Bon Iver, dopamine, and Neruda’s wives

Last Friday night I saw the Bon Iver show at Deer Lake Park. It was my first warm summer evening in Vancouver, and I was feeling simultaneously happy and sad in that wistful way one inevitably feels as the sun sets over a lake and the sound of a nine-man band—including two full drum kits!—echoes through the leafy branches. The experience has gotten me thinking about the things that move us.

Take this, for example:

When Justin Vernon’s voice cracks as he sings “Now all your love is wasted? Then who the hell was I?” it just nails me. Shirt to skin to sternum to aorta. Over the past five days, I’ve probably listened to “Skinny Love” twenty or thirty times. Because I want to understand something about the aesthetics of love, something about how a song or a poem or a love story can make us feel, and something about the legitimacy of that feeling.

I’ve always thought that the difference between love (of the regular affectionate variety) and romance (the more spectacular, dreamy kind), was an aesthetic difference. My most romantic memories seem to be predicated on the beauty of a particular moment: The empty pebble beach, the gleaming Aegean Sea, and the limestone cliffs. The setting is so aggressively beautiful that if you visit it with the man you love, it is not possible to care who did or did not wash that morning’s dishes. That’s romance: He is the landscape. So are you.

What is both powerful and problematic about love songs is that they make us feel like we’re the ones on the beach, when in actuality we’re living another person’s romantic moment vicariously. Love songs annihilate any suspicions we may have that our feelings don’t matter, that they are only atoms organized into neurons that shoot chemicals across our brains. Continue reading

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