Lexington High School, Lexington, Massachusetts

Strength Through Music by Amanda Palmer

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As early as the 1980s, when Tipper Gore took folks like Dee Snider of Twisted Sister to court over censorship concerns (resulting in the now all-too-familiar "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" labels), music has frequently been blamed for corrupting the youth. Even in the days of Ancient Greece, Plato banned the flute in his "Republic" because its erotic sound stirred the loins and woke the darker passions just a little too much. Yet although he advocated the less sensual lyre - considered the instrument of reason - Plato still requested to hear the flute on his deathbed. The affective might of music has through the ages rippled out to touch everything from the collectively political to the deeply personal, and driven people to both peak and abyss. Amanda Palmer's song "Strength Through Music" explores this double-edged power of music to either uplift or corrupt.

Amanda Palmer Gaiman of Dresden Dolls fame and recently Mrs. Neil Gaiman, released her solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008, which features the track. Her love of crowd sourcing musicians for her solo performances and the wide range of musical styles, tempos, and moods she employs do not permit a definite genre classification. If you're really curious, she does have a reputation for engaging with fans through the Internet, so you could always ask her yourself. Palmer, who grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, was actively engaged in the Lexington High School drama program. She remained close with many of her high school drama teachers and friends, which proved invaluable to making the hauntingly emotional music video for "Strength Through Music."

Though both the lyrics and the music video seem at first glance to point to the tragic Columbine Massacre of 1999, the lines "don't bother blaming his games and guns, he's only playing, and boys just want to have fun" reveal that the song is more about the public controversy sparked by the incident in terms of political debates concerning gun control, social outcasts, high school culture, and the effects of isolation, video games, the Internet and anti-depressant use in teenagers. Though Columbine was committed by two shooters, these lyrics refer to only one. Perhaps Palmer had something more universal to say, something that might be missed by looking too hard for references to Columbine.

Recent psychophysiological evidence shows that the human brain is structured over time by its surrounding environment, and that the type and quality of a person depends largely on the type and quality of their most frequent sense perceptions. This adds new weight to the need to reconsider institutional approaches to the never before available depths of social isolation and digital distraction of today's teenage online culture, viscerally captured in the lyrics "locked in his bedroom, he saw the world, a web of answers and c--shot girls." These issues are just as relevant to every high school in America as they are to Columbine, and Palmer's own Lexington High is no exception. Lexington is renowned for its public education system, and Lexington High is ranked the 304th best high school in the entire nation. In a Songfacts interview, Palmer, while talking about the Columbine tragedy said: "I certainly don't think my high school experience was as extreme.... But high school is just brutal no matter what way you cut it."

Amanda Palmer re-released Strength Through Music in 2018Amanda Palmer re-released Strength Through Music in 2018
The music video for "Strength Through Music," as well as the sister music video for "Guitar Hero," were shot in Lexington High. Palmer enlisted the help of her old Drama teachers and their students. She explains in the same interview that she approached her old drama teacher with the idea and said: "Hey, can you loan us some kids from the drama department, and can we use the hallway? We don't have any money, we don't have a cent, so let's just shoot it in the school." The video shows Palmer walking down her high school corridor while students are running away, trembling in fear or falling down dead. She actually passes her old locker in the video, which ends with Palmer discovering that the shooter had been listening to her song. Palmer's willingness to accept her share of responsibility for the consequences of her music is admirable, but should not lead one to forget that there are many times more youths in worse situations, who listened to the same music without taking their frustration out on the world in such a vicious way.

Lexington itself was settled circa 1642, and remained a part of Cambridge, Massachusetts until it was incorporated as a separate town in 1713. Its biggest claim to fame was that it served as the location for the very first shot fired in the American Revolutionary War, known as the "Shot Heard Around the World." It also boasts many historical buildings and points of interest related to colonial and revolutionary times. For a long time it served as the farming breadbasket of Massachusetts, but Lexington today seems to have become an excellent breeding ground for a diverse range of academic and artistic disciplines. Aside from Amanda Palmer, Lexington has been the residence of intellectuals like the politically active linguist Noam Chomsky, respected contemporary philosopher John Rawls, and a long list of Nobel Prize winning scientists, influential authors, comedians, doctors and economists.

Columbine, though the most famous American high school massacre tragedy, doesn't even make the top three over the last hundred years in terms of deaths and injuries. It is a tragedy that has passed and cannot be undone, but these events are symptoms of a greater cultural problem that needs to be addressed. That's why this song's place is Lexington. In Lexington High, like most other American high schools, such tragedies can still be prevented. In Lexington, Palmer's songs and those of other musicians can still be used as a source of inspiration and strength that help teenagers to escape from isolation instead of reinforcing it.

Music will always be mixed in with tragedy, because music is mixed in with everything. We should try to alleviate the sources of tragedy; then we don't have to worry about the possible consequences of the music. After all, as Nietzsche rightly remarked: "Without music, life would be an error."

Stefan Smit
September 19, 2014
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Comments: 1

  • Jess from New ZealandGreat article! So informative, it helped me a lot! Thanks!
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