Written by Parisa Eshrati
Play It By Ear is a new ongoing series by T&E writer Parisa where she shares musical discoveries along with informational tidbits, casual musings, and whatever other related knowledge she can pull from her rotten quarantined brain. In this special themed edition, she reflects on the poeticism of everyday life by pairing a song with a fortune from her fortune cookie collection.
Did you all watch that new HBO show called How To With John Wilson? It became an instant favorite of mine. The basic idea is that Wilson has been obsessively filming New York City throughout his life, and now he’s spliced up the footage to create narratives of everyday advice and relatable topics. Each episode starts with a simple idea, i.e. “How to Make Small Talk” or “How To Split the Check”, but the stories evolve and become these odysseys of self and cultural discovery.
After finishing the season (only a short six episodes), I felt inspired to revisit my collection of fortune cookie fortunes. They feel similar to the sort of outsider art created by John Wilson; something so seemingly ordinary with surface entertainment value can actually reveal something more profound when you give it time. Of course, these fortunes are mass produced and haven’t like...changed my life or anything to that degree. It’s more to say that you can find something poetic, absurd, relatable, and at times, wise, in the everyday mundane aspects of life, even if it’s as banal as a fortune cookie.
So, in this show-and-tell type edition of Play It By Ear, I’ll be sharing ten of my favorite fortunes from my collection and pairing them with a song that relates to their message. Enjoy.
P.S. - To those of you who’ve watched How To with John Wilson...remember that song the TLC tugger guy sings about growing foreskin from his anti-circumcision themed album? Is it just me, or did that song actually kinda rip? It had this total outsider music meets Mark Motherbaugh vibe. I could definitely imagine his music being some oddity re-release on Light in the Attic in thirty years. It also inspired me to make a playlist of my favorite outsider musicians, which you can listen to here.
P.P.S. - This post is not to jest at language barriers. That intention should be clear, but just to reiterate, this is in admiration to the poetry from my collection.
P.P.P.S. - As a general trigger warning, this post mentions depression.
This is the most recent addition to the fortune collection, and in a year like 2020, this message hits hard. I certainly was not prepared for everything this year has thrown our way, but it makes me appreciate the new releases that came out this year that much more for helping us process life as we now know it. Y’all should check out the T&E year end list for dozens of amazing recommendations, but I think the song off my list that would best suite this fortune would be “dominque” - Ela Minus.
In the beginning verse, she says so plainly:
Today I woke up at 7 p.m
My brain feels like it's going to break
I haven't seen anyone in a couple of days
I am afraid I forgot how to talk
To anyone else that's not myself
When I first heard those lyrics, I was alone, laying on the floor, day ??? of quarantine, and became overwhelmed in this wave of bittersweet joy. It’s a strange feeling to be in solitude but also feel connected at the same time, you know? It seems counterintuitive to be able to find comradery about loneliness, but I guess that’s what makes that experience so remarkable.
The lyrics in that song are contrasted by a metallic, bouncing rhythm. It’s the sort of tune that draws you in with melancholy, but lifts you up through with its danceable melodies. That tinge of optimism kind of reminds me of the fortune. I wasn’t prepared for this life, but I was born to live it, so that’s what I'll keep on doing.
This is the fortune that started my collection. The wording on this one is really just phenomenal, and I love the mental image of a giant whale in the middle of a desert, like a surrealist Dalí painting except more pathetic, lol.
The song that first comes to mind when I see this fortune is “Bahamut” - Hazmat Modine. This has one of my favorite spoken word segments (as seen in our favorite spoken word songs playlist) due to its equally illustrative, imaginative and surrealist nature.
The entire known universe
Floats suspended in a thin silver bowl
Which rocks gently on the back
Of an immense blue-green tortuga
And the tortuga's scaly feet
Are firmly placed on the topmost
Of seven craggy mountains
Which arise from a vast and arid plain
Of drifting, fetid, yellow dust
And the plain is balanced precariously
On top of a small thin green acacia tree?
Which grows from the snout
Of a giant blood red ox
With 50 eyes that breathes flame
The color of the midnight sky
And the ox's hooves are firmly placed
On the single grain of sand
Which floats in the eye of Bahamut
Like a mote of dust
No one has ever seen Bahamut
Some think it's a fish
Some think it's a newt
All we know is that the lonely Bahamut
Floats endlessly through all time and all space
With all of us and everything
Floating in a single tear
Of his eye
Similar to the helpless whale in the desert, the big, lonely Bahamut floats endlessly through all time and all space. It’s the classic fish-out-of-water metaphor, but I find it actually very comforting and sweet. Kinda like when you’re at a party and you don’t want to be there and you’re trying to fit in but you feel so out of place. It’s socially painful, but similar to what I was saying with the last song, there’s solace in having those “ah, I’ve been there” moments. And putting this ridiculous image of a whale out of water just makes you accept it as the absurdity that is the human experience.
Perhaps that’s why “How Soon is Now” is thought of as one of the greatest songs of all time. Like how Morrisey said, “There's a club if you'd like to go/ You could meet somebody who really loves you / So you go and you stand on your own / And you leave on your own / And you go home and you cry / And you want to die.” Most of us have felt like an outcast, a product of our own shyness and isolation, but being able to make a connection based on that feeling is universal and timeless.
If you’re like me, then you feel terribly guilty every time you buy something for yourself. But you know what? Fuck it. Sometimes you gotta treat yourself. What good is saving money if you don’t get yourself something nice once in a while?
Cue: “All This Money” from my fav Arizona rap group Injury Reserve (RIP Groggs)
The outro of this song really nails this fortune to its core:
Ay man, let me tell you something man
I don't care if you only got
$27 dollars in your paycheck
Go ahead, take your ass to H&M or Zara
Or something get you a couple of shirts
Just don't get one of them motherfuckers
With the zippers on the side
I don't even know who's idea it was to put a zipper on the side
Like what... what you 'gone?
I don't even know what the fuck I'm saying
This song is unapologetic. Spend money on yourself. Feel your opulence, even if you’re broke as shit.
I keep this one framed and by my desk. It’s been the driving force behind T&E. It reminds me to stop comparing my work to anyone else’s, and to appreciate what I create that’s distinct to my own skillset. That’s why I call this blog trial and error. I celebrate my imperfections just as much as I do my strengths, and y’all should too, because each and every one of you are so admirable just for existing in your own unique way (pardon my cheese, but it’s true!!)
Here’s a song about self-love that I think matches this fortune’s theme:
As I said when I wrote about this song for our self-love celebration playlist, “Human” - Sevdaliza doesn’t read as a self-love song at its surface whatsoever. The lyrics are blunt. The melodies are dark, robotic, and cold. But through its unaffectionate veil, this song is pure heart, vulnerability and strength. Sevdaliza is owning everything it means to be a living, breathing being.
I am flesh, bones
I am skin, soul
I am human
Nothing more than human
I am sweat, flaws
I am veins, scars
I am human
Nothing more than human
It’s a realistic portrait of who we are as humans. We bleed, sweat, fear, and exist far from perfection. But we can own that. That strength is power, and owning your worth through your human flaws is the most honest and authentic version of self-love there is.
I don’t even have to think twice about this one.
What’s amazing is that just before I got this fortune, I went for a walk and a guy told me to smile. Even during a global pandemic when all our faces are covered in masks, men will still find a way to pull that stunt. This fortune was really adding insult to injury. Thanks to Rina Sawayama’s amazing 2020 single “STFU” for being the new anthem for telling men to, well, stfu.
The first song that came to mind upon reading this fortune is actually one of my favorite songs of all time, “Pushit” (Salvial version) - Tool. This song is, very generally speaking, about the cycles of a difficult relationship. While it seems to be about a romantic relationship, the Jungian references throughout Tool’s work allude to this being a battle between our inner duality of ego and consciousness. So it’s all about communication, whether it’s between you and a lover or your spiritual vs. material self. The original version of this song is heavy and loud, but the intimate, slower Salvial version gives this message a whole new dynamic:
Vocalist Maynard James Keenan starts off this live version by talking to the audience:
“We’ve been looking at one of our songs from a different angle, under a different light, so we can hopefully see it for the first time. We’d like to try it for you tonight...We’re going to need your help and your permission. You need to find a comfortable space, that’s not only comfortable, but vulnerable. Just shut your eyes and go there, and we’ll meet you on the other side.”
The lyrics still reflect a very difficult journey, but the beautifully meditative and reflective atmosphere in this live version offers the “calm, poise and balance” that wasn’t present in the original version. As Keenan acknowledged in the intro, the calm can offer a new means to work through internal communication. By allowing yourself to be comfortable and vulnerable, you rid yourself of the ego-driven clutter and reveal perspectives you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
I also appreciate the parallels of duality in both this song and the fortune. In the fortune, it’s alluding to how we can only work through something difficult with ease. Similarly, the verse in “Pushit” keeps repeating “pushing and shoving”, like “an equal energy vibrating, desynchronized and only touching each other for a brief moment in time.” There are opposite forces at work, but we can find harmony in that brief moment of equilibrium, in that perfectly balanced moment which is only created through stillness and vulnerability.
I'd be remiss not to mention how this song is the testament to why Keenan is my favorite vocalist of all time. His voice is so pristine, controlled, emotional, and powerful...and it’s live! As soon as it reaches the climax and he starts with the, “...and if I say I might be like a sigh if I stay,” when I tell you I get CHILLS. EVERY. DAMN. TIME.
And so once you’ve reached this perfectly calm state, or “the other side” as MJK says, here’s a song that for me epitomizes that place:
It’s difficult to describe in words why this song is representative of that space to me. I conjure that since the “other side” referenced is essentially nirvana, there’s no human element or sound that could represent something from a nonmaterial plane. Fittingly, “#1” from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II creates a sound that’s so esoteric and ethereal that it feels distant, as if it’s not human. It’s unfamiliar and cold, but at the same time, some of the most blissful and hauntingly beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. I’ll never be able to effectively describe the way Aphex Twin’s ambient works make me feel, but essentially what I’m getting at is that this song is indescribably beautiful, just in the way you’d imagine the state of nirvana.
I’ll reason with you guys, I have no idea what this one means lol. I feel like it’s something about vulnerability? Honestly I just enjoy this one and don’t feel the need to analyze it. It reminds me of times I’ve tried to be vulnerable and ended up feeling more humiliated than anything else, like a gangly, awkward, naked turtle or something...haha.
So here’s the greatest song about awkward turtles by the greatest krautrock band:
Is there any greater news than knowing you’re on the list of Excellent People?! Golly, that’s some big news. Well I guess if I had to put an artist on my list of The Excellent People for this year, it would be Arlo Parks. She’s been such a beacon of light this year, always advocating for mental health through her music and social feeds. I think music with really positive messages can easily come off cheesy and disingenuous (especially now where mental health is such a hot topic and easily capitalized on), but Arlo Parks’ songs have such a gentle, poetic atmosphere that reaches straight for the heart. Her 2020 single, “Hurt”, was the song this year absolutely needed.
And for that, I officially award her…the no. 1 spot on The Excellent People list of 2020.
You can also read about her work as an ambassador for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and learn more about her songwriting process in this recent interview I did with her here.
Well ain’t that the truth.