‘Are you turning into a marshmallow?’ asked Sarah the other night. The answer is probably Yes. I seem to cry more easily as I get older. What’s curious though is what makes me cry. It’s not so much the things that cause me sorrow as those that bring me joy. And that joy, I suspect, is something that springs from a deep sense of connection.
Here’s a case in point. Dark Angel and creative thinker, Faye Sharpe, wrote about happiness this week in her excellent blog, The Secret Archaeologist. She included the link to a YouTube clip of Oprah Winfrey interviewing Pharrell Williams, whose viral hit video of his song Happy prompted a worldwide outpouring of homemade happiness movies, ordinary people dancing along to his song.
During the interview Oprah shows the singer a compilation of these clips and Pharrell begins to cry. So does Oprah. So did I. As Oprah observes, what’s happening is a pure heart-to-heart connection. A single individual lays themselves open in an act of creative expression and a spontaneous, universal connection ensues.
A few days previously I’d been to see Twenty Feet From Stardom, the recent Oscar-winning documentary about the handful of legendary female backing singers who helped define the sound of artists such as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Michael Jackson and many others. Early on in the film, three elderly black women arrive in a recording studio, arrange themselves around the microphone and, unrehearsed, deliver a flawless acapella version of one of those familiar Phil Spector hits from the ’60s. ‘Last time we were together was thirty-five years ago,’ quips one of them gleefully.
Their evident delight in their own performance and each other’s company was enough to bring forth a tear. But there was something else that caught me in the solar plexus and summoned a reflexive sob. It was the raw emotional power of those three blended voices.
The same thing happened at several other moments during that film, as it did with early footage of Aretha Franklin in another recent and brilliant documentary, Muscle Shoals, which tells the story of the small-town recording studio in rural Alabama that became an unlikely hit factory in the ’70s. I reacted the same way too during the recent series of The Voice, to which I’m unashamedly addicted (and not only on account of the delectable Kylie; Sally Barker, one of the two runners-up, is a founder member of a group of multi-talented folk musicians, The Poozies, who have played in our village hall more than once).
Music generally has always brought me more joy than anything else, but I realise increasingly that it’s the human voice that really reaches me – and not merely through technical virtuosity, although that’s a given. It’s the authenticity, the nakedness, the truth of the vocal performance that can penetrate my defences in a moment and connect me to something transcendent.
It can happen with the spoken word, too. In one of the exercises we run on our courses, people write a spontaneous poem about a loved one. When they come to read it out – and only then – they may find themselves choking up, the tears starting to flow, as the emotion in the poem is given a physical voice.
As I write, I have swarming images of many mouths forming many different sounds, from Merry Clayton with her screaming solo on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter to Lisa Fischer and her ghostly almost-whisper during a Sting rehearsal. But whatever the setting, the message is the same: this is the most unadulterated possible expression of what it is to be human. No wonder it makes me feel connected. No wonder it fills my heart and makes me cry.