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Fearful Joys

German Reichstag in BerlinLooking at the Recently Played smartlist in iTunes, I can tell there’s a song that’s had massively more airplay in my world than any other over the last couple of months. That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve put it on at random points during the day. I’ve had it on repeat in the background while I’ve worked at a scene. I’ve sneakily put it on several times while people have been over for dinner, and listened to it again after they’ve gone, while tidying up kitchen. The song is Ich Bin Ich, by Rosenstolz.

And the strange thing is that I have absolutely no clue what it is about.

One of the reasons I like listening to European pop (apart from the songwriters being unafraid of outmoded concepts like ‘melody’) is that if I leave my mind off the hook it’s merely a pleasant sound; with lyrics in English the words pick at me and distract me from working. I listen to a bit of French pop too — I like it, so screw you — and with those songs I can generally make some sense of the words, if I concentrate. Rosenstolz are from Austria. With German, I’m totally lost. It might just as well be in Aramaic, or Welsh, or machine code.

.I assume the title means something like ‘I am me’ or ‘I am myself’, but I don’t know for sure, and I absolutely do not care, and do not want to be told. Something in the combination of melody, arrangement and performance speaks to me in a manner that sidesteps comprehension. It makes me want — husband and father though I am, and wish to remain — to be running down burning streets with some woman I’ve only just met, escaping from some sense-of-wonder doom which is inexplicable and likely unavoidable but from which you run anyway, because that’s what you do. It makes me want to be turning my head in slow motion outside a European café, shot in high contrast black in white, to see that woman smiling privately before looking up at me, in the last half hour before the disaster strikes. It makes me want to be sitting alone on the curb of a cobbled street in twilight, urgently smoking a cigarette, knowing that something, and something important, is about to happen… some epic adventure that involves love and risk and choices good and bad and which most of all requires being some version of me that always seems to be buried beneath the crushing weight of the everyday but which shrieks in vain to be heard.

For all I know the song could actually be about making sure there’s enough toilet rolls in the cupboard, or an impassioned pean on behalf of a brand of cat food. I don’t want to know. Somewhere between the notes and the emotion that soars from them I’ve developed a response that cannot be to the words, and which doesn’t bear any relation to what I’d really want out of the world. It’s the soundtrack to some bizarre and impossible parallel life that I’d probably hate and screw up and not be man enough to choose, even if I wanted it, which I don’t.

Music can do this — sounds alone — and this proves it’s not words which make the real difference in storytelling, at least when it comes to the conjuring of other worlds and lives. This is a harsh lesson to learn, not least as I’m a person who makes his living out of words and cares about them more than just about everything else apart from a few humans and two cats. But words can be like music in this sense too — and this is the thing that makes writing a whole-life commitment, something you will always be learning to do. Emotion can be communicated through the pure sound of the words, rather than their meanings, through juxtapositions between characters, through the spaces we leave between what’s said and what is not. What we say and write and create doesn’t have to make sense — in the mundane sense of expressing something explicable or in tune with contemporary cultural norms — and this is why noir and genre fiction can sometimes be the sharpest shortcut to the real. Sometimes you can read or hear something that bypasses all of the this-is-now constraints and speaks to something far more basic and compelling and vital in the human soul… It provokes an avalanche of emotion. It cuts through the mind into something far deeper and more private and personal. And when you hear it, it’s wonderful.

If you can be bothered, buy the song and put it on loud. I’m not saying it’s the greatest song in the world, note — but see if you get something like I’m describing. Almost certainly you won’t. Probably it’s just me. But if so… that’s actually better. That way it’s my story, my myth, my dream (which is well worth 99 cents of anybody’s money). I’m sure there will be some song out there which will do it for you, though, and if you know what it is, feel free to comment below.

Quite by accident, I’ve just discovered that Oscar Wilde evidently felt the same way (not about Austrian pop, obviously, but on the effects of music in general):

Victor Victrola“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.”
Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

This is exactly what I’m talking about.

So… how does music do this? What is it touching inside? Are these false memories it’s stirring, and if so, what creates them and what does their existence they mean? And what if they’re not actually false? What if we were each to find the song that does this to us, and it turned out these unreal lives we half-remember are connected, and that we are all without realizing it engaged in the same huge, epic, romantic struggle, in some parallel world we do not know?

And if I could tell you how to get there, would you go?

Michael Marshall Smith is a screenwriter and the internationally bestselling author of The Intruders and the acclaimed trilogy of Straw Men, The Upright Man, and Blood of Angels. He lives in London.

Mulholland Books will publish three books by Michael Marshall Smith, the first of which will be called Murder Road.