It’s 11:09 a.m. and I’m lying in bed, sick as a dog. My lights are off, but I’m so exhausted that I’d rather sit here in the dark than drag myself out of bed. It feels like there’s a steel balloon in my head, constantly and painfully inflating until I take a break to blow my nose and let the cycle repeat.
Simply put, today sucks.
So why am I sharing this? Why not get back to my music reviews which I’m admittedly behind on for the week?
Because although music is my work nowadays, it’s been my medicine for much longer.
Let’s rewind to when I was about eight or nine. My brother Mark and his friend Zach were upstairs, and being the younger brother, I wanted to join in on the fun with the cool older kids. As I came to the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a “Oh god why is he bothering us again” stare from Mark. Beyond that, I was met with a new sound, slowly winding into my ears. It was edgy, it was energetic, it was dark and intriguing. It was Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. I didn’t realize this yet, but I’d just found my inspiration for learning guitar, and one of my favorite bands for years to come.
You see, I wasn’t a very social kid. I’d moved to a new school that year, and although I’d made some friends, I still spent my free time living in the digital world of RuneScape, an MMO – Massive Multiplayer Online game – going on endless quests and eating too many snacks, much to my parents’ dismay. I don’t blame them, I was stunting myself socially and I was too young to understand that getting a set of dragon armor wasn’t anywhere near as important as learning how to interact with others in the real world. But now, I had something more to engage with while I played.
Every day, I’d come home from school, boot up the game in one window on Internet Explorer, and go to YouTube in the other to put American Idiot on loop. Later that summer, I started taking guitar lessons, and began learning how to (poorly) play some of my favorite songs. My weekly meetings with Justin, my guitar teacher, gave me a place to learn and grow outside of the classroom, and put me on track to do something more with my time than dump it away in a game designed to keep me addicted and continuing to come back for that hit of dopamine whenever I finished a treasure hunt or learned a new skill.
Fast forward a couple years: I’m going into middle school. I’ve started to wean off the addictive force that’s held me enthralled since I was six or seven, to which I’d dedicated much of my allowance money over the years. I’d even made an actual friend in my neighborhood! But, most importantly, I’d explored more music.
My brother and I had gotten Guitar Hero World Tour for our Wii, and I sunk tons of time into it exploring all the different flavors of rock that’d been conveniently packaged into one. I discovered classics, from “Hotel California” to “Crazy Train”. I was introduced to metal, through tracks like “Scream Aim Fire” by Bullet For My Valentine. My rebellious punk rock streak that was burned into me with Green Day expanded, and I discovered one of my favorite songs of all time by my now favorite band, Rise Against. The song was called “Re-Education (Through Labor)” and it took on a decidedly less fun, more bleak and real tone than the punk rock music I’d heard before. There was a sense of urgency to it that I was maybe a bit too young to understand, but I followed that rabbit hole anyway.
A few years later, Rise Against released Endgame, a new record full of more political tracks that, at that point, I could grasp better. Growing up in an overwhelmingly republican town, these songs felt like an escape from the usual ignorance and malice. “Make It Stop” detailed the plight of growing up gay, and made me that more enraged when one of my friends at the time would suggest that homosexuality was a made-up phenomenon to get attention. “Endgame” warned of the eventual collapse of our fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle, and encouraged me to take environmental science by the time I was in high school. The blunt “Disparity By Design” woke me up to the general idea that the cards are stacked in a certain way in society, and that it’s more than an unfortunate reality.
In a time where I felt isolated and alien to most of my surroundings, my friends, and the world as I knew it, I took comfort in these anthems of resistance. Music had long been important to me, but this is when it became a healing force for me.
Cue my next memory in this unkempt timeline: my first breakup. Cliche, I know, but who hasn’t locked themselves up and listened to music in their room to cope after a breakup? We’d been dating for three or so months during my freshman year of high school and I had no idea how to be in a relationship. So naturally, it ended. After putting myself through the gauntlet of stereotypical breakup music, I was handling it better and wanted to get my mind off things.
One day while listening to Dream Theater, a song called “This Is The Life” resonated with me more powerfully than anything else I’d been listening to for the past few days. It wasn’t the usual emo breakup anthem and it wasn’t a sad acoustic song. Knowing Dream Theater, it was a grand progressive rock piece full of melodic twists and turns. Not really the kind of music most folks pick for coping. Still, the lyrics and tone touched me in such a liberating way that I couldn’t stop listening to it over and over. I was reminded of all the good in life, all of the gifts that I’d gotten from this world, and more importantly that everything, including pain and suffering, is temporary.
The last example I have is more recent.
After attending the North Carolina School of Science and Math, my mental health was completely, utterly dissolved. The extremely high stress of that place, even if it was only for two years, is still to this day the most difficult period of my life – and that’s without even considering the emotional dynamics of a bunch of repressed highschoolers trapped on the same city block.
This gave me a lot of baggage to deal with coming into UNC. Things were easier and I was coping better with day to day life, but the damage that I’d suffered prior only festered further. I tried to seek help multiple times, an effort that wouldn’t fully come to fruition until the summer before my senior year. So in the interim, I turned to music again.
On September 15, 2017, Clairvoyant by The Contortionist was released. It was a dark, gloomy, downward spiral of an album. The narrative was inspired by one of lead singer Michael Lessard’s close friends who had battled drug addiction and ultimately lost. The beautifully bleak way he painted metaphors around the scenario touched me. In the way he saw this disease eating his best friend alive from the inside out, I saw my depression doing the same to me.
“The Center” was the halfway point of the album, and its haunting intro struck me immediately: “Since this began / I’ve misplaced my head / This all seems so nauseating / Just let me sleep.”
The simplicity and malaise of these lines resonated deep in my soul, I saw myself clearly in it. Going through the effort of fighting my mental illness was nauseating and exhausting in the same way and I couldn’t do it alone. Like the song, I just wanted to sleep – maybe forever.
The counterpoint for this moment came later on in the album. The closing track, “Monochrome (Pensive)”, stretched before me with its vast 9:24 runtime. The echoed drums and hollow melodies lured me in. This time, I was greeted with an alternate perspective. Instead of being put in the shoes of Lessard’s friend who’d passed, I was in his. Instead of relating to the pain, I was shown the end result of it: the forever shattered world that everyone wakes up in when someone passes before their time.
It shook me to my core to think that one day, If I continued down the path I was on, I might put those I love in a similar position. But more than that, through finding music that I could genuinely and profoundly relate to, I felt some relief. It was therapeutic, and the creeping emptiness abated just enough for me to make some plan of action.
Later on that year I got on antidepressants for the first time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best prescription and left me anxious and 40 pounds lighter after a few months. But taking that first step was enough to get me on the right path, and where I am today. And to think, if I’d never walked up on my brother listening to Green Day, or decided to listen to Clairvoyant that fall when I was at my lowest, I very well could’ve been a completely different person. I might even have given up on everything.
So, to answer the question posed in the title – this is why I do what I do. Every album I review, regardless of whether I like it or not, has the potential to connect with someone in an indescribable, monumental way. Music has helped me through my life in so many ways beyond what I’ve told here. It’s a chance for connection, for self-actualization, and for healing. It’s the most important thing in my life, and that’s why I dedicate my time to spreading it.
So, today as I lie in bed at 3:22 p.m., still sick and finally wrapping this blog post up after taking a break to get some medicine from Walgreens, I’m letting the soft nostalgia of “Somewhere Quiet” by Jakub Zytecki carry me to a happier place.
Sure, today sucks. But thanks to music, it sucks a little less.