many other elements such as craft, performance, and of course, whether or not one actually enjoys the work. According to widespread Twitter memes (and Lagos, Nigeria), the unofficial soundtrack to the terrifying US-Russia hacking saga has not been a J. Cole missive, but rather Migos' "Bad and Boujee," an entirely apolitical piece of work that's resonated nonetheless.

"Music is a wonderful escape and there's nothing wrong with that," says Dr. Mel Borins, a professor of community medicine at the University of Toronto and practicing family doctor. Borins is a songwriter and performing musician who writes comedic tunes about pap smears and colonoscopies and he believes that music – any and all music – is a legitimate medicine of sorts that can help with depression and anxiety, along with laughter and other forces of joy. "What we have difficulty with as human beings is change, and any loss is a change," he says. "I don't have anything against distraction… escapism is a good thing, and on the other hand, music has a way of uniting people."

In her New Yorker essay "The Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year," writer Jia Tolentino felt the great flaw of the social media era in times of turmoil is how overwhelming the information intake is, that "there is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet… no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience." It's a continuous sensory overload of doom-and-gloom for those who follow the news. Borins defines burnout as "when you have nothing left, physically, emotionally and spiritually… you get discouraged about things, you think negatively," and while he's hesitant to apply the condition to the current climate, it doesn't seem too far off.

We're experiencing burnout on a massive scale because of the incoming wave of white nationalism in the Western world, genocide in Syria, and the loss of seemingly every major cultural icon of the past 50 years, all of which has been stretched out over 12 arduous months. Borins recommends getting away from it all as the best treatment for burnout. "This is a time when you have to re-look at your life and put some fun, laughter, [and] dance back into [it]. Start to do things that are building up to the purpose of your life and your goals," he says. If one chooses to interpret the end-of-year malaise as burnout, then using otherwise frivolous music as a way to reorient the spirit makes sense. To dance away fears, to sing at the crooked jaws of defeat; there's beauty in that.

And there was so much music to be thankful for in a year that should have been mainly remembered as a bountiful crop for the medium. In 24K Magic, Bruno Mars dove into 80s jheri curl funk and new jack swing with committed, colourful results. Astronoid's Air is a sugar rush of an extreme metal album with the most life-affirming blast beat drumming you'll ever hear. British-Japanese group Kero Kero Bonito burst pop's bubble with Bonito Generation and found it to be a piñata filled with treats. None of these albums tackle the world's woes head-on but point to ways around them. Choosing to embrace these diversions should not be viewed as an act of cowardice.

It bears reminding that the liberty of musical nourishment, to even forget about troubles, is in itself a privilege. Those who managed to escape the fate of the many thousands dead in Aleppo won't find slipping on earbuds to listen to Bruno Mars as easy a solution as those of us in Toronto, and the same holds true for the non-white families in the U.S. and Europe who worry about the fact they may no longer fit a suddenly narrower definition of their own country's cultural identity. Again, the larger scale of human suffering threatens to extinguish hope. And you know what? All of this does suck, but it shouldn't have to do so in an all-consuming manner. Pop music may not have the answers but it might just be one more thing that keeps humanity going, just as long as someone's listening.

Artwork by Courtney Menard.
Phil is a Noisey staff writer. He's on Twitter, enjoying himself as much as he can.