Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is a favorite novel of mine. For one, Philip Roth, like Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen, was from New Jersey, and he manages to artistically encapsulate the working-class, Newarkian fervor that seems to extend down to and characterize so much of our state – north, south and central. American Pastoral is about European immigrants and their successive American generations, calling to mind my not-so-distant ancestors who ventured to New York and New Jersey from places like Italy and Scotland. They, like the Levovs, were in pursuit of something like the American pastoral, that Waspy utopia of spacious, suburban homes and Ivy League educations. Of course, as the novel contends, it is easy to shoot for the dream, miss and be cast away to the American berserk. No child in my family has ever bombed a post office for the sake of radical protest, but the idyllic pastures have been marred by divorces and other common departures from the nuclear model. As I’ve come of age, holiday dinners have begun to feel as revealing as is that long, concluding scene of American Pastoral, where Seymour’s family and friends are gradually reduced to their base forms and desires. Every child of divorce can understand this; what facts, what layers of complexity will be uncovered this Christmas? What troubling things occurred before I got here? Heated conversations run tangent to arguments, indignations are signified and a young mind is schooled.
However, things don’t have to be so bleak, as I’ve discovered over the past few holidays I’ve spent with my family. On both Thanksgiving and Christmas, 2017, my father’s girlfriend and her family brought a karaoke machine to our house, with the intention of making us all sing. They thoroughly enjoy karaoke and actually take it quite seriously; that moment when one’s score is projected on the screen is never a dull moment after they’ve sung. Being quite reserved, I was mortified to discover the karaoke machine and assumed some lofty stance against the possibility of singing on a sacred family holiday. Moreover, I was certainly calloused and prepared for the informative holidays I’d come to expect. Nevertheless, the rest of my family was feeling it, and as my father pays in part for me to pursue a degree in music, I realized that I needed to step up and sing.
It was initially a funny and harmless encounter. I sang something along the lines of Earth, Wind and Fire to divert people’s attention to the music and fulfill my song quota for the evening. Yet, I kept being pulled back into it as different family members kept asking me to sing duets with them, and gradually the ironic profundity of our karaoke pursuits revealed itself to me. I have the distinct memory of singing Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” with my father after he discovered it in the list of songs. Singing with my father about Lou Reed’s 1970s world of drugs and prostitution – among other things – was a new experience for me, one that I could never have anticipated. With my siblings, I sang songs that were popular when they were my age, pop and hip-hop music from the early 2000s. Somehow, this machine was able to transcend three generations of familial dysfunction, bending time in the process, and place us all on the same, level playing field.
Being the youngest child, by far, of my immediate family, I have been left out of the events in the decades that preceded my birth and I find myself intrigued by the mystery. What formative events did my mother, father, and siblings all experience? When did things begin to change, the utopia displaced, and why? Were things ever even perfect? These sorts of questions plague the minds of the “babies” of all families, particularly those with complicated, non-nuclear histories. Despite the yearning, these tales, these emotional snippets from relative antiquity, are not for us, and we’ll never be able to know or experience them genuinely, partly because nobody is obligated to share every detail of their past and, more importantly, we weren’t there to witness it.
Yet, singing old songs with my family certainly approaches some understanding of the past, a landmark amidst the berserk. The karaoke machine functioned like a wise arbitrator or psychologist and in picking songs we each recounted something mundane, vaguely familiar yet quietly significant, something amounting to a statement. The shared vulnerability of singing invites us to participate in these moments in ways that manage to feel productive and cathartic, even if we’re not really talking about anything at all. It’s no surprise that music could possess such emotional capacities, but in our case, it was music that came from an unlikely source in an unlikely setting. I hope we all sing again this year, finding meaningful things in the music of our collective yet separate lives.
Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.