a musical education #01: need

Every weekday I suffer through a snippet of easy listening '70s music in the bathroom at work (read the overly elaborate setup here). Why not turn a mild annoyance into an opportunity to educate myself, and yourself, by the transitive property, about the easy listening music of an earlier generation?

I'm not sure quite how well known Anne Murray is in the United States, but given that the 'Snowbirds' nickname for Canadian tourists is derived from the Anne Murray song, I imagine she's something of a lost household name down there. Although she hasn't released much music in the last decade, her hold on the Canadian imagination is still strong - some might even say relentless. But it's a Canadian relentlessness, a death grip that feels more like a friendly hand steadying itself on your shoulder. That's Anne Murray to me.

I also have a claim to fame regarding Murray: at the age of one or thereabouts, I sat on her knee. You might even say she dandled me upon that knee.

When I was young and unable to appreciate my great fortune at being able to wear diapers, my parents went to their fair share of parties. Their friends were the Halifax bohemian set: musicians, artists, liberal arts grad students and a guy named Bob who was pretty funny. Back in 1971-72, just when Anne Murray was becoming a celebrity by singing barefoot in Vegas with her unremarkable but smooth and controlled voice, she and my parents shared enough of an orbit that occasionally I would land on her knee for a good dandling.

The bathroom at work occasionally serenades me with me an Anne Murray tune or two. Most often it is her biggest hit: 1978's "You Needed Me".

By 1978 the sweetness that Murray brought to her performances had been shellacked over with a hard professionalized shell. "You Needed Me" is not only her most popular tune, it is emblematic of the very notion behind easy listening music: unchallenging, anodyne, utterly average. What else can you say about a song so literal-minded that the highest note of the chorus lands on the word "high?" Or a song whose climax occurs with the singer so "high" that she can "almost see eternity?" This is an implicitly Christian song, after all - why wouldn't the singer want to see eternity in all its splendor? Why go so close to the summit and turn back?

Part of this is grounded in an approach to the divine that can be found in Dante - the narrator of the Divine Comedy ascends the mountain of Heaven but is blinded by light at the moment that God appears. Presumably eternity and its God-shaped landscape is reserved for the dead, or at least the Elect of the dead. But I suspect the answer is a good deal more prosaic. Murray is a choir for that brand of worship whose apotheosis rests in the cozy feeling of being needed and reassured.

For those of you reading this on my Facebook feed, please visit my website at The Palinode to view the Anne Murray video.