www.kristinfiore.com   |   kristin@kristinfiore.com

Sing Your Life

In 2001 I was lucky enough to spend five weeks in Europe, a place I love for many reasons. But whenever I leave there, there is one thing I miss above all others. Whether you are walking by the crowded bars in Paris or sitting in a café in Siena, Italy, there are people singing - old people, drunk people, tone-deaf people. Even when Europeans visit the U.S., they walk in groups and sing. They sing when they win soccer tournaments and sing even louder when they lose. I spent four days in Siena, a college town in northern Italy built during the Roman era, and every night I would open my hotel window and listen to the locals singing - from 10 pm until midnight or 1 in the morning, even on weeknights. After dinner is done, one person would just start belting out a tune, and invariably the whole place would join in. Then another person would start a song. Everyone in the café, from 8 to 80 years old, knows the songs and is perfectly at home crooning even if he is three keys off.men singing long ago

This would never happen in America - not only because we feel self-conscious about singing, or because we have a tendency to sit indoors, shovel our food down and leave, but because none of us know the same songs. I sat for a minute and thought about it - what songs we have that everyone knows, that we can all sing anywhere, that celebrate life - and the only one I could come up with was Happy Birthday. And think of how you feel about singing that tune - or having it sung on your behalf. If there's a tablecloth at the table, you're under it by the third line. That's why the waiters bring you a free desert - as compensation for enduring such a horror.

Music in the states - rock music - is meant to separate us from other generations, from other peer groups. Though it does bond you to a small group who share your taste (or lack thereof), it's largely based on individuality and rebellion, not on communion and tradition. Its value and purpose is different. If you are an indie rock snit, a band's appeal is in direct proportion to its obscurity. An obscure song would have no place at a European café, as no one would be able to sing it. New music is wonderful, and breaking molds is what has given us today's variety and innovation, but there is no balance here.

I think there are many reasons for this. The old reasons people sang - to make work in the fields easier to bear, to pass along stories and myths and poems, to pass the time around a campfire - no longer exist. Americans also have no collective past to speak of, though minorities often have this sort of community, something you see at their festivals. But even then, the audience does not participate like it does at European folk festivals. There is also a tremendous pressure to be idividualistic and modern here, which is obvious when you look at soda or car commercials, which are basically selling you rebellion and uniqueness.

I also think the invention of the phonograph had a lot to do with it, though I am very grateful to Edison for the most enjoyable gadget of the 19th and 20th centuries. Record players and cylinder rolls took music out of the hands of citizens and put it into the machine. It was no longer necessary to have money or musical talent to hear music. I don't think we realize how new this phenomenon is. For 10,000 years people have relied on their own voices and guitars and lyres for songs. It is only over the last 100 years that we have passed that task onto strangers. We have gained much from this, especially with the Internet, which allows me to order CDs from Hungary and Latvia, but we have lost something also - the power of music to connect us to time, to our own creative voice, and to each other.