Social work themes at play in the music industry
No matter what field you work in, there is music relevant to your personal growth and career path. Music has the potential to unite our emotional, spiritual, and social well-being when we act as conscious consumers of the industry. For my Hip Hop & Social Justice class, my class recently looked into the songs that empower each of us the most. The three songs I chose are “Old Pine” by Ben Howard, “The Fear” by Ben Howard, and “Believers” by Handsome Ghost.
According to Dr. Raphael Travis Jr. in his book “The Healing Power of Hip Hop”, certain songs become hits because of their beat, chorus, lyrics, or because they speak to us. On rarer occasions, they contain two or more of those features. Each of these songs has all of those features for me. They are the rare acoustic treasures that remain relevant no matter what transition I am experiencing in life. The instrumentals in each of their intros have the soulful indie atmosphere that makes my stomach flip. The beats are gentle, flowing, and easy to absorb no matter what mood I am in and their hooks are lyrically the most profound part of the song. Lastly, there are no empty filler lines in any of these songs. All of their sentences are well-crafted by singer/songwriters I consider artistic geniuses.
The whole premise of “Old Pine” is a camping trip that Howard took with his loved ones and the harmony he experienced in the wilderness while being mindful of his and their place in the world. In the chorus he sings, “We stood, steady as the stars in the wood, so happy-hearted.” Long before I began meditating and spiritually exploring, I heard in this song the ideal spiritual, emotional, and social place. To me, it was proof this kind of place existed, but not in a physical way. Howard lost his sense of self during this trip, along with the rest of his group. No longer able to tell where one individual ended and the rest began, they forgot their boundaries between themselves and the natural world. It was a hard thing to imagine at the time for me, but an easy thing to want after the song's five-and-a-half-minute catharsis. Like Travis says in his book, “The ultimate manifestation of growth is moving from ‘me’ to ‘we’, from strictly personal concerns to a place of service and giving.” It’s easy to identify that manifestation of growth in the song, especially in the chorus. Based on Stefan Koelsch’s framework of music-evoked emotions mentioned in chapter eight of The Healing Power of Hip Hop, I would say my primary interaction with this song was resonance for the longest time; a place where “listeners mirror the emotional experience in the music”. However, after this past August when my family took a four-day camping trip in Colorado, I now also interact with the song through memory, “the nostalgic and autobiographical memories evoked through musical interaction, with particular relevance to esteem, resilience, and community dimensions”. I too reached that spiritual, emotional, and social place during my own camping trip, even though the song hadn’t entered my head for several months before. Lastly, in regards to Koelsch’s framework, this song serves as a device for expectance/tension because my love for its “musical properties like acoustics, structure, rhythm, beats, and overall musicality”.
My other favorite line in the song is, “We grow, grow, steady as the morning. We grow, grow, older still.” It serves as a reminder that although Howard has reached the spiritual summit of his previous experiences, it’s no reason to cease progress. He understands the same way the United Zulu Nation does that peace, love, unity, and fun must operate along with self-improvement. With this line as a part of the chorus, the song successfully integrates four of the five dimensions of the Individual and Community Empowerment Framework; esteem (feeling better), resilience (doing better), growth (being better), and community (better belonging). Howard’s themes of change (achieving better) aren’t present in this song but can be found in other songs of his such as “Are You Ready”.
When considering a song that would best fit into my life pursuits and into class readings on Health Musicking, “The Fear” was the first song that came to mind. Health Musicking is the examination of “how music intersects with Hip Hop’s narratives during everyday listening, self-health, and/or professional situations”. While the lyrics in “Old Pine” perfectly set themselves up with the Hip Hop narratives, “The Fear” is an obvious example of self-health music. Cathartic as well, "The Fear" explores Howard’s insecurities by first inviting his own self to “tell me how you feel” and “tell me where it’s all gone” because “this apathy you feel will make a fool of us all”. He then goes on to answer himself, explaining his fear of losing loved ones, the uncertainty of his future, and that he might be wasting his life by living inside these fears; “I’ve been worrying that my time is a little unclear. I’ve been worrying that I’m losing the ones I hold dear. I’ve been worrying that we all live our lives in the confines of fear.”
This song, like “Old Pine”, serves as a device for resonance, memory, and expectance. I love its narrative qualities because of the sheer honesty and accuracy of his inner dialogue. Life isn’t all empowerment. It’s riddled with insecurities like fruitlessly second-guessing the past and fretting about the future. By exercising self-examination in this song, however, Howard is coping the resilient way, rather than letting his values “move away from intrinsic concerns like community and belonging, toward extrinsic concerns like image, fame, and money” the way many similar artists do (Travis, 2016). Instead, he is “building an identity through an honest assessment of [his] internal strengths, abilities, and worth”. The best part of the song is that he ends it by repeating “I will become what I deserve” six times, which can be translated two ways. First, that he is actively going to make himself become what he deserves or second, that he is passively allowing himself to become what he deserves right now. As an interpreter of the song, I like that I get to finish it each time I listen by making my own small assertion; he is actively making himself become what he deserves and so am I.
My third choice of song was “Believers” because of its relevance to my ambition. “You want to swim with the sharks and if they tear you apart, then it is what it is, said you don’t want to live soft.” Swimming with the sharks becomes a very accurate metaphor when I think back on all the journalists, marketing professionals, social workers, and Rotarians that I have learned and worked amongst. Most often, I am the little fish in the big pond and I like to keep it that way.
In chapter four, Travis asks, “Where is the locus of responsibility for individual and collective challenges? Is it us or is it someone or something else, such as the system that needs to be held accountable?” Handsome Ghost answers it in their own way with the last chorus: “Don’t you want to believe we could be more than believers? If you want to escape, quit your covering. It’s all gone to waste if you’re settling.” The song is about taking responsibility for the issues in one’s life, rather than complaining and choosing passiveness. Both characters in the song are at a crossroads in their lives and in their relationship and must choose to be proactive or to let go. It seems that the singer is coming from a perspective of resilience, “making choices that dictate how [he’ll] cope with adversity and shape pathways to well-being”, and encouraging his girlfriend to join him in “building their identity through an honest assessment of their internal strengths, abilities, and worth” (Travis, 2016). For example, Handsome Ghost starts off the song reminding his companion of her fierce spirit and ability, but asserts that he will not go down with her if she doesn’t begin to apply it. “You can follow me home…if you…wake to alarms, shake the cold from your arms out…” This song, like the other two, centers around resonance, memory, and expectance for me.
I never articulated before why Handsome Ghost and Ben Howard are by far my favorite artists. The furthest I went was noting their peaceful musical elements and permanently relevant lyrics. After dissecting them now, however, I can see that I hold onto them for their empowering qualities. I can play them when I am facing a difficult decision or dealing with something out of my control and anything by these artists will encourage me to choose the way that is spiritually, emotionally, and physically the healthiest. They encourage me to “aspire to a longer-term version of growth with delayed gratification” while offering me a melodic atmosphere to recover in (Travis, 2016). If consumers held their music more closely to these standards of empowerment, I strongly believe they would be making it easier on themselves to simultaneously maintain peace, love, unity, fun, and self-improvement in their lives.
[Recorded by B. Howard]. (2011). Old Pine [MP3]. Devon: Universal Island Records.
[Recorded by B. Howard]. (2011). The Fear [MP3]. Devon: Universal Island Records.
[Recorded by T. Noyes]. Handsome Ghost. (2015). Believers [MP3]. Republic Records.
Travis, R., Jr. (2016). The healing power of hip hop. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.