Op/Ed

Faith Gong: The Year the Music Died… and How it Was Reborn

I used to love music.

I would play music in the house and in the car. I listened to music as I walked or ran the streets of New York City, Berkeley, and our neighborhood in Vermont — first on a portable CD player, then on various incarnations of the iPod. My life had a soundtrack.

I used to go to concerts.

My relationship with my future husband began when we attended an Indigo Girls concert together. We went on to see Diana Krall perform twice, the Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello, the Black Crowes, U2, Bob Dylan, and numerous orchestral concerts and operas.

I used to follow singers and bands and get excited when their newest albums were released.

The last album that I was aware of — the album I downloaded and listened through as soon as it dropped — was Babel by the British folk rock band Mumford & Sons. It was released in 2012, nearly a decade ago.

It will probably not surprise you to learn that 2012-2013 — the year the music died — was the year our family got a puppy and the year I gave birth to our fourth child. These two events catapulted our house into a new level of happy chaos that drowned out the music.

For starters, there was the ambient noise — to which I didn’t feel the need to add more noise. Then there were the four children ages five and under, who just wanted to listen to the Frozen soundtrack on repeat whenever we were in the minivan. There was also the issue of how to play our music: Our CDs were quickly becoming things of the past (and being stepped on and chewed by our children); eventually we strung most of our CD collection around the garden to reflect the sunlight and keep away birds. But I couldn’t figure out how to make digital music work for us. Should we listen on Pandora or on Spotify? And what should we listen on? Until this past year, when my husband and I got our first smartphones, listening to music involved lugging my laptop around with me like some boombox-toting skater from the ’80s.

In the end, the very people who killed our music were the ones who brought it back: Our children.

Somehow, during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, our older daughters figured out how to work Spotify and started exploring their own musical tastes. They also started spending more time alone in their rooms — an adaptive response to both puberty and quarantine. From under their doors, we’d hear power ballads promoting courage and perseverance; songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and “Soldiers,” and Lauren Daigle’s “You Say.”

When our oldest daughters began attending middle school, their musical tastes broadened and the importance of music in their lives deepened. No longer were their favorite songs just about survival; now they were also drawn to songs about love, justice, self-discovery, and the broader world. The music moved out from behind their bedroom doors as well (perhaps in part because our household now boasted two smartphones); suddenly, they wanted to share their music with us. Or maybe they just wanted to use our smartphones. Still, if you’ve ever parented teenagers, you’ll understand the significance of this: Sometimes it feels like our older children are able to communicate with us better through music than directly. I always try to pay attention when someone puts on a song in the car or while washing dishes and says, “You have to hear this song! It’s SO GOOD!”

In fact, I’ve started asking my daughters to make playlists for me, and in doing so I’ve come to appreciate songs and artists I would never have listened to on my own.

The soundtrack of our lives these days is wide ranging, with Adele and Taylor Swift as the twin suns in our daughters’ musical sky. Orbiting them are artists including BTS, The Wonder Years, Macklemore, Juice WRLD, One Direction, Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, Martin Garrix, NF, and Harry Styles. Musical soundtracks such as Hamilton, Six, and Dear Evan Hanson are also part of the mix. And nobody in our family is above binge listening to the sleeper hit, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” from the recent Disney animated film Encanto.

I think, in large part, it’s music that has gotten us through the emotional minefields of the past two years — from pandemics to puberty.

The particular miracle of music is that somehow, through a biological process that can be explained (sound waves hit your ear drums and so on), music seems to touch us at our emotional cores. Of course, the emotional core isn’t an actual place, but what’s amazing is that researchers have found that when we listen to music, roughly 12 different areas of our brains light up. A 2013 review identified the following three psychological functions of listening to music: 1) to regulate arousal and mood, 2) to achieve self-awareness, and 3) as an expression of social relatedness.

And boy, did we need all three of those functions engaged over the past two years!

Somehow, my children knew this deep in their marrow. So they used music at the height of COVID to help them feel strong. Now that we can afford to feel a greater range of emotions again, they’re using music to tap into both joy (as when they perform an all-sibling version of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” at full volume) and sorrow (as when my daughter and I were both brought to tears by “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton).

I heard recently that one of the best things parents can do for their children in scary or emotional situations is to hum or sing. Somehow, injecting music into such situations is comforting; it communicates that everything will be okay. It is a literal whistling in the dark.

And sometimes, it seems, children can do this for their parents.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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