At the end of a terrible year, what is our relationship with music?
Words by Jam Pascual
Illustration by MC Galang
“Somehow it’s already been a year.” —Touché Amoré, “New Halloween”
The first sunrise of the new year was preceded by a night in which fireworks were scarcer than usual. Rowdier neighbors aside, it was as though we collectively agreed that there were better ways to mark 2020’s end than a ruckus of smoke and decibel. Even echoes of karaoke from down the block seemed to wane faster than usual, and we owe ourselves a chance to greet the new year with deep sleep after such a weary year.
On the first day of 2021 (although still 2020 in the west), news circulated of the passing of MF DOOM, one of the greatest rappers and producers of our generation, surely the strongest candidate for the title of G.O.A.T., all caps. It was as though the very enormity of the great villain’s name, now surely etched in either a tombstone or inurnment, functioned as both the zeitgeist’s most accurate signifier and the linchpin of a reality desperately aspiring to meaning, the glowing rune of some cursed artifact. I watched his mask appear on my feed, as if asking to be donned by someone who could still believe in tomorrow. Days later, news broke that Children of Bodom frontman Alexi Laiho, Finnish melodic death metal great and wild child, also passed away. It is one thing to speak of death for lyrical shock while white-hot riffs and double pedal drums wallop behind; it is another to do so when we remember that an artist is, after all, a body, like all of us, subject to the whims of time or virus.
By hook or by crook, the touch of death slithers into every moment.
2020 was a year of testing our strongest coping mechanisms, and watching them falter. Drinking alone doesn’t mix well with state-imposed isolation. Sourdough starters and Dalgona coffee only reward the truly committed. Retail therapy is pretty great, but unless you’re getting an air fryer, the magic of an impulse purchase can fade quickly. Me, I’ve spent the past few days listening to MF DOOM and Children of Bodom (this month I will inevitably revisit Stage Four by Touché Amoré, Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, and Holy Hell by Architects to properly steep in grief) just trying to understand… why. Just why. I do not, and probably never will, truly understand why death is. But this is a habit that showed its true colors in 2020, treating music as a thing to crowd the mind, when everything else is crazy. Tune in, tune out. Headphones on, world off.
It is one thing to speak of death for lyrical shock while white-hot riffs and double pedal drums wallop behind; it is another to do so when we remember that an artist is, after all, a body, like all of us, subject to the whims of time or virus.
It is hard to talk about death. Tell a friend a story about someone you loved who has died, and watch them reorient themselves while their faces crumple. This is a hard dance to get right all the time, so we look to other activities of companionship. Virtual gigs, for example. JQBX and Discord listening parties were opportunities of emotional refuge. It’s usually the DJ in the friend group who, having miraculously adapted their vocation to the work-from-home paradigm, will volunteer to spin for a night while homies banter in the chat group. The likes of Manila Community Radio and Club Matryoshka have, with consistent and muscular effort, fought to make gigs a constant in the lives of others. But it’s hard to party when so many venues have unceremoniously closed, and I and others attended these digital get-togethers with decreasing regularity.
Zoom fatigue aside, these are precious moments. Virtual gigs and live streamed shows are signs of a community still interested in being a community, physical distance be damned. In these events, music is extra powerful, and death cannot touch you.
Some people including myself took to playlist-making. In a wonderful essay published in CNN Life, Apa Agbayani, he states, “Playlists are just one language we’re repurposing to be intimate with each other again, to share our secrets with one or a hundred people.” Though I never considered myself good at making playlists, at the start of quarantine, I hungrily took to making mix after mix, sharing them on Instagram for others to maybe care about. Two of my lockdown playlists had Dicta License in them for maximum anti-government fury. Mostly though, I made these playlists for myself, to maintain a relationship with myself that was healthy—a necessary undertaking, in a year in which we are very often alone with our thoughts.
I am saying, through no choice of its own, music was forced to become the axis around which our hope, fear, anger, joy and sorrow could orbit. Music is a line of defense, sturdy and faithful for sure, but not invincible.
Most often, I treated music as wallpaper, a thing to fill the void of each day while I dressed up strictly waist-up for online meetings. Putting on a record you like while going about mundane housekeeping activities is a way to take charge of your own atmosphere and regulate your emotions. You can do that with your phone while you’re stuck in traffic, but we’re rarely stuck in traffic these days, so music is fighting harder against the paradigm of stasis.
This isn’t to say that music has been weakened. So many new records (including Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA, which I will not stop extolling until I die) have psychologically carried us through the routine punishments of 2020. I am saying, through no choice of its own, music was forced to become the axis around which our hope, fear, anger, joy and sorrow could orbit. Music is a line of defense, sturdy and faithful for sure, but not invincible.
It is difficult to frame music as a thing that held us up in the year of 2020, when the truth is, shit has been “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage” since at least 2016. So really, the act of listening to music has been doing a lot of existential heavy lifting for quite a while now. But I think this is a good time for us to reexamine our relationship with the music we consume. What does music do for us? What do we expect it to do for us? How has music carried you personally? Like that one tawdry story about footsteps on the beach, music has always been there. I believe if we engage these questions, whatever answers we come up with, we come to the comforting reminder that music is a spiritually nourishing force, and also a privilege we human beings have that we should take reasonable lengths to care for and cherish. I will continue to bump MF DOOM and Children of Bodom not merely to distract myself, but to give meaning to my mourning. I have heard it said that if art is how we decorate space, then music is how we decorate time. Make of that what you will.