How Music Is a Catalyst for Renewal, Recovery, and Rebirth

Songs that helped me evolve into young adulthood still regenerate decades later.

Posted Apr 24, 2019

Are there any particular songs you associate with breaking free, getting out of a rut, or opening your eyes to a new way of viewing the world?  

 Christopher Bergland
This photograph is a self-portrait of Christopher Bergland from 1986 when he was a student at Hampshire College.
Source: Christopher Bergland

Over Easter Weekend, I wrote a post that traced the genesis of my firm belief in “oneness.” While writing that post, I realized that the song, “In the Garden” by Van Morrison—which was released in the summer of 1986 when I was living near Santa Fe, New Mexico—played a pivotal role in shaping my worldview as an adult. In this song, Morrison recites the lyrics, “No guru, no method, no teacher, just you and I and nature,” repeatedly, like a mantra.

Back in the summer of '86, I was a 20-year-old Hampshire College student who had left the East Coast because I wanted to live in the desert with a soulmate, who was also my yoga instructor. As you can see in the photo above, from the outside, I looked like a very cliché Hampshire student—in a "Jarret's Room" kind of way. In these Saturday Night Live skits, Jimmy Fallon wears a wig with blond dreadlocks and "Skypes" from a fictitious Hampshire College dorm room.

Sadly, my alma mater is on the verge of financial collapse. A few days ago, the Washington Post updated the school's current state of affairs, “‘It’s Precarious’: Can Hampshire College’s Experiment in Higher Education Survive?” The prospect of Hampshire College closing makes me nostalgic and causes me to reminisce, which is the main reason I'm writing this post. 

Like many people, I find Erik Erikson’s eight stages of social-emotional development (1956) helpful when I look back through the rear-view mirror at my life and try to figure out what factors (including songs) influenced various choices I've made in the past that put me on the path to where I am today.

Because I have an 11-year-old daughter now, much of my motivation for deconstructing various factors that influenced my own stages of "social-emotional development” when I was her age is to refresh gut-feelings of how she's probably feeling from day to day. Revisiting music that I was listening to when I was my daughter's age is like accessing a time capsule that puts me back in a headspace from my youth and helps me relate to her adolescent mindset.

When I was in the eighth grade, we used a textbook in English class called Renewal, Recovery, Rebirth that I’ve tried to track down over the years but cannot seem to find anywhere. As I recall, the book was an anthology of classic poems, short stories, and folk song lyrics about how the seasonal cycles of nature mirror stages of development and personal growth. (For example, it included the lyrics to “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell.) As a kid, it always seemed like the editors of this textbook purposely curated a wide range of material from previous generations that was designed to help students navigate adolescence and coming of age.

Having an “academic” school textbook that referenced “pop music" my mom played on the 8-track in our station wagon was a mind-boggling interdisciplinary concept to me in the late 1970s. My mother is a huge Joni Mitchell fan and her albums were always in heavy rotation as I was growing up.

A few days ago—after I opened up the “where-when-what-and-whomemory box of the first time I heard the "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher" album by Van Morrison back in 1986—my brain instantly started making associations to all the other music I was listening to during that era. Two other classic albums from 1986 are "So" by Peter Gabriel and "Back in the High Life" by Steve Winwood. 

If you are an older adult now, when you think back to the year you turned 20, can you make a mental list of significant songs from that time in your life? Are there any themes that this music represents? Is there a particular lyric that sums up how you felt during this stage of social-emotional development? (If you need help jogging your memory to recollect what songs were popular during specific years from your past, the Billboard Chart Archives chronicle every year since 1958.)

According to Erikson, the 19-20 age range marks a transition phase between adolescence and young adulthood when one's “psychosocial crisis” typically evolves from “Identity vs. Role Confusion” to “Intimacy vs. Isolation.” The “existential questions” during this transitional phase of development range from “Who am I? Who can I be?" to “Can I love?”

In March of 1986, two songs were released on the same Tuesday that ended up changing the trajectory of my life and helped me answer "Who I was," "Who I could be," and "If I could love." How do I know it was a Tuesday? While I was a student at Hampshire College, I did an internship at Billboard magazine and have always followed music charts closely. Back in the day, record labels dropped all new music on Tuesday to help Billboard keep their week-to-week charts standardized.

One of my favorite weekly rituals used to be going to the record store every Tuesday and heading straight for the “New Arrivals.” Disappointingly, in 2015, Spotify decided that new music should come out on Friday and not Tuesday and poof: a decades-long tradition went up in smoke.

Truth be told, in an era of digital downloads, it really doesn’t matter what day of the week music is released because there isn't much of a time-and-place memory attached to the three seconds it takes to upload a song into my smartphone. That said, to this day, I can vividly remember the record-buying experience and specific stores where I purchased almost all of my favorite vinyl records. 

In the spring of 1986, I was in Amherst, Massachusetts when I purchased two singles at my best-loved record shop on Main Street. These songs became catalysts for renewal, recovery, rebirth and my transition from adolescence to young adulthood. The two songs were “No One Is to Blame” by Howard Jones and “Live to Tell” by Madonna.

As a gay teen, I was subjected to some traumatizing homophobia and marginalization in the early 1980s that filled me with a toxic blend of crippling insecurity and anger. For some reason, I always identified with the protagonist in “No One Is to Blame” as someone who was being treated like an outsider in the same way I'd experienced in high school.

In this song, Jones sings: “You can dip your foot in the pool, but you can’t have a swim, You’re the fastest runner, but you're not allowed to win. The insecurity is the thing that won’t get lost." Like most pop-music lyrics, these words don't sound nearly as profound on the written page as they feel when you hear them while engrossed by the whole song. 

In my adolescent brain, these lyrics flipped all the right switches in terms of reframing my self-defeating and downtrodden explanatory style. This song helped me realize that even though members of the LGBTQ community are often treated like second-class citizens legislatively, that I could be a trailblazer as a gay athlete and break stereotypes—even if I still felt timid and scared inside.

The song also helped me break free of a victimhood mindset by realizing that “no one was to blame” for my life circumstances and the fact that I was gay. Also, hearing another guy admit that the “insecurity is the one thing that won't get lost” helped me realize that other men were insecure, too. This sense of solidarity helped me muster up the courage to “fake it till you make it.” 

There’s also a line in the song where Jones sings, “You can see the summit, but you can’t reach it." This visualization inspired me to make a vow that I would never be “that guy” in terms of allowing fear to stop me from being bold and achieving my goals. 

The lyrics and whole vibe of “Live to Tell” made me want to explore new territory by heading West. Near the middle of this song, there's an instrumental break that builds just before Madonna sings, “If I ran away, I’d never have the strength to go very far. How would they hear the beating of my heart?” Surprisingly, this pithy line from a pop song was a profound call-to-action for me as an adolescent about to enter adulthood. I realized that as part of a rite of passage, I needed to head into the unknown "wilderness" and stop playing it safe by staying nestled in my womb-like East Coast existence.

As someone from the East Coast, I’d never felt compelled to explore the American West until I spent a few days driving around in my beat-up Volvo 240 DL station wagon late at night listening to “Live to Tell” in the spring of 1986. When I visualize this time of my life through a cinematic lens with this song playing as a soundtrack in the background, the whole scene seems like it was put together by central casting. At the time, I was intimately bonded with my Birkenstock-wearing yoga instructor, who was much more of a Grateful Dead-head than someone who liked Top-40 radio, but he actually loved this Madonna song.

One night in the spring of ‘86, my yoga instructor and I decided that we would throw a futon in the back of my powder-blue Volvo and head to Santa Fe for the summer when the semester ended. We ended up living in an Airstream trailer in the middle of the desert near a tiny town called Los Cerrillos that was located on the Turquoise Trail between Santa Fe and Madrid close to some holy land called "Garden of the Gods." It was a very special time and place.

Although that whole scene may sound kind of "new age," I've always kept myself grounded in the here-and-now by listening to Top 40 music on the radio. A lot of the pop songs of that summer captured the awakening of my "love and intimacy" stage of social-emotional development.

On a more spiritual level, the song “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood (with Chaka Khan) became yet another catalyst for renewal, recovery, and rebirth during this phase of developing my oneness beliefs. Most purists wouldn't use pop music as a soundtrack for their spiritual journey; but mainstream music has always worked for me, especially in terms of avoiding becoming too woo-woo.

“Higher Love” was released in June of 1986 and peaked at #1 on July 19, 1986. The 12” version of this song was remixed by Tom Lord Alge and, in my opinion, is a spectacular example of late-80s remix perfection.

We all have very personal musical tastes and preferences. Odds are that most of the above-mentioned songs that were a catalyst for "renewal, recovery, and rebirth" in my life, won't resonate with you. That said, hopefully, the autobiographical examples I’ve shared will inspire you to curate a playlist of songs you love that have the power to help you break free from patterns of rut-like thinking and give you the oomph to kickstart a period of regeneration this spring.

References

Laura Marie Edinger-Schons. "Oneness Beliefs and Their Effect on Life Satisfaction." Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (First published online: April 11, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/rel0000259

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