I remember the moment that I realized that not everyone associates pictures with music.
It was in the early 1980’s, and I was driving an enormous Chevy Suburban cross country with a carload of co-workers. There wasn’t an extra inch of space in the vehicle, which was packed with cranky passengers and luggage, and the air conditioner wasn’t keeping up with the workload. We hit one of those desert stretches where the only radio stations were either Spanish language or brimstone-shouting preachers. The guy in the passenger seat—his first name was Dave, I’m pretty sure--asked if I had any tapes and I gestured toward the glove compartment. He pulled out one of my home-made cassette tapes out and popped it into the stereo, then groaned to find out it was classical music.
He was about to hit the eject button when someone in the back seat opined that it was “…better than nothing” so he let it play. It was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, possibly my favorite piece of classical music. I settled down for a very happy forty-ish minutes of driving and gave over my mind to images of galloping horses, fluttering butterflies and a particularly violent summer storm that gives way to birdsong and the fresh scent of clean air after a heavy rain has passed.
When it was over, I sighed, and said “I think my favorite part is the thunderstorm.”
Dave said, “Toni, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I laughed. “The storm. In the symphony. You know, the part with the big tympani drums. And the violins that sound like rain.”
Dave looked at me like I had a screw loose. “Violins don’t sound like rain. They sound like violins.”
Let me interject here that Dave was, at this time, a professional musician. Okay, so he played rock-and-roll guitar, not classical violin, but, seriously, the thunderstorm isn’t exactly subtle. So, I argued.
“Oh, come on, Dave. You seriously couldn’t hear thunder? Or when the birds started to sing after the storm passed?”
“There were birds?” Dave looked confused.
“Well, technically it was flutes and piccolos, but it makes you think of birds.”
“Not me.” Dave shook his head.
At a loss, I looked in the rearview mirror at our captive audience in the back seat. “You guys heard the birds, didn’t you? And the storm?”
To their credit, they squirmed a bit. Finally, one girl spoke. “It was really pretty,” she said. “But it was just music.”
I was gobsmacked. Seriously? None of them heard anything but musical instruments? To me, all music has imagery associated with it.
At the time of this trip, music videos were still in their infancy, so only a tiny percentage of songs came with their own pictures. You had to make up your own. Or not, apparently.
What brought this all back to me today was, believe it or not, was reading news about the upcoming Pearl Jam tour. I was thinking about the powerful and disturbing video for Jeremy, which won the Video of the Year award for the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. After such huge success, fans were perplexed when the band refused to make a video for Black, another song from the album. Vedder explained that he felt that music videos robbed fans of the opportunity to “come up with [their] own visions.”
I wanted to send him a letter and tell him not to bother. Apparently, without a music video, the average person isn’t capable of coming up with an image to go with a song.
I’ve asked a few people about this and they usually tell me that, of course, they have images to go with songs. When I then ask, “Is it the image from the music video?” each usually pauses and thinks about it. And most admit that it is.
Including me. Yup, when I hear Jeremy, I see the kids sitting frozen at school desks, splattered with blood. And, when I try to replace those images with others, I fail. If I hadn’t seen the video, would I be able to make my own pictures?
P.S. You can hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in its entirety here: