Wishing for a Song

Plaza de Mayo, Buenas Aires, Argentina 2011

If you are like me and 23 million other people, you’ve seen James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney. At one point, they sing “Let It Be,” and Corden dissolves into tears. He says, “Aw man, it got me emotional there, it was too much for me . . . I couldn’t see that one coming around the corner.”

Paul McCartney replies, “That’s great, man. I tell you, that’s the power of music. It’s weird, isn’t it, how that can do that to you.”

He’s not talking about a song that he wrote. He’s talking about music and being human. And while I teared up during “Blackbird,” I don’t think there’s something miraculous and transformative about that particular song. When my daughter, who is ten, watched that video, she really didn’t get emotional at all. Those songs don’t have a meaning for her, and that’s perfectly fine. But the video did get me thinking about how music is so powerful and transformational.

I show a video in my anthropology courses about the Kayapo, an indigenous group in Brazil who are fighting the government’s effort to flood their land by building a hydroelectric dam. At one point in the video, Sting arrives and speaks on their behalf to the international press. My classes usually giggle at this point and roll their eyes (if they even know who Sting is).

My generation, too, has rolled our eyes plenty at activist rockers. There goes Bono again, being passionate about something, right? We loved “We Are the World,” but we’re sort of embarrassed by it too. It seems silly, musicians thinking they could or should change the world.

I was shoved out of this position, though, when I visited Chile and Argentina in 2011. Another professor and I brought a group of students to learn more about the dirty wars. In Chile, a young tour guide in his 20s insisted on copying many albums for us of Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. Parra popularized Chilean folk songs, and was embraced by revolutionaries fighting oppression. Jara was tortured and murdered for his political activism through music by Pinochet. We were told about Jara by many people in Chile, and his legacy continues. He was killed in 1973, and a kid born 20 years later still needed to share his music with us.

In Argentina, we received a lecture from three social scientists, and all were about my age. They are the elder generation of social scientists in Argentina, not because the fields are new in Latin America, but because the generation ahead of them were murdered. Disappeared by the state. They were talking about moments of change in their lifetimes. The anthropologist in the group started talking about when Sting had performed in Buenos Aires in 1988 on an Amnesty International tour. Suddenly, all of these scholars began to wipe tears from their eyes when they spoke of his song, “They Dance Alone.” This song was written about women who protested through dance in Chile, but during his performance in Argentina he brought onto stage Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. These women protested daily in the main plaza of Buenos Aires, demanding an accounting for their children and grandchildren who had been disappeared by the government. Our hosts spoke of the profound impact of that concert on them.

I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t roll my eyes at Sting. I had listened to that song about a million times, and I’d liked it. But that song had spoken a truth to these new friends. It hit a chord in their hearts, and that chord was resonating anew in them, together, at that moment.

I have had those moments, too. In high school, we were allowed to select a class song. I recall our meeting, our class of fewer than 60 squeezed into one room. I do remember some suggestions before the song we ultimately chose, but none after it. Two male classmates stood up without ceremony and started to sing. “Lean on Me,” originally by Bill Withers, had just been remade by Club Nouveau. I don’t know how, but we all started singing along. It seemed like we all knew the words, whether from hearing our parents play the original or from the new version. I don’t remember voting. I think we all just knew it was for us.

We were told, though, that we couldn’t play it at graduation. Our teenage outrage was great! We made a plan. The moment after we graduated, we filed out of the auditorium, quickly shut the hall doors behind us, and grabbed each other. Gleefully, we sang that anthem to ourselves, holding onto whoever happened to be next to us. We were one, and no one could tear us from each other. I can’t listen to that song silently, even today. I doubt anyone from my class can.

I’ve had a few of those moments recently. I sobbed when Kate McKinnon sang “Hallelujah” on Saturday Night Live. I saw many tears on the faces around me when Alicia Keys sang “Girl on Fire” at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. And, as I said earlier, “Blackbird” got to me. But, honestly, I feel somewhat musically bereft in this moment.

Is it strange to say that I am wishing for a song? I am wishing for music that pulls me close to the person next to me. I would like that person to be different from me — younger, older, a different race or religion. Maybe you’ve found that song. Maybe you wrote it. Feel free to share it. I’d love to hear it.