Singing along

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By Matthew Ralph

They sing so you don’t have to. That was the sarcastic response a friend of mine in college would belt out whenever he’d catch me singing along a little too loud or enthusiastically to the stereo.

He had a point, but that didn’t stop me then and doesn’t stop me now from singing along to my favorite songs. Heck, I even try to sing along to Sigur Ros sometimes when the mood is right. Most of the time I screw up the words to songs anyway so singing along with a guy who actually isn’t singing anything isn’t too much of a stretch for me.

My wife, of course, doesn’t always appreciate my singing. She often reminds me that she is aware of the song I have in my heart and that she appreciates it, just not all of the time.

I sing a lot during the day, usually from the moment the pop radio station wakes me up to the moment right before I go to sleep. It’s often something catchy and good like the refrain in Wilco’s “Impossible Germany,” or anyting on The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” album, but more often than not it’s the chorus of whatever Rod Stewart or Phil Collins song woke me up that morning. I’m really not particularly picky when it comes to the songs I sing during my day. I’ve been known to regularly belt out what I like to call growly-voiced Creed imitations I’ve heard on road trips when K-LOVE was the only station the car radio would pick up.

But as much as I love singing and don’t mind public embarassment on elevators or in grocery store aisles, I often hesitate to join the chorus of voices that are often singing along at rock shows. When I was in high school and wanted to separate myself from the other casual fans and people I considered posers I would mouth the words to the songs I knew to prove to those around me that I knew more than just the music video I had seen on 120 Minutes or the single that received regular rotation on Y100. When the crowd would go crazy singing along to “Cut Your Hair” at a Pavement show or “Sometimes Always” at a Jesus and Mary Chain show I would cross my arms and quiety judge everyone. They sing so you don’t have to, I would say to myself.

Now that I’m older and spend way less time going to see bands play I’m less sensitive about those who choose to sing along from the crowd. In fact, I often find myself enjoying the site of some stranger singing along more than I do watching some of the boring musicians I have seen over the years standing there mostly without any expression as they perform. One of my favorite and more memorable concert-going moments in recent years was at a Damien Jurado show watching a completely ecstatic guy from Sweden dancing and yelling the words to “Like Titanic” as a much more subdued Jurado sang from the stage at the Khyber Pass Pub in Philadelphia.

Just the other night, I was spellbound by a bearded man in the front row mouthing the words to Jamie Barnes’ “Harp of the Fool.” I had heard the song dozens of times before and even seen the Louisville singer/songwriter perform it on a couple of occasions. But as I watched this perfect stranger sing it and followed his intense facial expression as he mouthed the words “But the harder I fall the more that victory seems further away,” the song had a much richer and more meaningful connection. I’ve listened to the song a half dozen times since and I still get that guy’s face out of my head.

In that moment, it no longer mattered that I was standing way too close to the speaker and that the opening act played too long. I felt a connection to the performer, the song and the crowd around me that can’t be recreated in a digital download.

Maybe my friend was wrong, after all. Maybe they sing so you can too. And maybe when we sing along, we inspire others to let down their guard, to shed their fear of embarrassment or ridicule, forget the music review they are going to write on their blog later and tap into the power of redemptive art, creative passion and off-line community.

Photo by Michael Ralph

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