What Came First – the Music or the Misery?

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

– High Fidelity

In some roundabout way, listening to Matt & Kim for the first time turned into a contemplation of what I consider to be one of the smartest passages of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity. Matt & Kim, specifically the album “Sidewalks,” provide pretty great music, and far too happy for the real miserable stuff I listened to in high school.

To be frank, I was really, really good about finding all the negative stuff in high school. I knew what made every good thing bad, and every bad thing apocalyptic. My music selections complimented this distorted world view quite well. Away message statuses (because EVERYONE was on AIM and communicating their most personal feelings in the most impersonal way through purple and blue comic sans fonts and emoticons) were so sad that my friends’ parents were calling the house to make sure I was ok. I had a way of making Dave Matthews seem like the angel of death.

Was the music offering me an outlet to express my frustration with tireless work with little self-esteem, self-identity and clear goals, or was music creating a self-perpetuating cycle of sad? Did the music tell me that it wasn’t just ok to be unsatisfied, but that I should be?

In a more current story, I donated blood a week or so ago, and the blood extractor (who I’m sure has a more formal and medically appropriate title) asked, “Do you believe in the American dream?” Admittedly, I was caught off guard by the question posed to virtually every high school English class in the hopes of pitting the cynics against the optimists in fervent discussion.

“I… I don’t know. Not really in the way we talk about it,” I said.

He paused. “Really? Well I do. I know it’s real.” His story of immigration to the United States, as he told it, was clearly meant to fit neatly into the rhetoric of the “Land of Opportunity.” What matters is that he thought so in relation to his interpretation, but in the time since that conversation, I’ve read stories of dismal economic projections, difficult wars and talked to friends attending the nation’s best schools facing a depressing job market offering few opportunities to relieve massive debt burdens.

Where does this all come together? Consider the mirror response to Hornsby music/misery equivalent to the chicken/egg debate. What came first – The Land of Opportunity or the talking about it? The American Dream or the belief in it? And why does it matter?

Public diplomacy classes have revealed a great deal of concern about the “say-do gap.” Without action to support the hefty promises that are so pleasant to make both to domestic and foreign audiences, cynicism, depression and frustration can run rampant. To make an unfulfilled promise is far worse than saying nothing at all. Even if agents of international strategic communication aren’t operating daily in the rhetoric of American slogans, there is a critical choice – either tell it like it is for most, or like it should be and is for few.

What if music yielded the misery? Does killing the phrase “Land of Opportunity” somehow deny the world of its possibilities?


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