Image of music with notes

The Existential Crisis as Ensemble: Text, Context, and the Role of Choice in the Making of Meaning

I’m just out to find / the better part of me.

—Five for Fighting, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”

I have an existential crisis about once a week.

Upon writing that sentence, I’m realizing I don’t know precisely what an existential crisis is—that’s just what my wife and I call these episodes. Fortunately, the initial Google hit has a definition that I find just perfect for my present purposes. Writing for BetterUp blog, Alexia Roncero says that an existential crisis “refers to the ensemble of feelings and questions [that] have to do with the meaning and purpose of our life.”

I like the idea of an existential crisis as an ensemble—the idea that my mental, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual turmoil can be, in a word, music.

An existential crisis is an ensemble, or the coordination of many musical thoughts, dancing emotions, and spiritual actors that all seem to converge “at the same time,” which is the meaning of the Latin root word for ensemble (insimul as in “simultaneously”). Existential crises are the coordinated onslaught of thought, as though our mental capacity for abstract communication decides to launch a perfectly designed attack on our very souls. Overwhelm is usually the primary result.

I admit that there’s some vulnerability in my confession, perhaps stemming from some erroneous assumption that I should not have existential crises because I already know the answers to the key existential questions (Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where do I go after this life?). Then again, Jeffrey R. Holland recently taught that, “Real faith, life-changing faith, Abrahamic faith, is always in crisis.”

During the past few months, however, I have found a surprising solace amidst my soul-searching. I have found solace in songs—the profoundly poetic, existentially essayistic, magically memorial, nostalgically nourishing, and spiritually satisfying songs by the artist Five for Fighting.

I’m just a realistic man, a bottle filled with shells and sand.

—from “Chances”

Full of fresh images, Five for Fighting is likely to pass the blush test for literary merit. When he writes, “Tuesday came and went / like a helicopter overhead,” you can almost hear the chopper pass through the sky, an instance of what Virginia Tufte calls “syntactic symbolism,” or when words seem to embody or enact their meaning. The poets in the audience might enjoy another song that begins this way:

There’s no time to waste
In this famous goodbye
There’s Angels landing on the shore

So lay down with me
Let the river run dry
It’s Sunday in the six-day war.

—from “Heaven Knows”

Six lines, in perfect syllabic parity (five beats in the first and fourth lines, six beats in the second and fifth lines, eight beats in the third and sixth lines). The stanza has an ABC DBC rhyme scheme. The ambiguity is deafening, a somewhat echo of the surrealism of Charles Simic. Compared to the simplistic cliches and endless repetitions of many pop songs, this one “contains multitudes” of meanings.

Ah, there it is again: the problem of meaning. Part of the issue is that no one ever taught me how to turn my academic lenses off and on like a switch. I find myself reading scripture when an uninvited postcolonial theorist jumps onto the stage of my mind, and I can hardly watch an episode of pop culture without the Birmingham and Frankfurt schools floating behind my eyes.

It’s exhausting.

After all, these are what Meyer and Land call threshold concepts; once you’ve learned them, you can’t unsee them. There’s no going back. Sometimes, it seems that there’s no simplicity waiting beyond the complexity. And there I go handing out “rhetoric goggles” like candy to my writing 150 students, without stopping to think that I might be doing them a disservice.

You see, I love learning, and I learn voraciously, but Five for Fighting stumped me. Once I began to realize my obsession (listening to nothing else, listening to certain songs on repeat) I began to recognize that spark, that affective response, that seed of an idea. The well-trained critic inside of me jumped to life. Look at this strange cultural artifact! it said. What an intriguing puzzle… it could make for a great study!

I considered what I might do with the puzzling way that Five for Fighting was striking me so. I’m of the opinion that some ideas deserve a poem, some deserve an essay, some deserve to be made into an academic article, and some will even grow into books. Other ideas, deserve nothing more than their initial thought. I think of ideas what Sir Francis Bacon thought of books, that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

What was I to do with this sudden fascination with Five for Fighting?

My initial thought was to make a case for the poetic and essayistic qualities of Five for Fighting, go all out, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Hume-style. Creative nonfiction. Then, I envisioned writing an academic article, a straightforward analysis of a song or two perhaps for The Journal of Popular Culture or something.

Then I did something I regretted. I began to do… research.

I quickly found out that Five for Fighting was not a band comprised of five members (as I had thought) but was actually the stage name for Vladimir John Ondrasik III. Unfortunately, I don’t really care for knowing his real name—I quite enjoyed the prior mystique thank you very much.

The stage name comes from the hockey rule book, referring to a five-minute major penalty for participating in a fight. This insight delights me, since my father played hockey.

I likewise don’t much appreciate knowing that “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” became something of an anthem associated with the September 11th attacks. Then again, I should’ve been prepared for this. While teaching a communications theory course on Popular Culture and Media this semester, I asked my students if they’ve ever liked a song, then found out it was about something else, and if that changed their opinion of the song.

Alas, I’d caught myself smack in the intentional fallacy, wound up in the death of the author.

At any rate, I must admit that I enjoy the memories that Five for Fighting triggers for me personally. His 65 Mustang is my 1988 Hatchback Subaru.

She’s my time machine / my rolling memory.

—from “65 Mustang”

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Five for Fighting offers a rather robust theory of memory in his music: “and what I don’t remember / she never forgets” because “it all comes back to me / when I turn that horse’s key” (“65 Mustang”). He writes: “The thing about memories / they are sure and bound to fade” (“Tuesday”). While my project was germinating, I considered developing an analysis of his lyrics into a rhetoric of nostalgia. After all, “Our melodies are memories” (“Slice”).

I quickly became paralyzed by the amount of interdisciplinary research it would take to do Five for Fighting any scholarly justice. I didn’t want to situate him in a tradition of piano-based soft rock ballads or locate his songs contextually in some moment in time. I didn’t want to know how they were informed by his life experiences or even what other critics thought of them.

I just want to hear “above the timberline / the higher I go, the harder I climb” and think of favorite hikes near my family’s cabin (“Above The Timberline”).

I just want to hear “Slice” and think of the first time I heard it, in the final minutes of the final lecture of American Heritage, tears and chills streaming equally.

I just want to listen to “100 Years” as if the singer is me, and I’m the one who is aging in the blink of an eye, “and I’m heading into a crisis / chasing the years of my life” (“100 Years”).

Life is so hard, so mundane, and so routine most days.

People doing what people do / loving, working and getting through.

—from “Tuesday”

Some days, all I can do is turn to my wife and say, “No act of God can pull me away from you” (“Chances”). Five for Fighting hints at his own existential crisis when he sings:

Sunset sailing on April skies
Bloodshot fire clouds in her eyes
I can’t say what I might believe
But if God made you he’s in love with me.

—from “If God Made You”

Based on how the falsetto sounds, I used to think that it said, “Sunset sailing on [maple] skies,” which I thought was a delightfully different image, but I’m now more drawn to his assertion that, “I can’t say what I might believe,” which seems to be part confession and part speculative theology. For all our seeking of truth, for all our love of knowledge, perhaps there are some things that are just better not to know? Indeed, some things are impossible to know.

What if you were me? / What if I were you?

—from “What If”

If you don’t get it, then you don’t get it.

—from “What If”

I’m officially of the opinion (for now) that anything can be taken to the extreme. In terms of spectral thinking, might our academic tools and disciplines be taken too far? Used too often? Improperly employed? I am not the one to say exactly when this might be, but all I can say is that, when it comes to Five for Fighting, I like the meanings the songs make for me personally, and I don’t like the way my academic training would constrain or transform that meaning.

Similarly, like Brian Price’s recent blog post about reading books just for fun, I’m suggesting that perhaps that impulse to relax or take a break also applies to the ways we think about and encounter the world. Must we always be in analytical mode? At least for me, turning my critical and analytical lenses on certain topics, particularly religious ones, seems to be counter-productive and doomed to frustration. What can be a meaningful way of seeing in one context could unmoor a critic from foundations of meaning that matter most in another context.

Perhaps devotional lenses can be but are not always appropriate for literary texts, just as literary lenses can be but are not always appropriate for devotion.

All discourse communities have built in assumptions. Perhaps meaning, like faith and relative truth, is part text, part context, and part choice.

Sometimes it feels like these songs are my one last glimpse of naivete, my last hold onto ignorance as bliss, and I shudder to think that I might violate it with the single click of a button. I officially saw a flier on BYU campus the other day advertising a “Faith Crisis Support Group.” The campus community as a whole seems to be moving from simplicity, to complexity, and yearning for the longed-for and promised simplicity beyond the complexity.

I leave you with the chorus of my favorite Five for Fighting song, “The Riddle,” and its ensemble of words and lyrics that has helped me through my most recent existential crises.

The song begins with a man “whose heart ran out of summers” (“The Riddle”). Before the man dies, the narrator asks him, “Wait, what’s the sense in life?” (“The Riddle”). This is a key existential question. The wise soul, dying, responds with some advice: “Son, why you gotta sing that tune? / Catch a Dylan song or some eclipse of the moon” or “Let an angel swing and make you swoon” so “you will see, you will see” (“The Riddle”).

Then comes the chorus—but notice that the riddle hides itself as an answer, as though all the questions we raise are their own solutions, as if someone could say, “Why am I feeling this way?” and we could respond, “Exactly.” I leave you with these words, that feel, to me, to be true.

Here’s a riddle for ya

Find the answer

There’s a reason for the world

You and I.

 —from “The Riddle”

This blog post was written by Isaac James Richards, the BYU Humanities Center Intern.

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