8 Songs That Are What It’s Really All About, Man
1. “Reason to Believe” by Bruce Springsteen.
There are some popular songs that point their listeners toward the answers to life’s big questions. Reason to Believe attempts to answer the really big one: what does it all mean? This song is the final track on Springsteen’s ultra-bleak Nebraska and on first listen this song doesn’t seem to be a shift in the tone of the rest of the record. Here is Bruce alone with guitar and harmonica, alternating between a fragile whisper and a primal scream. He’s singing about life, love, and death, and the meaning behind it all. What answer does he find? Basically, that nobody is going to answer the question for you. Somehow people always seem to find their own answers and carry on. This solution puts all the power of choice in the hands of the listener. No matter what awfulness fate deals you, it’s up to you to find some reason to believe things will get better.
2. “Dead” by They Might Be Giants
The Johns have a reputation in the mainstream for producing smart songs for kids and quirky songs for adults. The song Dead sounds like it could be belted out by a few hundred youngsters at afternoon assembly, but the content of the lyrics betray the sing-along ease of the melody. There’s nothing quite like that first time you realize that every living thing is just a mass of stuff that was at some point other living things, and pretty soon you’ll be ex-living, too, just in time to feed someone else. The revelation that all I am is a bag of delicious meat makes lines like “I didn’t apologize for when I was eight and I made my younger brother be my personal slave” seem all the more petty. In a way, the message of the song is liberating. If we’re just shambling sacks of food that have yet to expire, then all the little things we worry about day to day seem even smaller. Remember, when you die, you’re just returning groceries.
3. “Time” by Pink Floyd
It’s distressing that a concept album which essentially illustrates a complete descent into madness has so many lucid things to say about the quality of our lives. Time takes advantage of the listener’s awareness of his own impending death. You can relax, you can work really hard, you can stress out and count the minutes, but none of it will stop the clock from ticking closer to the end of your time here. It really is enough to make a person crazy, and set within the context of the rest of this album it makes you wonder how someone who’s already paranoid and living on the edge of his own mind must struggle with the inexorable march of time. Even more crushing is the final thought that the only way to stave off panic is to essentially close your eyes, pray for a pardon, and hope you won’t notice the end sneaking up on you. It’s a tough choice between insanity and ignorance, and Pink Floyd demands a decision.
4. “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen
No songwriter can convert verse-chorus-verse into bleak-triumphant-bleak with the mastery of Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s second coming brought his trademark gravelly monster voice, and it has never been so appropriate. Anthem sounds like you’re sitting in a mountain’s lap and it’s giving you inspirational advice. The concept is nothing new: life is going to get hard and you’ve got to persevere. But it’s sung and orchestrated here with such audacity that it just has to be true. The exultant voices behind Leonard in the chorus inject some well-timed beauty into what would otherwise be an ugly dirge. Even the long outro serves its purpose of giving you enough time to ruminate on the lesson old Uncle Leonard has taught you. If this guy who sees so much wrong with the world still thinks we can make it through okay, then who am I to doubt him?
5. “Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog
No, seriously. I know this song is sung by a frog. Get over it. The fact is that Jim Henson seems saccharine to our generation now because he wrote the purest form of anything magical that we’ve ever encountered. Other songwriters hint at the presence of magic, spirit, love, providence, and divinity. Jim Henson, and by proxy Kermit, comes right out and tells you that these things are real. Furthermore, he’s not angry if you don’t want to wonder what’s on the other side of the rainbow. Most people don’t ask these questions out loud. But Kermit sings about that part of everyone that wonders “What’s so amazing that keeps us star-gazing?” And he lets us know that it’s fine to keep on wondering. Yeah, it’s a little corny, but if you can’t swallow your pride and take a meaningful lesson from Kermit the Frog, then you might just be beyond hope.
6. “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles
For real. Love is all you need.
7. “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.
If you’re looking for a song to sum up the elemental sameness of human existence, it is this one. This particular song is derided by cynics as being far too sad and whiny to be of any value. I should know; I had a lot of derision for this song back when it was a big hit. But it is more inspirational than it initially lets on. Basically the song asks “You really think you’re sadder than any other person has ever been? You think your life is the toughest life imaginable? Seriously?” And, verily, the song has a good point. It’s not asking you to deny your own sadness and it certainly doesn’t want you to stop whining about it. It’s just a little reminder that you’re just one sad mope in a world of sadder mopes, so it’s not really that bad after all.
Am I the only one who felt bad for any paraplegics stuck in their car when everyone else gets out and walks at the end of the video?
8. “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” by Talking Heads
Some might argue that I threw this on the end of the list simply to appease my hipster too-cool-for-Springsteen friends. I actually like this song because it’s performed in such a personal voice that it can’t really be about anyone but the singer finding his way through life, finding his soulmate, and finding a home, and ultimately finding that all these things would have found him somehow whether he wanted to get there or not. Of course, these are universal phenomena that everyone can appreciate. There are just places, times, and people in your life that feel like home. If you feel at home with your smoking jacket-wearing, poofy-haired, corporate-logo-t-shirt-purchasing hipster crowd, then there’s no better place for you to be.
Find love, and find your way home, you hipster doofus.