6 Amazing Songs That Illustrate What It Means To Be Human

Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without. ~Confucius

I just took a look at CNN’s site and it was, as usual, boasting its favorite palette of troublesome nouns and verbs. Terror, death, murder, destruction, Bush. People do bad things sometimes; it’s not really news, I know. But contrary to popular notions, I think war, exploitation and violence are not the results of our differences. Rather, they are the result of our most pervasive similarity: that we all suffer, and none of us want to.

No, these ‘news’ items aren’t new. They are the same patterns of anguish that have recurred continually throughout all cultures, across all generations: lost love, fear, alienation, self-loathing and jealousy. Being human just hurts sometimes. Despite our surface differences, we’re all in the same boat. We all want the same two things: to fulfill our desires and to avoid suffering. These two motivations, and the behavior they inspire, comprise the human condition. There is nobody on this earth with whom you don’t have at least those two things in common.

Kris Krug
Kris Krug

Linguistic and cultural barriers keep us from recognizing these two universal similarities in others, but there is a human invention that can circumvent all that. Music has been touted as the universal language, not only because all cultures create and celebrate it, but because music expresses themes that are truly universal: beauty, love, pain, and everything else it means to be human. As a communication medium it is unmatched at conveying emotion.

I find it fascinating, but also completely unsurprising, that music has developed in every single human culture. There seems to be an immutable need in our very DNA for us to find some way of expressing ourselves in rhythm. I am not much of a dancer, but when I hear music I feel a very visceral, physical urge to move my body to it. Whether you believe we’re products of evolution or divine creation, there is no question that there exists within us a deeply-rooted need to let our emotions resonate with rhythm. It’s a language we all know.

Music unites us by telling stories with which we can all identify. We all know love. We all know heartbreak. We all know what they feel like, and what they sound like. Right at this moment, in every town in every country, there are people tapping their feet, sharing smiles, sobbing into their pillows, and falling in love to the sound of music.

I’ve compiled a short list of songs that, to me, embody the universal theme of what it means to be a living, breathing, loving and hurting human being.

Before you listen I have two requests.

First, I politely ask that you don’t ‘scan’ the songs, listening for a few seconds and then skipping to the next one. Listen or don’t listen. If you don’t have time right now, bookmark this post and listen later. Halfhearted listening is not listening. Pay attention to the words. These are people’s heartfelt stories.

And secondly, turn up the volume. This is imperative.

We’ll start off with something familiar.

“Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones

A dark testament to the desperate human need for security. Off 1969′s Let it Bleed, Gimme Shelter is a shining example of that visceral rock beat, and it happens to contain what I think is one of the coolest moments in rock: Merry Clayton’s incendiary vocal solo at 2:44. If you listen to nothing else on this page, listen to that. When her voice breaks at 3:03, you can hear the muffled cheer of someone behind the glass in the studio control room.

You can listen here.

Heinrich Klaffs
Heinrich Klaffs

“Folsom Prison Blues” – Johnny Cash

The most amazing part of this song is the crowd. Recorded in Folsom Prison, you can hear the unabashed gratitude in the captive audience. They’re elated to be there. Not to be doing time in prison, but to be there in that moment with the Man in Black, as he sings a little vignette of regret and shame. The rapport between the prisoners and Johnny — certainly no saint himself — is almost tangible in the sound. What a treat it must have been for an inmate, not just to see some precious live music for the first time in years, but to finally hear someone tell their story. You can hear it in their cheers: each one knows he’s not perfect, and that he’s not the only one.

You can listen here.

“Country Feedback” – R.E.M.

A dismal portrait of a burned-out love affair, Country Feedback illustrates the malignant, unhealthy nature of dependent relationships. Sometimes the clothes just don’t fit right anymore, and you need to be out. Makes my heart cave in like the plastic-bag kid from American Beauty.

You can listen here.

“My Body is a Cage” – The Arcade Fire

As I was parting with a friend after having a pint at a bar and grill, he handed me this album and told me to listen to it on the way home, but skip right to the last song. I was stunned, it blew me away. “My Body is a Cage” is a haunting portrayal of the agonies of self-consciousness and self-loathing. Most inspiring though, is the implicit promise that these problems can be overcome. The narrator knows he has the wisdom within him to escape, but for now he is in prison, locked away from his ability to love freely.

You can listen here.

“Lives” – Modest Mouse

Singer Isaac Brock opens with a fundamental truth about humanity: Everyone’s afraid of their own lives / If you could be anything you wanted, you’d be disappointed, am I right? He understands the Unhappiness Script; that our own Hell comes from inside ourselves. It’s hard to remember we’re alive for the first time, and simultaneously we’re alive for the last time. Why fight this?  I like this.

You can listen here.

Chris Hakkens
Chris Hakkens

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – Bob Dylan

Saved the best for last. I know I’m prone to hyperbole, but I think this may be the most poignant illustration of humanity my ears have ever heard. This is not Dylan’s most well-known song, but I think it’s a masterpiece.

With gut-wrenching lines like I met a white man, he walked a black dog, and I met a young woman, her body was burning, a young Bob Dylan revealed his profound insight into humanity’s illnesses. He just observed human nature at work, and echoed it back in crystal clear poetry.

You can listen here.

Readers, I would love to hear the songs that speak humanity to you. When I’ve got enough suggestions, I’ll find and embed the songs in a new post.

Rock on friends, our future may depend on it. Thought Catalog Logo Mark



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