Everyone Should Sing

Sing, sing, sing all you want. We each grow up patterned by circumstance: each of us learned, not at one point but, at successive subtle points that there are singers and then there are listeners. Most of us are the listeners. Yet this listener and singer arrangement is abnormal, rare with all societies ever taken within ear view. (Consider Lesothans who sing as naturally as Americans speak: everyone has a voicebox.) Think of cooking, cleaning, sports, or any human pastime and anyone can, and is allowed, to do them. Granted, there are chefs, cleaners, and sportswomen, who are an elite class who perform for pay. Yet because we have cooked, cleaned, and sported ourselves we do not imagine that those professional people have magic—or soulful—powers. We may imagine, however, that someone is ‘born to sing’, like breathtaking Joni Mitchell, a song such as California where we would never imagine that Mary Berry was born to raise souffle, or Usain Bolt to run an arbitrary distance. There is, of course, some predetermination to who we become, which is based on what we are. (Who and what are different, I think, my reader.) Joni Mitchell was born with perfect pitch; Mary Berry was born into a posh family; Usain Bolt was born into an ultraltall body. In the competition for fame, power, and glory these persons had a circumstantial head-start few can catch up with—or even hope to.

But the competition for fame, power, and glory ought not to be the measure of experience. Sheer enjoyment and sheer edification ought to be the measure of the worthwhile. Oscar Wilde claimed the same, but he is deemed an effete and ephemeral philosopher. Yet Wilde foremost wanted Europeans to adopt in art what they had adopted already in morality. Kant claimed everyone should treat humans as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to a sinister higher cause (needless conflict for the nation, to the loss of lives, say) or selfishness (needless profit for the market, to the loss of livelihoods). The reception of artworks and treatment of artistic experiences are, however, rife with the notion that art should always signpost to the outside world—The Big Issues, The World, Politics Today, The Public, The Audience, and so forth. Reading The Picture of Dorian Gray for itself – to enjoy its sounds, its witty remarks, its satisfying neat tripartite structure, is somehow taboo. At least it has fallen out of fashion; at school children are handed questions about the plausible subtext rather than thetext. (I volunteer tutor disadvantaged pupils: I know.) These are interpretative horrors which would be reviled by Wilde. Much as they are reviled by Susan Sontag, in her sublime Against Interpretation.

The compulsion to reinterpret and revamp reeks of desperation: ‘Why X Matters’ shows how most people, if they give any thought at all, think it trivial. The trouble is that ‘mattering’ has come to mean if it – the art whatever form it manifests – teaches points, policies, morals, challenges the status quo—or most important, makes money. The tyranny of numbers is no joke. Online the first criteria of value is? How much money ‘content’ generates. The second criteria of value is? How much attention ‘content’ garners. It is vivid how Wilde, espouser of ‘those who know the worth of everything and value of nothing’ would be so appalled. Content has come to mean discontentful marketing, and pseudo-journalism burdened by click-to-buy writing. Content lacks content. The inevitably qualitative lived experience in-itself and the enjoyment of art in-itself are endangered. Frankly, the banality of evil has become incremental dominance of for-profit marketing, where ‘greed is good’ and ‘time is money’ have the genuine reverence of a faked science. You may say, why go on about art in general but not singing in particular – when singing is ‘the point’ of this post? No, no single take-away point is here. Reading itself is as much the point, more the point, than a bullet-point fact. Nonetheless, let’s get back to business.

The arrangement of singers and listeners arose from the consumerist arrangement of producers and consumers. And this is bad why? Because the producer-consumer dichotomy is bad for creators and enjoyers. And consistent pleasure is the most reliable measure of subjective-wellbeing, and pleasure is enhanced by creative participation in any artform. Literateur Borges said he always praised being a reader more than a writer, because he loved writing for itself, rather than the social status it offered (although he did enjoy plenty, he joked the Swedish had made a hobby of never awarding him a Nobel.)

Consider: everyone wants to have written a novel or a film; yet few want to be writing a novel or a film. It’s hardwork, though the hypothetical applause is a nice idea. While everyone has a novel in them, few consider whether it is worth getting out. Not so with poetry, which is remarkably less about any me or I. The reason few people read poetry is that few people write poetry. The reason few people write poetry is that few people read poetry. The ultimate reason is that poetry has lost its monetary exchange value and its social exchange value, thanks to the eclipsing authority of market labour and easier television. (Yet check out The Last Poets’ rap or Angelou’s memoirs or Hitchen’s Trotsky-to-Iraq memoir to appreciate how contemporary, dirty, frank and untweedy poetry can be.) If you can’t afford a home, you become committed to earning. If you can afford a home, you’ve become someone by now who would never entertain reading poetry. I stress poetry because it’s the most useless, yet lovely, art. And its shirked status neatly shows how our human ecosystem has changed overnights—the consumer model stifles the arts, because people are no longer happy to write badly, sing badly, or dance badly. All the while ignoring that to do these badly precedes ever doing them well; and that by merely doing them one advocates their merit and enjoys their feel and breathes artistic pleasure into life. Humans have many selves, the two most prominent to name are the experiencing and the narrating selves – contemporary status anxiety stresses the narrator over the experiencer. (As Susan Sontag once remarked, many people now get married for the photoshoot and holiday for the pictures.)

The totalitarian division of good and bad, and performer and viewer is pernicious because dancers, singers, and writers are kept in the job foremost by other dancers, singers, and writers. It has always been so. Divide, if you want, those who do these activities from those who deserve the titles – those who do and those who are – and you’ll see that there is still no art without an audience of crafters. How can one appreciate what one doesn’t know? Indeed, value-judgements in the arts and humanities are only ever qualified by those who know and by those who can, than by an external reference to tidier scientific discoveries. Yet there is the patience of poetry and the passion of science in any domain. There is the scientific fact that singing and, judging by our novelty thrived evolution, general creativity are good for us and tedium bad. You don’t need a study for that, just a long workshift yet I’ll quote a study on singing and wellbeing among amateurs and professionals nonetheless:

Serum concentrations of prolactin and cortisol increased after the lesson in the group of men and vice versa for women. Oxytocin concentrations increased significantly in both groups after the singing lesson. Amateurs reported increasing joy and elatedness (VAS), whereas professionals did not. However, both groups felt more energetic and relaxed after the singing lesson. The interviews showed that the professionals were clearly achievement-oriented, with focus on singing technique, vocal apparatus and body during the lesson. The amateurs used the singing lessons as a means of self-actualization and self-expression as a way to release emotional tensions. In summary, in this study, singing during a singing lesson seemed to promote more well-being and less arousal for amateurs compared to professional singers, who seemed to experience less well-being and more arousal.

It is obvious, then, that a community of crafters and artists is good for all. And that to simply consume and participate is as worthwhile as creating-to-earn; after all this study incidentally reiterates the Faustian bargain of success: professionals put so much into improving that they cease to enjoy as much as the amateurs. As an autistic, who only came into musical consciousness at 15, and despised school music classes, it may be odd that I recommend everyone sings. It isn’t for everyone, and I still resent my mother’s attempt to attenuate—or worse, fix—my autism. For most though, yes music and art are worthy. It is not doing oneself which manifests indifference or shyness or acted respect for art in galleries and tunes in albums. (‘I could do that! Well, you’re welcome to try!) I remember well how ‘noises’ bothered me, until one-day music took over my life, and on that day when I ventured to practice, it was condemnation from my autistic sibling—who hates any nonplanned noise—that impeded my progress. ‘Sounds horrible, horrible, horrible!’ A sad fact it is, that not having a space to sing or be who you want without teases and mocks, can preclude becoming someone you desire to be, someone whom you would more admire than the present version. Yet the point may be a personal one, it is a collective one too: everyone can benefit from more artistic creation as much as artistic consumption. Singing is the cheapest and most enjoyable way, that can get you, like Nina Simone and Memphis Minnie, through so much and give enough meaning, joy, and elation to life that you forget to ask the meaning or the point or the use – and that if anything is meaning in life, never the misleading ‘meaning of’.

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