On March 29, Janet Jackson visited the Fabulous Fox Theatre, a historic landmark and terrific concert venue in the heart of my adopted hometown of Atlanta. What happened there that night is something I never want to lose sight of when I comment on music. Music is fuel for the soul, and a mirror for society.
Looking at today’s music scene, I see and hear a lot of disgruntled, grumpy folks in the background. I hear the muttering from all corners of the media landscape. So-and-so can’t really sing. Those lyrics don’t mean anything. These music videos are gratuitous and pandering. Why can’t X’s music be more like Y? Z doesn’t have any talent and shouldn’t be on the radio. And on and on.
The catfights are the worst, as you might expect. Rihanna vs. Beyonce. Janet vs. Madonna. Lady Gaga vs. Christina Aguilera. Whitney and Mariah. Pink and Katy Perry. Fans clash in heated YouTube exchanges. Tempers flare on fly-by-night amateur fan pages. It’s quite the messy situation.
But when you’re in a theater with thousands of fans, watching a living legend recreate hit after hit on stage in front of you, the perspective really kicks in. The power of music is not in its ability to alienate, but in its ability to unite and to heal. In its ability to make people feel. Its ability to make people remember. To make people relate. To each other and themselves.
I don’t give a rat’s patootie how many octaves Mariah can sing. What I relate to is how she made me groove when she Autotuned herself telling off Eminem in “Obsessed,” and how she generated empathic heartbreak when she sang “Butterfly.”
And since music is in the business of making us feel, and we all feel differently, we’re all going to resonate at different frequencies. That’s why something that sounds like nonsense and noise to you sounds like the gospel to someone else.
The nonsense and noise you hear aren’t bad; they are someone else’s good. The nonsense and noise mean that you have an opportunity to broaden your horizons, to get as close as you can to experiencing someone else’s truth without jumping into his skin. Which is different than jumping on his back.
The easiest way to start thinking this way is to start at your own personal ground zero. My personal ground zero is the Janet concert, where thousands of people felt her spirit, in unison. We were united, we were healed. We felt, remembered, and related; we connected the songs to our own pasts and the pasts of the stranger in the next seat.
It’s easy to talk about being a part of the Rhythm Nation at a Janet show. But the truth is that music, as the aphorism proclaims, is the universal language, and that we all, Janet fans or not, are part of a nation of like-minded individuals, sharing our humanity in the music we love, and in the music we make.