I made one of those interesting, obvious-in-retrospect discoveries while I was working out yesterday.
I don’t have a health-club membership — between careful money management (they tend to be a bit pricey) and the runaround I’ve gotten from health-club salespeople in the past, I just haven’t taken that route. What I do have is a nomth-long pass to the brand-new fitness room at the Stribley Community Center, about a half-mile from home. I walk or drive — usually walk — down there every day, Tuesday through Saturday (they’re closed Sundays and Mondays), and spend about twenty minutes of quality time with the bench press, the dumbbells and the elliptical trainer. I’m really out of shape, so twenty minutes a day was all I could manage at the start without hurting myself. I’m planning to nudge it toward thirty next month — baby steps.
But when I went in there last night, something was off. It was too quiet.
See, one of the lesser features in the room is a boombox propped up in a corner by one of the bench presses. It’s usually tuned to one of the local “urban” stations (for those of you not familiar with radio-industry terminology, “urban” means “music created and performed mostly by African-Americans”), which makes sense as Stribley is in a largely Black and Hispanic neighborhood. So when you go into the fitness room, you can expect a steady diet of Jay-Z, Beyonce, John Legend and their peers — unless someone has tuned it to the “urban oldies” station (music created and performed mostly by African-Americans 25-40 years ago), in which case you’re getting a whole lotta Rick James. I’m not really partial to these artists — my tastes run more to Jars of Clay and Fred Hammond — but other people in there really, and I wouldn’t want them slamming my musical choices, so I won’t cap on theirs.
Yesterday, I was a couple of minutes into my workout, and it was harder than usual. I couldn’t seem to get a rhythm going, I was having trouble focusing on the task at hand … it took me a few seconds of thought to realize the problem. Someone had turned down the music, almost to zero.
Well, I decided a little experiment was in order. I asked the two women on the treadmills (the only other people in there at the time) if they minded me turning it up. They didn’t, so I set it at a moderate level — if you’ve read my Congregational Journey posts, you know I’m not a big fan of loud noise — and hopped on the elliptical trainer. It was like night and day. Suddenly, I got into a rhythm, got moving along at a good clip, the minutes were flying by … my right knee even hurt less than usual as I finished up. It was amazing.
And it got me to thinking about this power music has over us, even music we’re not necessarily partial to. Why does life always seem better, more complete when it has a soundtrack? TV and movie producers know this, as do the owners of retail outlets, who always have Muzak or some variation thereof playing to improve sales. (Sometimes with hilarious effects — one of the local malls plays hits from the ’80s, and every time I go in there I feel like I’m having some weird flashback to high school. It’s very strange to be toddling with your preschool son into Barnes & Noble and realize the song playing over your head is “Pop Life” by Prince. I mean, I liked that song when I was 16, but it’s a bizarre little number. And now that’s supposed to make me want to spend more money?!?) But why does it work?
I think there are two connected reasons for this. One is that we always have music of a sort playing inside us. Our heartbeat, our breathing, the release of hormones and other chemicals in our systems, all operate according to their own rhythms, rhythms we’re usually unconscious of until one of them stops or loses the beat. Of course we react naturally to rhythms around us — we humans are creatures of beats, in a way. That’s how we’re built.
And we’re also built to worship. We all recognize some things as being above ourselves, things we devote ourselves to, whether they be gods or political ideals or “the next American Idol“. Even atheists do this — I know a few, so I can vouch. And one of the ways we show our devotion, instinctively, is by singing to and about it. It’s universal; every culture uses music in its spiritual experiences, and most use it to raise other things to the level of spiritual experience as well. Leon Russell once said that rock & roll was an artificially induced religious experience, and he was more right than I suspect he knew. All music is at bottom an act of worship of something, a plug stuck into the socket of the supernatural. We do this because, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we feel the need to. And when we don’t, our life feels incomplete.
So now I’m sitting at home, typing this while playing the album Me Died Blue by Steven Delopoulos (which I highly recommend checking out) and grooving along as I write. Everybody needs a good soundtrack, I figure. And everyone needs devotion, too — as another famous rocker (Bobby Dylan) put it, you gotta serve somebody …