Yesterday, I was struck by a friend’s Facebook post that linked to a video of a Grammy-winning song, a standout from a relatively unknown artist—at least unknown to me. My friend warned me that I’d need to have tissues on hand. He was right; I cried my eyes out.
After I pulled myself together, I had to ask the big “Why” question: why did I have such a visceral reaction to the song?
Before reading on, you might want to watch the video yourself.
If you felt as I did, then the song had emotional resonance for you. But why? For most of us, the books, songs, movies, and art that sticks with us well beyond the reading, listening, or viewing, are works that go to the heart, not the head. The resonance seems to start with something in the DNA of the narrative that is genuinely authentic for us, words, images or a melody that we know are true. In my case, I’ve been married to the love of my life for decades. Or maybe, it’s because I lost my father at too young an age and my mother to suicide, So it seems the notions of love and loss struck a powerful responsive chord with me. Then there’s the song title, Where’ve You Been. As you heard in the video, songwriter Don Henry heard those actual words spoken by his grandmother to her near-to-death husband of sixty years. As listeners, we know that somebody actually uttered those poignant words at a transcendent moment. We know it’s true deep in our gut that at some time we all lose the people most near and dear to us…a reminder that we need to make the most of our time with them, rather than looking back with regrets.
Then there’s the question of the question embedded in the title Where’ve You Been. That’s a big one. In an earlier post of mine, Questionology: The Powerful Science of Great Questions, I talked about how great questions tap into our souls and demand a verbal or emotional response. In the case of listening to the song, for me, the response was a wellspring of sentimental tears. There’s also an appealing ambiguity to that question, Where’ve You Been. It could mean, “Where’d you go while you were away from me?” “Where have you been all my life?” “What’s been your life’s journey?” “Are you somewhere else and will you come back to me?” Choose one or write your own. We fit the question to our own personal experiences.
So, we have authentic words uttered and a powerful question. What’s the glue that brings it all together? I believe it’s the story so beautifully and briefly told in the lyrics and amplified by Henry’s pre-amble, which gives us a glimpse into his creative process. I’m endlessly fascinated by the power of stories to draw us into another place, another world, and alter our emotional states. Maybe that’s why I became a writer—I love to read, watch, and tell stories. If you ever do public speaking or even just converse with friends and you say, “Let me tell you a story,” you will grab their attention immediately. We all want to hear a story, to be entertained, to be taken beyond ourselves.
Finally, there is transcendence, the rare and wondrous experience of listening to a story that combines all the elements mentioned above. It’s a Gestalt in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, and the resulting magic elevates us to another plane. After a few refrains of Where’ve You Been, you’re immersed in the life story of a long-married couple— how they met, their life together, and the final eternal binding of their souls. I can name several, and yet too few, creative works that have had a similar effect on me. Those that transcend all seem to contain emotionally real words, a question, a well-told story, and some indescribable magic. That’s why they win Grammy’s, Oscars and Pulitzers and somehow, we all know why, deep in our gut.
What songs, films, books, music, or art have created that transcendent emotional experience for you? Whether it’s Led Zeppelin, Lady Gaga or Liszt, please share in the comments below, and we can all enjoy them. I’ll add some of mine to yours.