At the start of spring, and after a long winter, the human sensorium enters a new cycle of perception. This ‘tuning’ of sensual experiences and its rhythmic orchestration are perfectly represented in music culture. In this blog post I pick up from our festive 2020 ‘Touched by Music’ post, and explore how some of the songs from our Spotify Touch Playlist create meaning from our everyday tactile experiences.
I use the term ‘music’ as the union of diverse expressive and representational forms, such as musical sound, words and body performances. In keeping with the communicative and digital focus of the InTouch project, this post explores realisations of touch in sensory-perceptual and social contexts.
My main focus is on the lyrics, but with attention to the visual and acoustic ‘scenery’ that create different possibilities for musical tactility. I follow some of the different contexts and ponder over the notions and functions of touch that thread their way through the playlist.
Touch as acts of creation, formation & verification
It is obvious from the first that music culture pays special attention to touch as the very first sense.
The act of touch is found as a main actor in the vital processes of creation and genesis:
Kenickie – How I Was Made: When I was made / The good Lord rubbed my face / To give it shape / He formed a callous / That’s how my face was made… / When I was made/ The good Lord streched / My skin across a frame / Like canvas / That’s how my sense is numb.
Touching others and oneself serves as a verification or proof of existence and nourishes belief:
Frankie Laine: Every time I hear a newborn baby cry / or touch a leaf / or see the sky / Then I know / why I believe.
Moby: Everytime you touch me I feel like I’m being born / Everytime you touch me I feel like I need some more. (See skin and touch-based imagery below).
K’s Choice:Touch the fingers of my hand / And I wonder if it’s me / Holding on and on to theories of prosperity / Someone who can promise me / I believe in me.
Touch ‘firings’: connection, interaction, communication & exploration
Taken in functional terms, touch is considered as a fundamental tool for connection. The meaning ascribed to bodily sensations is a highly appreciated character: Electric Six reflects on this cybernetic dimension of touch with the lyrics Danger, danger /High voltage /When we touch, when we kiss.
An intense sensation of touch is a main concern of My Morning Jacket: Oh! This feeling it is wonderful! Don’t you ever turn it off! / Oh my, human needs, heartbeats… / I am with it! Ooh man I am wired!
For the band Easter, the focus in ‘The Softest Hard’ is on the nature of tactile feedback in the process of touching: You touch it on the surface, it’s reacting to your hand / A kind of symbiosis I will never understand / You got that magnetism with you, is it in you glance / Or something that you brought back with you from the foreign land? / When I’m sleeping in the softest hard is taking place.
GFOTY directs attention to the ecstatic experience of bodily interaction: I like it when we kiss with a tongue (Tongue into tongue, warm like a gun) / Muscle of fun, inside my mouth (Forever young, fit like we run).
An impact of connection is quite often associated with safety. Diana Ross echoes the refrain of security: Every time you touch me / I become a hero / I’ll make you safe, / no matter where you are.
And Laurie Anderson pleads to be held in her mother’s arms:
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms / In your automatic arms. / Your electronic arms. / In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms / Your petrochemical arms / Your military arms / In your electronic arms.
Affectional bonding provides connection, but sometimes touch leads to more addictive attachments. Avicii tells this as a story of tactile flow: You came into my crazy world / Like a cool and cleansing wave / Before I, I knew what hit me, baby / You were flowing through my veins / I’m addicted to you.
Meanwhile, a lover’s abandonment for Annie Lennox feels like the experience of ‘walking on broken glass’.
Tactile metaphors like these seem to be a common tool for expressing and conceptualising emotional experiences. Metaphorical touching provides in-depth communication while enables a meaningful sharing of feelings:
Thompson Twins: Hold me now / Warm my heart.
Phil Collins: Somehow you reach in and you touch my heart / Somehow you reach in, you touch my soul.
Alabama: We share our hearts, our souls, and our minds / When we make love.
Miley Cirus: And I feel you coming through my veins / Am I into you or is it the music to blame?
Other songs show how communicating through touch can affect someone at an emotional and mental level.
Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa: I just wanna feel your skin on mine / Feel your eyes do the exploring.
Michael Bolton: Baby, show me what you feel / Come to me, show me somethin’ real / I need to know, I need you completely / Closer baby closer, come on let’s begin… / Need to reach the very deepest part of you.
You got the touch: motion, coordination & control
Touching also plays an important role in problem-solving. It creates possibilities for coordination and helps to establish control:
Stan Bush: You got the heart / You got the motion / You got the power / You know that when things get too tough / You got the touch
Peter Gabriel sings about touch feedback as a resource to experience flesh flow and engagement: The time I like is the rush hour, ‘cos I like the rush / The pushing of the people, I like it all so much / Such a mass of motion, do not know where it goes / I move with the movement and … I have the touch.
The desire to feel motion, resistance and extreme sensations is another common context of touch in music:
Lady Gaga: I want your drama, the touch of your hand / I want your leather-studded kiss in the sand / want your love, love, love, love.
Peter Gabriel: Pull my chin, stroke my hair, scratch my nose, / hug my knees / Try drink, food, cigarette, the tension will not ease / I tap my fingers, fold my arms, breathe in deep, cross my legs / Shrug my shoulders, stretch my back.
Soul Asylum: I need somebody to shove / I want somebody to shove me.
PJ Harvey: Rub it better, ’til it bleeds.
Salt and Pepper: Ah push it / push it good / now push it real good!
Remembering touch: mediation through experience and the call of distant touch
Touch is often associated with hands. However, music videos reveal a broad spectrum of experiential resources and proximities for touch – from locomotion to mediation.
For example, Daft Punk remembers through touch memoirs: Touch, I remember touch / Pictures came with touch / A painter in my mind / Tell me what you see.
Kate Bush performs an invititation to touch where a simultaneous involvement of sight, hearing and dance creates tactile landscape for distant touch: Ooh, let me have it / Let me grab your soul away.
Music and touch cultures share common characteristics. They function based on combined resources and both of them represent the sum of this totality. They interact with each other, create an experience and, at the same time, are the experience itself.
This blog post demonstrated a small selection examples showing how different notions of touch are represented in songs. It aimed to show how focusing on touch in music provides a useful opportunity to reflect on well-established notions of touch in social science (such as: communication, power, sexuality, deprivation, addiction, healing, security, creativity, and so forth). These songs invite us to observe the relationship between sense-perception, emotion and thought.
As touch and music are some of the most expressive forms for love, I would like to end citing Plato:
Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet. At a time when we are missing loved ones and the freedoms to touch, it is worth thinking on Kylie’s invitation: Can’t you see there’s so much here to feel? …through music.