Epiphanies Hall of Fame

In introducing the new category, Van Zandt added, “We all know the history of music can be changed with just one song, one record. In three minutes we suddenly enter a new direction, a movement, a style, an experience. That three-minute song can result in a personal revelation, an epiphany that changes our lives.”

Source: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducts Songs for the First Time, Including ‘Born to Be Wild’ & ‘Louie Louie’


Musical Epiphanies? Martin Luther King, Jr, Charles Black and Louis Armstrong

Time has flown since my last post here. After a busy couple of months teaching, it’s the Easter break.

It’s also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m reading media tributes, alongside reports of a protest by Aboriginal activists at the opening of the Commonwealth (‘Stolenwealth’) Games on the Gold Coast, Australia.

This puts me in mind of a comparison I sometimes make when talking about peak music experiences as ‘epiphanies’. Sociologist Norman K. Denzin uses that religiously-loaded term to talk about defining moments in people’s lives, which might reveal truths or mark turning points and which go on to become an important part of their personal narratives. Epiphanies are one of the ways that we know ourselves and present ourselves to others through stories.

Denzin tends to focus on negative epiphanies, often drawing from his research into addiction. However, he suggests that there may be positive epiphanies and he makes reference to a story told on numerous occasions by Dr King. In 1956, in the wake of the Montgomery demonstration, King received an increasing number of death threats. One night, after receiving an especially nasty telephone call at his family home and feeling overcome with doubt and fear, King sat at his kitchen table with a coffee and prayed aloud. He then heard a voice that he took to be Jesus Christ, urging him to stand up and fight on and promising eternal support. This was a transformative experience that, throughout the rest of his life, King would reflect on for his own motivation and also recount to inspire various audiences.

Is it too much to suggest music can provoke this sort of epiphany?

Some parallels can be found in a secular, musical epiphany described by white civil rights lawyer Charles Black, who played a prominent role in the 1954 Brown v Board of Education case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated state schools were unconstitutional. In an article written for the Yale Review in 1986, Black  says that for many years he felt that he ‘started walking toward the Brown case, where [he] belonged’, when as a teenager in 1931 he saw the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong perform in Austin, Texas.

Black writes in poetic detail of that performance, describing the music’s ‘[s]teamwhistle power, lyric grace, alternated at will, even blended’, and characterising it as his first experience of genius:

The moment of first being, and knowing oneself to be, in the presence of genius, is a solemn moment; it is perhaps the moment of final and indelible perception of man’s utter transcendence of all else created. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black.

Black claims that from that evening on, Armstrong was a continuing presence in his life, as both a musical passion and as an artist who instructed him ‘as only high art can instruct’ on ethical matters. (This story is also recounted in Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary series, a treasure trove of musical epiphanies.)

Like King’s relationship to Christ, Black’s lifelong faith in Satchmo was anchored in the memory of an epiphany. Both men’s stories are powerful illustrations of how a highly subjective, private experience can motivate distinctly social attitudes and action, with consequences well beyond the individual. At the same time, both experiences invite exploration of the historical, social and cultural factors behind them, such as the influence of particular religious traditions on King and the civil rights movement, and the narratives of race and artistic value that informed Black’s youth as a Southern university student. Their epiphanies are windows into these broader contexts; not answers, but questions.

One question is: how is it that music can have such a profound effect?

First encounters: Aldous Harding meets Seals and Crofts

A lot of people can tell you their favourite songs or artists by name. They might even have a list ready to roll off the tongue at a moment’s notice. Popular music culture is big on lists.

But in terms of how we relate to music – how we have relationships with it – those lists aren’t the full story, they’re more like the contents page. They’re a flat representation of something three-dimensional. Each dot point is actually a cross-section of a snaking line, sliced at a particular point in time. To pile on another, nerdy metaphor, our top 5/10/40/1000 chart isn’t written in plain text, it’s in hypertext. Each entry is a link that, if followed, will lead to a rambling blog entry – a narrative.

Our relationship to a song or artist, like any relationship, makes sense as a story. It has its  peaks, its key plot points, and one of those is the beginning. So one of the most commonly discussed types of peak music experience is the first encounter – “the first time I heard [song/artist/etc]”.

Put a group of music fans together and expose them to a series of well-known songs (e.g. go on a road trip with friends or on tour with a band) and you will almost certainly hear about some first encounters. You’ll also find them when musicians are asked to talk about themselves in the media. This is something that happens a fair bit in our culture, so I expect to be able to present these pretty regularly. Over the next few posts, I’m going to pick out some of the patterns that can be found in these stories.

The first example comes from singer-songwriter Aldous Harding, who acted as ‘Guest DJ’ on NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast. (I’ve chosen this partly because I am still enthralled by her performance at the Laneway Festival last weekend.)


You saying cassette reminds me: the first bit of music that I owned, that I really loved, was – my mum’s friend gave her a big, purple, corduroy bag full of cassettes. And it was a bit of a drag sifting through all that darkness, but I found Seals and Crofts’s ‘Summer Breeze’. And I put it on, and I can’t tell you… I was about 8 or 9, and I remember that was the first cassette that I put on and I went, “This”… It took me out of this modern feeling of being lonely and misunderstood, or feeling misunderstood. How misunderstood can you feel when you’re 8? But there was something about that time of my life [that] was quite lonely, and when I first heard that song I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And it just went around and around, my mum was like, “Jesus, can you turn that off?”

In this case, Harding’s first encounter story was also a more significant first, marking the first time she’d fallen that hard for any song. We understand music by reference to our lives, but we also understand our lives by reference to music.

The other thing that stands out about this story is the ‘big, purple, corduroy bag full of cassettes’. Young Aldous rifles through it, searching for something. She doesn’t know what she’ll find, and it gets to be a drag, but she persists (why?). When she does find something, or when it finds her (how much control does she really have here?), it exceeds all expectations. Speaking of metaphors, this isn’t a bad one for being a music fan.

This first encounter is an important plot point in the story of Aldous Harding liking ‘Summer Breeze’, but it’s also an important plot point in the story of Aldous Harding. It’s partly beyond words, but it tells her something about herself and, many years later, she’s telling it to others. It’s intensely personal, but it follows a familiar shape, which we’ll keep exploring in the posts to come.

Selling an experience

It’s not only romantic lifers who talk about music in terms of the experience it creates. The wide appeal of this kind of talk can be seen in the way music is marketed, as part of what has been called the “experience economy”.

Here is an advertisement for an art exhibition that popped up in my Instagram feed:

This ad doesn’t try to convince you of the qualities of the artwork as an object, which in this case is a Gerhard Richter painting. After all, you can see it and find out all about it on the electronic device you’re already looking at. What the gallery offers you is a particular kind of experience.

Not so long ago, this idea was espoused by mavericks like the painter Mark Rothko:


…and the musician and multimedia artist, Brian Eno:


They were reacting against the traditional idea of art as an object, external to the viewer (or listener), and also against the high-minded preference for intellectual contemplation over physical and emotional engagement with art. For centuries, these were ways that capital-A Art and high culture were distinguished from popular or mass culture, often with sexist and classist overtones. Likewise in academia, until recently, even critical and progressive approaches to culture spoke more about ‘texts’ than activities and experiences. And music fandom seemed to be based around objects: records, tapes, CDs, clothes, accessories, memorabilia.

Now, however, the idea of art and especially music as a trigger for, or element of an experience is everywhere.

In advertising for music festivals in particular, I have noticed a shift of focus away from the identity of the performers (who represent the musical object being offered) and onto the experience of the audience. Posters and videos show audience members enjoying themselves, or they use more abstract elements to suggest an atmosphere, sometimes with little to no details of the music to be played.

Perhaps the ultimate example is the marketing for the so-called “cultural experience of the decade”: the ambitious and ill-fated Fyre Festival.

As the marketing of concerts and festivals loses its focus on artworks as objects (“the music itself”), there is an increasingly detailed focus on the experience you will have. This is where difference is now emphasised. Compare advertisements for symphonic recitals, Gerhard Richter paintings, samba festivals and rock concerts. They’re all setting up expectations for a particular kind of experience: reflective, expressive, quiet, bombastic, intellectual, physical…

These media representations cater to the expectations of music fans, but they also help to shape those expectations – and this informs our experience of the events.

The Fall and other origin stories

In honour of the late, great Mark E Smith, singer and visionary leader of the mighty Fall, let’s look at a story told by English comedian Stewart Lee about the “best gig [he] ever saw”.

It was the summer of 1984. I was 16. […] I saw an advert saying the Fall were playing at a rock festival in Cornwall and persuaded my mum, against her better judgment, to let me go, alone, with a sleeping bag and a tent.

The Fall took the stage by the light of burning torches, the classic two-drum-kit line-up, now augmented by American guitarist Brix. Without a word of greeting, the group dropped into the spindly descend of Smile. I’m listening to a bootleg tape now and touching the entry ticket, still tucked into the cassette box, and I relive the exhilaration of experiencing the stolen riff of Elves for the first time, and a vast 10-minute version of the soon-retired Garden, still my favorite Fall song, with Brix singing the “Jew on a motorbike” refrain through some strange dub-effects pedal. I can taste the wet air in my lungs, see the black-clad couple in front of me, and I realise that the rest of my life, which can have such profound and disorientating pleasures in it, is going to be both wonderful and frightening.

It’s worth reading the whole article, which is fairly brief and as hilariously strange as you’d expect from Mr Lee. There are a few things to note here.

  1. “The best gig I ever saw” – this is one of the major categories of peak music experience. It’s common for music fans to have a shortlist, which keeps getting longer as they begin to recite it. They can usually also tell you their “first gig”, “worst gig”, “first time I saw…” gig, and so on. I have found that when I ask people about their peak music experiences, they often turn straight to their live concert memories, meaning that I have to do a bit more digging if I want them to reflect on private and domestic settings. This reflects the special value placed on live music in popular music culture, across various genres (although “live” means different things to different people, like a technohead and a folk enthusiast for example). As a result, peak music experiences in the live setting can be seen as peaks among peaks. This is useful for research purposes, as looking at people’s ideal live experiences lets us see just what it is that defines live music and makes it so special.
  2. Those last questions deserve a post of their own, but one reason live music is idealised is that it allows us to get the fullest idea of what a particular artist, or piece of music, is about. We get this information from the music itself, which is put at the centre of our attention, literally on a pedestal, probably much louder and importantly more physical than it is in other settings – but also from the appearance and actions of the performers, the atmosphere of the venue and, perhaps most importantly, the way that other people respond. Audience members aren’t just passively receiving, but actively expressing what the music is about for them (and collectively, for us) – and our agreement or disagreement is to an extent a physical matter. You’re swept up in the collective moment or you’re not. So with all of this in play, the first time you witness a certain artist or song live can be revelatory. The first time Stewart Lee saw the Fall, he realised just how “profound” and “disorienting” they were. This was partly because he was so focused on their music, but look again at just how much detail he offers about the setting, the people, and so on.
  3. That first gig marked Stewart Lee as a Fall tragic. He says that he went on to see them at least 48 (!) times. But it also affected him in ways beyond his music taste. At the age of 16, it revealed to him the kind of profound and disorienting pleasures his life would have in it. This is a coming-of-age story. For a lot of us, our first gigs are rites of passage through which we figure out what we like, where we belong and who we are.
  4. While this isn’t mentioned in the quote above, the full article makes it clear that drugs were significant in Stewart Lee’s experience that day. Again, it’s not unusual for people to describe especially affecting and memorable musical experiences when drugs were involved. This goes to show that what’s going on inside the listener can be as important as what’s going on in the music. The mixing of music and drugs is strangely under-researched and I’ll definitely return to it in a future post.
  5. A final thing to note is the vivid nature of Stewart Lee’s memory. Clearly, the article depicts this as a singularly strange day all round, for a 16-year-old or anyone else. But some aspects probably wouldn’t be so memorable, decades later, if it weren’t for his musical epiphany. For example, a “black-clad couple” isn’t hard to spot at a gig, but he can see them now. At the same time, we can understand how the overall weirdness of this day coloured the young man’s experience of the Fall’s set. There’s a chicken-and-egg relationship between the music and everything else going on in this memory. Listening to the music brings back the other details, while the other details, like the entry ticket Lee has kept, bring back the music.

We could probably go on, but those are some of the powerful things going on in one person’s “best gig I ever saw” tale. There’s so much unique detail, but it fits within shapes that are shared among music fans and, more specifically in this case, Fall fans. Stewart Lee was not the first or the last person to be turned on to profound and disorienting rock music and an accompanying, subversive worldview by that band, but it happened, as it always does, in a specific and highly personal way.

For the record, I saw the Fall twice and will never forget either show, but I have interviewed people who have followed them around Australia and beyond. One man in his 50s, a serious long-time music fan, told me that the Fall was the only band he still went out for. Today, my social media feeds are full of friends sharing their treasured Fall memories.

Vale, Mark E Smith.

Mark E Smith.jpg

Photo: ‘Mark E. Smith at The Fall gig at art show – Bloomberg Space, London’, by Flickr user Kirsteen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Someday we’ll look back on this…

This is my first post on this blog. Thanks for stopping by! It’s a bit longer than most posts will be, as I try to explain some of the things I find compelling about peak music experiences. For a basic introduction to the concept and my intentions for this blog, see the ‘About’ page. For more academic perspectives, see ‘Publications’.

I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. I have a lot of respect for him as a songwriter, performer and career artist. I’m just not one of those people (at least yet – I’m told it can happen at various stages of life). But if you want to hear someone speak about the power of music without holding back, then you need look no further than Bruce and his fans.

1200px-Bruce_Springsteen_-_Roskilde_Festival_2012Bruce Springsteen performing at Roskilde Festival 2012. Photo credit: Bill Ebbesen. Source: Wikipedia.

Consider this hefty quote, from an article by Michael Hann in The Observer:

It’s coming on stage with the idea: OK, well the stakes that are involved this evening are quite high. I don’t know exactly who’s in the crowd. But I know that my life was changed in an instant by something that people thought was purely junk – pop music records. And you can change someone’s life in three minutes with the right song. I still believe that to this day. You can bend the course of their development, what they think is important, of how vital and alive they feel. You can contextualise very, very difficult experiences. Songs are pretty good at that.

So all these are the stakes that are laid out on the table when you come out at night. And I still take those stakes seriously after all that time, if not more so now, as the light grows slightly dimmer. I come out believing there’s no tomorrow night, there wasn’t last night, there’s just tonight. And I have built up the skills to be able to provide, under the right conditions, a certain transcendent evening, hopefully an evening you’ll remember when you go home. Not that you’ll just remember it was a good concert, but you’ll remember the possibilities the evening laid out in front of you, as far as where you could take your life, or how you’re thinking about your friends, or your wife or your girlfriend, or your best pal, or your job, your work, what you want to do with your life. These are all things, I believe, that music can accommodate and can provide service in. That’s what we try to deliver.

Here, The Boss defines the value of music by what it can do, and the stakes are clear and high: music can change your life. It can affect how you think and how you feel, with respect to specific people, problems and experiences, or more generally. And it can do this in an instant.

The instant might last for a three minute song or a whole evening. Indeed, music can create a transcendent moment outside the rest of life and time, so there is no last night or tomorrow night but ‘just tonight’ (funny how it’s always night…). However, this moment lays out possibilities that stretch into the future and can be remembered much later. Such moments might be surprising and beyond our full comprehension, but that doesn’t mean we don’t anticipate them and even try to create them.

This points to the paradox of transcendent musical moments. People lose themselves in moments of musical ‘ecstasy’ (which literally means standing outside oneself), but in the search for such moments and in the memory of them, they find themselves. Springsteen claims to draw his motivation as a famously hard-working, career musician from the memory of what music has done for him in certain instants. He’s talked about some of these at length elsewhere, like his life-changing revelation while watching Elvis Presley on TV as a child. Now he finds purpose in working to ‘deliver’ such instants for others, and perhaps also for himself.

This is a common story. Music fans, musicians and other music industry workers and scene participants, including many I have met in the course of my research, often find themselves – their feelings, their tastes, their relationships, their values, their sense of belonging, their motivations for doing what they do – through moments when they are taken out of themselves by music (and more than one person has told me about their experience at a Bruce Springsteen concert). These are the peak music experiences I am concerned with on this website and in my research.

We are looking at a widespread and powerful phenomenon of musical experience, but also of storytelling. In the article quoted at the start of this post, it is said that Springsteen made his stirring speech ‘without pause, without any errs or urrms, in a single perfect paragraph, that require[d] not one piece of tidying in the transcription’. This suggests that the statement itself was a kind of performance, whether consciously or not. The words, or at least their sentiment, were well-worn if not rehearsed.

Where does this story shape (or ‘narrative’) come from, why is it so widespread, and what does it do? As to the first two questions, it can’t hurt that Bruce Springsteen and others like him are always talking about music and life in this way. The Boss wasn’t the first. Maybe he even chanced across the stories his hero John Lennon told about hearing and watching Elvis and Little Richard. There are countless examples to be found in interviews, biographies, documentaries… and in lounge rooms, cars, rehearsal rooms, social media and blogs. I intend to share and analyse as many of these as I can. It’s great fun. And along the way I will ask: how do these stories shape our expectations and experiences of music – and the self that is produced through those experiences?

For now, we can say this. What music does, and what we say it does, are deeply connected. In peak music experiences you can see the sparks flying where they meet. And you know what they say about sparks.