How can music help us process grief during an epidemic?
In A Feast During the Plague, Pushkin’s characters turn to song as a way of enhancing their celebrations. After they drink to the death of one of their friends, Walsingham requests that Mary sing “…something sad and haunting, / To make us turn again to our merrymaking / With a wilder spirit, like one who is seized / And carried away by some unearthly vision” (28-31). The desire to enliven the party contrasts with an impulse to connect with a mournful and “unearthly” song, but to Walsingham, these two ideas are not contradictory; he is claiming that depressing music will actually lift the group’s spirits. Not all of the partygoers agree on this: later one of them requests that Walsingham sing “a bold and lively song …. A rowdy song, a song in Bacchus’s mode / One inspired by foaming goblets!” (126-129). But even though Walsingham does respond with a song that centers around drinking and partying, he is reluctant to identify it as such, and initially introduces it, sarcastically, as “a hymn in honor of the Plague” (131).
In our modern age of music consumption, where we can stream high-quality performances at the click of a button, we have a very different relationship with music than Pushkin’s cast, but when it comes down to it, we still face the same issue as Walsingham and his drinking buddies: what kind of song will make us feel better when nothing else in the world makes sense? Today our soundtrack options extend far beyond the melodic memory of our peers. The pandemic may have strangled the live music industry, but it also produced a plethora of online performances, accessible to a wider number of people than a single concert. Not every project hit the mark—when Gal Gadot assembled a celebrity lineup to sing a jarringly off-key rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the video became a running joke online and an example of the disconnect between upper class and lower class experiences of the pandemic. But other pieces resonated and made more positive waves across the internet.
For two wildly different examples of successful pandemic music projects, I point you to Taylor Swift’s folklore and Bo Burnham’s “Inside” — one project a lush journey through interwoven storylines inspired by the songwriter’s escape into movies during the pandemic, the other a dark comedy reflecting upon social isolation in a hyperconnected age. In some ways, the difference between folklore and “Inside” reminds me of the difference between Mary and Walsingham’s songs in A Feast During the Plague : one functions through escapism, the other through a sort of brazen comedy. Rather than force the parallel, though, I want to return to my initial question about grief. Swift and Burnham, in different ways, both appeal to young audiences who are grieving not only for the loss of life around them, but the loss of their youth, their future, and their planet. Neither project explicitly centers around themes of illness or death, but perhaps it is because of this that they are impactful for so many people. They offer an opportunity to both reflect and escape. I don’t think Pushkin’s priest would have anything good to say about them. But in a time when so many of us essentially curate soundtracks for our daily life, music strikes me as a crucial part of our communal grieving rituals, and it makes a difference when it has been produced in the same cultural moment that we are struggling through.