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A Magazine for Sheffield

The Art of Getting By

There’s a scene in Family Guy, that cultural behemoth of our times, where Peter Griffin addresses the camera directly in a TV segment he’s hosting called What Really Grinds My Gears. On this occasion, the issue is Lindsay Lohan’s sexualised body: “You're out there jumping around, and I'm just sitting here with my beer. So, what am I supposed to do? What do you want? Are we gonna go out?” Peter’s frustration isn’t caused by what’s being projected out to him; it’s working out what he’s supposed to do with something he can’t touch or affect in any way. Watching Sufjan Stevens perform Carrie & Lowell in its entirety at Bristol’s Colston Hall last month, I found myself wondering what we’re supposed to do with the album and, by extension, the performance. It’s a wonderful record, and it’s obviously been hugely therapeutic for Stevens, but what about the audience? What are we getting out of this? One reviewer compared the live experience to watching the first ten minutes of Disney Pixar’s Up – a kind of collective grief porn, where paying punters turn up expecting a cathartic experience and, sure enough, leave with their pockets stuffed full of wet tissues. But when he breaks into a soft falsetto to deliver the line, “I just want to be near you,” are we basking in the man’s grief for his deceased mother or choked up by a reminder of our own mortality? Of course, the question is reductive because we cannot do one without the other. When we hear a cry of anguish, it's human nature to feel a pang of our own, to recognise the horror of emotional as well as physical torment in another, even one not belonging to our own species. Similarly, we can experience terror watching a horror movie despite being perfectly safe, when the actions are clearly happening to someone else, an actor who is actually perfectly safe themselves. But the sound is enough. We hear an echo of our own tribulations in those howls and we refer to people who cannot as psychopaths. Music is a rarefied form in this arena, as it allows us to experience profound emotions without ever being exposed to the referent. We don't see or hear heartbreak, but often find it signposted by melody alone, while lyrics steer the listener further. In the case of Carrie & Lowell, the language of loss is matched to quiet, simple guitar and piano melodies, which makes sense to our brains and therefore adds a level of cohesive pleasure. We hear sad music, hear sad words, and therefore, if the art is well-crafted, we feel sad too. When the tones clash, such as the lyrics to Slipknot’s ‘People = Shit’ set to Richard Cheese’s lounge piano, it can produce hilarity. Sometimes, it can be even more poignant. Emmy the Great’s ‘We Almost Had a Baby’ springs to mind, that tale of rape set to a lilting country melody which somehow renders the song’s delivery even more devastating. Why put yourself through that? Perhaps because we need to practice grief and acceptance safely, in a controlled environment, like horror movie buffs who experience the adrenaline rush of an axe murderer on the loose without sustaining any nasty gashes themselves. These sessions also bring us out of our present lives a little, where we can look at the pasts of others, and contemplate our own through the relics they left behind. When Roland Barthes wrote his masterpiece, Camera Lucida, it was also in an attempt to discover his deceased mother through the documented past of photographs. “The photograph,” he wrote, “is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.” And that is ultimately all that we can do with grief - to allow it to touch us, while accepting that we can never reach back. )

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