by Nora G Hertel
When I was growing up, my father often played Paul Simon’s Graceland album on Sunday afternoons. The songs take a musical journey down to the southern United States and across the Atlantic to Africa with the accompaniment of diverse musical groups including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Years later my brother, also present around the house to absorb Graceland, wrote a paper criticizing the album and the dynamic between Simon and some of his collaborators. As I got older and started to travel, I developed a love of blues and gospel music from Mali and South Africa, which I think started with my love of Graceland’s collaborators and instrumentation.
Whether we criticized and/or loved this album, it became an important part of my musical make-up and my brother’s. Not only does Graceland remind me of my childhood, but it opened the door to future musical exploration. A new music collection project asks people to submit, “What song takes you back to your childhood?” My answer: any song from Graceland.
The project poses five additional questions about the songs that make each of us who we are today. The British newspaper the Guardian hosts this Six Songs of Me project. I’ve already discussed my take on question number three, but my other favorite prompt remains: “What song would you want at your funeral?” My answer: “Everything’s Alright” from Jesus Christ Superstar.
I’m fascinated by this project because, like many studies before it, it attempts to pin down some of the transient power of music. This collection in particular focuses on music and identity, a good topic to draw open submissions. People like to talk about themselves, and music feels like a natural way in which to define ourselves for others.
Scientists of all specialties continue to examine the power of music on our brains, psyches, social structures, and personalities. A few studies that came out in the early 2000s tied musical preferences to personality and lifestyle traits. German philosophers grappled with the aesthesis and power of music centuries ago.
We have made some progress in understanding the physical effects of music, but less on its metaphysical effects. From my view, each study and analysis about the mathematical or holistic properties of music only serves to make it more complicated and mystical, not less.
But despite the complexity of music-with-a-capital-M, asking people to boil themselves down into six songs is an exercise with multiple pay-offs. First of all, participants get the satisfaction of learning about themselves and sharing that information. Secondly, the Guardian (and NPR) has used the project as a way to interview and inform readers about interesting people. What better way to get to know someone than to learn about their musical influences, history, and passion. The last question in the survey openly asks, after all, for, “one last song that makes you, you.”
The aggregation of all these six song playlists will prove the final payoff of this project, and I hope they make it public. The study’s subhead identifies the goal as a quest to “uncover the music that matters the most.” While the goal seems sufficiently vague, the data pool can demonstrate the trends, like what music people want to hear at funerals now. And as funerals are an important cultural rite, this could shed some light on the way we listen to and use music now. The data set will be limited by the people who submit their playlists, who must speak some English and predominantly reside in the UK. There’s little demographic data shared, but you can still browse submissions to see the age, sex, and location of other people who’ve chosen the same songs.
Six Songs of Me is mapping current trends in music but also providing a forum for people to explore and share themselves through their musical interests. So I can find out if there is anyone else out there that has childhood memories of Graceland besides me and my brother. And not only will I know we share a musical bond, but they’ll know a little about who I am as well.
Nora G Hertel