Save Point: Rock Band

Music has never been my thing. This isn’t to say I don’t like it—I generally prefer sound to no sound when working, and I’ve been known to sing into a hairbrush on particularly peppy mornings. But music has never been “my thing” in the way that it’s some people’s thing. I can count the number of albums I’ve bought (in CD or digital form) on one hand. I listen to Spotify and occasionally Pandora. I follow certain artists and can quickly list favorites. But I’ve never obsessed, worn merchandise, or waited hours in line for a glimpse of a star. I’ve seldom even gone to concerts. I went to one in junior high, two in high school, and a handful as an adult. All of these were more social than artistic events for me—I went primarily because I wanted to share an experience with friends. The music was less of a draw than the prospect of making a memory and doing something out of the ordinary.

But a few weeks ago, I attended a concert alone, driven only by a desire to hear the music live, for the first time in my life. An artist I’ve liked for 16 years (it doesn’t matter who, that’s not the important thing here) came to town and I opted to fly solo. I put out a general call on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to come with me. But I didn’t push it. The show was on a Sunday night, and in competition with Game of Thrones at that. I wasn’t bothered. I think part of me intuited that it would be best to go alone anyway.

Still, it felt strange to go to a concert unaccompanied. I wondered where to stand, whether to talk to people, whether it was acceptable to dance. Probably, the answers to these questions are obvious to regular concert-goers. But as I said, this was my maiden voyage. After awkwardly loitering on the perimeter of the main floor throughout most of the opening band’s set, I thought, To hell with it. It’s Sunday and there’s room in the front row right against the stage and I’m going up there. Normally, I’m a self-conscious person. I prefer the corner seat to the center of the room, prefer to watch the person swaying in the front rather than being the person doing the swaying. But this is the freedom of being alone in a public, anonymous space. I went up to the front. I leaned on the railing. I swayed and sang along with the artist and her band all through the show.

In fact, I sang at the top of my lungs, and as I did, something unexpected happened. On three separate occasions, as I belted out lyrics I couldn’t even hear above the din of the speakers, my heart clenched with emotion, and my eyes actually welled up. I’m not a big crier and even less a public one, so each wave caught me off guard. These weren’t particularly sad songs. More longing songs than anything. Wistful songs. But the act of singing those particular lyrics reflexively booted up associations in my mind—something like smelling sunscreen and instantly thinking of the beach. An almost bodily, completely involuntary surge of memory. As if memory were stored in the mouth and singing unlocked the drawer where it was kept.

When I try to make sense of this phenomenon, what come to mind are visions of my younger self singing passionately along to radio and mp3 iterations of these songs. A kind of muscle memory: The lyrics that fascinated me as a young woman were the ones I sang most ardently, most emphatically, sometimes because they made emotional sense—i.e., connected to something I had felt—but more often, being that I was so young, because they connected to something I hoped to feel someday, eventually. Something I wanted desperately to understand. Through singing, vicarious emotion—emotion that didn’t quite have a place to land and therefore settled on someone else’s words. Longing lyrics sung longingly as a teenager, over and over and over again, now turned to pockets of emotional quicksand in an adult? This is my working theory.

Recently I had a conversation with some friends about music videos: how they helped build my emotional inventory as a child. How they were tiny, three- or four-minute artistic experiences: something between a novel and a painting, or maybe a poem and a painting. Intentional language. Distinct aesthetics. The vivid performance of emotion. “Music videos helped build my ideas of desire,” I insisted. “For better or worse.” What I meant is that they helped shape my ideas of what was possible, emotionally. Rage and sorrow and heartbreak and forgiveness and elation and longing so enormous it gobbled you up. They helped me indirectly learn these emotions, practice swimming in their waters. Does this mean they encouraged me to seek and expect nothing less than melodrama? Perhaps. But it also means they nudged me in the direction of openness to curiosity and genuine depth of feeling. I was sure everyone else would have similar stories about music videos’ impact on their emotional development. However, to my surprise, none of the people I was speaking to did. Between this and my experience at the concert, I was starting to wonder if listening, if watching is not enough. If, for some, it takes more than that.

The one place I know I have seen and heard people pour their emotions into the molds offered up by songs is in Rock Band, and before it, Karaoke Revolution. I played both in high school and college. But Rock Band sticks with me more, maybe because the song selection was a bit less upbeat; maybe because when I close my eyes and think of Karaoke Revolution, I picture the wavering arrow touching the bar that measures your pitch, whereas when I think of Rock Band, I picture a blue-haired avatar wowing a bouncing crowd and, outside the screen, several friends and a gap year crush intently focusing with me. Karaoke Revolution felt like a game. Rock Band, too, of course, felt like a game. But on some other level, it felt like a performance. When we took turns singing, we gave it our all. We sang the words like we meant them.

In Mike Chen’s article “Why Story Matters in Video Games,” Josué Cardona observes that players often speak in first-person rather than third-person when referring to an avatar’s actions. “I explored.” “I defeated.” “I died.” Even in Rock Band, a game without much of a story, my friends and I referred to the bandmates as ourselves. “We really sucked.” “That audience loved us.” “We have to get back out there.” Taking on the role of the scowling drummer, the wild guitar player, the brooding lead singer—the repeated adornment of ourselves with these personas helped us feel, relate to, and care about the music in unforeseen ways. It helped us find vicarious emotion.

It’s possible to think of all music like this: an invitation to role-playing. Lyrics as temporary eyes through which to see, or heart-skins to wrap around our hearts. In this way, it is much like a video game. It demands interaction, requires engagement on the road to enjoyment. I say that music is not my thing, but I had never stood in the front row at a concert or had the word “transcendent” come to mind as I did. It required something more of me. Involvement. Embodiment: participating rather than spectating.

The irony, I think, is that despite my protestations that songs and videos have imparted indirect knowledge of emotion to me, in the past I have found it easier to sing karaoke-style lyrics and refer to a jamming avatar in first-person than to actually exist in a state of first-person-ness when it comes to music. I have watched myself watching, heard myself hearing. But this time, I let myself sing.