Background Music: A 2016 Playlist for the Stories of Life

Priscilla Jebaraj   |   February 1, 2017 

We are having a leisurely post-church discussion over momos and tea, debating the competing merits of our favourite novels, movies, TV shows.

Our resident music-lover looks bemused by the passionate debate. “What’s the big deal?” he asks. “It’s only a story.”

Only a story?” I reply with only-partly-mock outrage. “How can you say that? Stories are everything.”

He shrugs. Tells us about his story-free weekend of music-making.

“Well sure, music is ok,” I concede. “But at the end of the day, it’s just background.”

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Such sentiments regularly get me into trouble with those more attuned to the joys of music than I am. They are appalled by my musical illiteracy and launch frequent campaigns to educate me. Don’t get me wrong -- I enjoy singing, and yes, there are songs that pluck at my heartstrings. It’s simply that music is not essential to my being. I would always rather curl up with a good story.

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And then, in 2016, I discovered the joys of background music. Music that thrives in the background of a story, that brings life to an old tale, that lingers in the sub-conscious layers of a narrative.

It starts with the fact that I’m mostly unemployed in 2016. The occasional work projects and assignments leave plenty of jobless hours to fill with stories. I devour new books and re-read old ones, discover the dangerous thrills of binge-watching television, and the fresh delight of subtitled movies. And with time to spare, I begin noticing, always in the background, the music.

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Early in the year, I get hooked onto Parenthood, a messy joyful family saga, with its Bob Dylan theme song Forever Young. Charmed, I seek out other cover versions: Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary. (Yes, I know it’s unpardonable, but I’ve never actually listened to any of these famous names before.) And suddenly, I stumble onto a treasure trove of balladeers from the 1960s and 1970s, who effortlessly weave narrative into their lyrics.

Apart from its theme song, Parenthood also has a great soundtrack, with music that enhances the storyline. Speed-watching my way through the key scenes from seven seasons of Gilmore Girls in preparation for this year’s revival show, the songs suddenly begin to pop out. I’ve always appreciated good lyrics -- after all, they contain words, the building blocks of story -- but now I begin to appreciate the sound as well. Veteran music-lovers are rolling their eyes at my obtuseness, I know, but I’ve honestly been deaf to the effect of the background score. 

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On long train journeys through the year, I immerse myself in the glorious legends of Merlin and Arthur and his Round Table of knights and explore the work of Heather Dale. The Celtic musician brings the Arthurian myth to life, whether with the creepily effective Mordred’s Lullaby or the sincere love of the King’s wedding-eve song for Guinevere.

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There are the musicals, which seem crafted especially for my story-first-music-second mentality. A friend takes pity on my ignorance and introduces me to that old classic -- West Side Story -- and I revel in the innocent tragic romance of its songs. An obscure 2015 musical -- Begin Again -- lures me in with bittersweet songs that capture my own mood. I rewatch Fiddler on the Roof with my dad -- at its heart, it’s really a movie about fathers and daughters -- and laugh along with If I Were a Rich Man, sigh with the nostalgic wistfulness of Sunrise, Sunset.

And of course, musicals rule the roost in the Indian movie industry. With my broken Hindi, and a colloquial grasp of Tamil which does not extend to understanding its rich poetry, I am forced to appreciate the music divorced from the lyrics. (Although there is rib-tickling, if unintended, humour to be found in reading the English subtitles of Indian movie songs; try this one.)

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I take on the project of converting my parents’ cassette collection into a digital format, and the music keeps telling tales of my childhood. The tapes my parents once played at bedtime magically transport me to the 1980s world of Psalty and Psaltina, to Agapeland, and further back to the mellow baritone of Jim Reeves. Three decades later, I sing The Night Watch as a lullaby for my young nephew, and the music which infused the earliest strands of my own story is woven afresh into the patterns of his new life.

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Just before the United States goes to the polls, I spot a new song on my Facebook news feed. Sara Bareilles’ Seriously tries to guess at then-President Obama’s unspoken private thoughts in the run-up to November 8, creating a haunting musical accompaniment for the horror story that was this election season.

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As the calendar flips to December, familiar carols overtake all my musical mind-space, telling again the grand old story of Christmas. On IndiAanya, a blogger shares her take on Mary’s song; my world is upturned by the revolutionary justice I hear in a fresh reading of the story.

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Finally, the year draws to an end, and I review the rambling thoughts in my journal. Back in the summer, my church had worked its way through the Psalms, and their “theology of emotion”. While many of them are songs of praise or prayer addressed to God, the preacher pointed out that others have elements of self-talk. The psalmist tracks his own stream of consciousness and exhorts himself to focus his eyes on God.

Over the course of a tough year, my journal -- a rough draft of the story of my life -- seems to echo parts of the inner monologue of Psalm 42. It could almost be my background score for 2016:

My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God . . .
Tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul . . .
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

Or as Casting Crowns sings, in a masterpiece of self-talk to the soul:

Oh, my soul
Oh, how you worry
Oh, how you're weary, from fearing you lost control . . .
Here and now
You can be honest
I won't try to promise that someday it all works out . . .
Oh, my soul
You are not alone
There's a place where fear has to face the God you know
One more day, He will make a way
Let Him show you how, you can lay this down
'Cause you're not alone

I listen to the band sing my life-story. The countdown reaches midnight. The bells toll. The year is over. A new song begins.

Photo Credit : Unsplash

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Priscilla Jebaraj

Priscilla Jebaraj is a journalist living in Delhi, a city she loves for its sense of being rooted in a storied history and rushing forward into an unknown future at the same time. Some of her favourite things: books, travel, books, baking, books, children and did she mention books?
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7 comments on “Background Music: A 2016 Playlist for the Stories of Life”

  1. I remember this conversation 🙂 and music has been background for me as well, mostly to help get through the time when i'm in an auto...but then this year I listened to Hamilton and was reminded of how music and songs tell stories brilliantly...and help you feel the emotions of the story! Thanks for the playlist, will check some of them out!!

    1. Yeah, I think it was you and me and Neha and David over lunch at Dzukou's. That conversation really sparked off this post, so thanks! I'm even worse than you actually; even on the commute, I'm more likely to have a book (or Kindle app) than earphones 😛 I haven't actually listened to Hamilton yet, but will have to borrow from you. (By the way, the Obama's thoughts song above is sung by a Hamilton cast member, Leslie Odom Jr. And have you seen the fabulous version of Fiddler on the Roof's Le Chaim sung by Hamilton creator Lin Manuel-Miranda as a wedding gift for his bride? Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgZ4ZTTfKO8)

    1. I'm glad you liked it; you can take part-credit for what that conversation sparked off! I think it was Shobana and I on the side of stories, David on the side of music, and you straddling the diplomatic middle 🙂

  2. Lots of music to check out.. and movies too... and yes.. I am a book person too... books first, music as background score.. and I love Dylan's Forever Young. Read his Lyrics.. they paint beautiful pictures.. many, many wonderful stories there.. and his Wedding Song.. another of my favourites..
    God bless

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