By The Landlord
You try to put it aside, but each week, like a faithful dog, it keeps bounding up in your mind, playfully jumping around, saying, "Me! Me! I'm relevant! Throw me that topic, in any direction, and I'll fetch it!" But is there such a thing as universal song that seems to touch on every subject, one that you always want to nominate and always seems to fit? One that, as was once described in our friendly circles of playlisting as an "afasarae", a name, created, as legend has it, by the random typing of letters on a keyboard as by the reader known as Lambretinha?
Even if there is no such thing as the absolute afasarae, and not every song can fit songs about, for example, reptiles, relationships, and rabbits, running or revenge, rivers or radio, you can always count on the power of metaphor to at least touch on what feels like universal experiences. And arguably there are many, many songs out there that seem to be regularly relevant, at least partially universal, and loveably mongrel enough to keep on returning and therefore apply. So on the topic of reptiles, for example, take Al Wilson's The Snake. Here you've probably got a song that gets to the core of the human heart, and several of the 'r' topics above, via a funky, slithery style and story:
But what other key elements could a universal song have? Boy meets girl? I love you? I hate you? I miss you? Will you still love me? Or perhaps emitting elements beyond language barriers, such as the smile? Or food? Birth? Death? Or a journey or quest? Well, as tradition has it, it's now time to unbolt the doors of the Bar, and see who is queuing at the velvet rope to get in and have their say. What makes for the universal, I ask, as I pour the first drinks. Is music, as is often said, the most universal form of communication?
Well, almost beating down the door to tell us more, is the great Professor Noam Chomsky: "It's perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar."
Thanks Professor, what an auspicious opener. So within the framework of those mechanisms in our cognitive process that, across cultures, make us want to form grammatical sentences, perhaps what is also universal is something musical in the sounds, rising and falls in our language? We can all hear it, can't we, even if we don't necessarily understand it? But what about this animal difference? Boy, have we got some distinguished guests in this week! Dropping in for a glass of wine, it's only Sir David Attenborough, who, if you've ever seen his work regularly, is very keen on the incredible performers, those birds of paradise: "Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?
Could birdsong, then, be perhaps the purest form of music, fitting every topic? Or, combining the wisdom of these two great men, perhaps we could surmise that, in reaching for the universal, the bird is, quite simply, the word?
Now a top producer, Paul Epworth, puts in his view: "Pop music has greater power to change people and to affect people because it's a universal language. You don't have to understand music to understand the power of a pop song."
Thanks Paul, a good point that pops another question. Any other particular styles or types of music do this other than pop? As Paul sups on his pint, Wynton Marsalis now slips into the bar, and so you might expect him to highlight jazz as a genre that fits all topics, but no, he's all about the blues: "Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance. It's about a man and a woman. So the pain and the struggle in the blues is that universal pain that comes from having your heart broken. Most blues songs are not about social statements."
So we can't avoid the fact that suffering comes into any universal song in some way, and as that underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau puts it: "The sea is the universal sewer." Yes, Jacques, whether or not this is lost in translation, I agree, you've got to get some dirt in the mix to give your song a dose of reality.
So with that, your suggestions might also contain a moral compass after all, and with that a sense of what all of us are about. Here's another language super professor, Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychological here sounding more like Chomsky, and arguing about what we all crave - freedom of expression and more: "The strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The doctrine of the blank slate... is a totalitarian's dream."
So another secret element of the universal song might be that they contain a yearning for happiness, with a sense of belonging and justice. "Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law!" shouts Immanuel Kant has he orders a cocktail."Yes you smart Kant!" shouts someone else. Who? "Some values must be universal, like human rights and the equal worth of every human being!" retorts Abba's Björn Ulvaeus.
What other kinds of songs might be universal? National anthems? “Happy Birthday?” (incredibly, still subject to royalty disputes - blech). Or perhaps hymns and other sacred music from various religions? But are they universal?
Blimey, what a crowd there is in tonight! So now the punters are asking me what universal, all-topic-fitting song I, Landlord might nominate. Off the top of my head I suddenly remember the remake of the political sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, an intriguing, if flawed work, in which humans are taken over by a race of androids known as the Cylons who destroy Earth and leave the remaining humans in search of a new home. Now, without going into the whole plot, or indeed spoiling it, it turns out that a small group of these humans begin to hear the same song, but don't know why. The simple code of the melody offers a some co-ordinates, or time signature, or something vaguely like that within the plot, and then the lyrics begin to filter through, gradually, offering a meaning that echoes the past, and the future, of deja vu, of identity, all as meaningless as it is meaningful. It contains gnomic phrases such as: “'There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.’” and, “‘There’s no reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke, There are many here among us Who feel that life is but a joke.’”
Bob Dylan once mischievously said something on the lines of how his songs already existed, but he was just first to write them down. So in this time-spanning context, with lines that echo ancient biblical phrases, and come up in a political science fiction story that is both in the past and future, perhaps this odd song could fit this topic. Whether I am write or wrong, as ever on Song Bar, the point is having a go. The Battlestar version isn’t up to much in my view, which leaves this version, surely, and quite timelessly, as the best:
And so then, this week, feel free to suggest your timeless all-encompassing theme songs of afasarae in comments below. This week’s umpire of the universal is the timelessly talented takeitawayGuru. Last orders will be called on Monday, and the umpire’s playlists on Wednesday. Good luck!
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.