Six Amazing Songs That Illustrate What it Means to Be Human

Dylan and friends

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Photos by Shht! and dcasey

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renée malfaux December 7, 2012 at 5:21 am

Rage Against the Machine, Killing In The Name Of. Not only because of the song itself but the story after. X Factor music unites humans as well. Purpose? Oh well… ;-)

Colleen December 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Incredible wisdom in their music. And it just makes ya feel good… Listening to “Rubber Soul has always been my remedy for a particularly crappy day.

Lizzie January 9, 2013 at 9:47 am

When I was 15 (Long time ago, HA) I painted all the lyrics to Hard Rain on my bedroom in dayglow paint.

Thank you for including this most amazing piece of poetry in your list.


Pppatticake January 12, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I love this post–so happy to meetnew music I didn’t know of. THANK YOU.

For me, one band, like REM had always done, continues to mystify and amaze me–Nada Surf. There are 6 songs by them in particular that can make a perfect list of six songs on humanness, but virtually their whole catalog of music for 20 years has been about being human. Here’s the stellar 6 thathave taken my breath away:

Always Love

The vocals are beautiful, the rock trio bombast is vital and the message is essential human yearning. One of the best anthems I have ever heard live–tis a thrill seeing grown men fist pumping yelling “Always Love” and ending with”hey you good ones!”

Killian’s Red

This song has a GeddyLee worthy bass part that beats like heart in anguish and is about trying to get through all the mire of relationship

“I almost love this town when you’re by my side.. ..”

See These Bones

I don’t even know what to say about this one–I saw a review of it by a British columnist and he said something to effect that he had never heard a song like this in his whole life–I felt the same way when I first heard it–dumbstruck from start to finish

Beautiful Beat

Music as the power to lift us from the “mess ” and “distress” of our lives–brilliant

Blonde on Blonde

Gorgeous meditation on our separateness amidst a city full of people, with Dylan as the soundtrack of our lives–how any person could not fall madly in love with this song is beyond me

Paper Boats

A song that plays like a great foreign film in my head–ahh the human connection, source of so many great songs–this is a good one.

I hope you enjoy these

Matt January 14, 2013 at 4:27 am

Dear David, You talk about a lot of great stuff on this site, but I must say I don’t like it when people discuss music and mainly mention just the lyrics. That’s really like considering only the visible part of an iceberg, as for in any Western music, the real unseen [& generally unheard] power in the music is the underlying harmony, beneath the melody [& lyrics.] Usually in rock music [which this thread seems to be limited to] and most other Western music, it’s the tonic-dominant relationship that brings about most tension & release in music. To speak frankly, you seem genuinely moved by certain pieces of music but dont really understand why. It’s probably certain poignant lyrics/textures/melody juxtaposed on subliminal yet deep & significant harmonies. Write about just the lyrics of a song? It’s similar to just commenting on the facade of a beautiful building. Also, when talking about songs, how about crediting [ie; mentioning] the songwriters/composers, who again are the major part of the ‘iceberg’ of the music. I much prefer your other posts where you seem to communicate a much deeper knowledge of your subject. Matt.

suzy September 13, 2013 at 6:29 am

Listening to Gimme Shelter is transcendent. It reminds me that i’m alive and that life is worth living. Also, Grace by Jeff Buckley. But good list man !!

Connie March 7, 2014 at 10:12 am

Salt Water- Julian Lennon

Carol Gannon June 7, 2014 at 3:11 pm

What about Leonard Cohen? His poetry and musical arrangements deeply touch my spirit. Great list.

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