One thing I noticed while in Italy this summer was the amount of whistling I heard wherever we went. I even jotted it down in my notebook of things to not forget: “Italians love to whistle.” It makes sense. We associate Italy with a culture of a slower pace, a relaxed atmosphere, a take-it-as-it-comes, let-it-slide-off-your-back, just-have-a-glass-of-wine, laissez faire style of living. And it feels like that, sort of, particularly when you hear the whistling, which seems inherently appropriate to somewhere like Italy. This is the country that invented the phrase “il dolce far niente”, or as you Eat Pray Love fans (or Italian-speakers) know, “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
I remembered this as I read an article the other day on why whistling songs play well in hard times, noting the recent rise of music that has the same upbeat nature of the whistle. Cheerful music is dominating the mainstream. And we Americans have a hard-knock life these days, or hadn’t you heard? Unlike the protest songs of the late 60’s that reflected the swelling unrest of the masses, we’re gravitating toward the happy-go-lucky tunes of young, possibly delusional, artists that seem to just want to celebrate life. The delusion is the contention of the article—that “There is an expression for this sort of thing, an idiom for the blissful notion that things will be okay, even as reality suggests it could easily work out otherwise: It’s called ‘whistling in the dark.'”
The song that the article and everyone else is talking about, which was named by more than one outlet as the song of summer 2011, is “Pumped Up Kicks” by LA-born Foster the People. And happy-sounding it is, even though the chorus involves the line “you’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet.” No one seems to care about that part, they just want to drive with the top down to it. (Okay, maybe a little delusional.)
Once I started thinking about it—about the idea that we’re all now attracted to light and playful sounds—I started hearing them everywhere. And they do seem pervasive; it’s possible that the vast majority of new music, ie. the stuff that I’ve heard most in the recent years of national adversity, is peppy. There was that song that seemed to be everywhere in 2008, Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” that is hard not to smile to. There’s all the bouncy commercial music that has ruined certain artists for me, like Feist, whose tunes I can’t hear without picturing an Apple product. I was thinking about this as I went to a concert the other night for a new and swiftly rising band, Mates of State, whose bubbly So-Cal tracks make them sound like they’re just having so much fun. (Incidentally, in person, they decorate their stage in blue skies, fluffy lit-up clouds, leaves and bright flowers, but in a totally adorable, non-contrived way.) I was thinking about this at work, streaming Pandora, which telepathically started playing Never Shout Never’s “Happy”. And I was thinking about this when I found Paulo practicing a song he was planning on playing at a memorial service: “Shine” by Phish’s Trey Anastasio. All music that conjures thoughts of sunny days.
But I take issue with the idea that this “whistling” culture, this giddy music means that American artists are trying to suppress the anxiety around them, or even pretend it’s not there. Suppose it’s just melodic optimism. Listening to this kind of music is comforting. It’s fun. It’s not for everyone, but for those it is for, it is not ignorance or delusion, it’s just a healthy escape. When I am having a particularly long day at work, I turn this kind of music on and have what we call a 5 o’clock dance party. And it gets my blood pumping and pushes me through. These songs aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. In these days of too much work and not enough money, of rock-bottom frustration and very few luxuries, these songs are giving us permission to bask in the rare, carefree, brief sweetness—even if it’s just a moment—of having nothing that we have to do.