Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suppose you’re listening to your iPod on the window seat of a transcontinental flight, when suddenly the bulkhead next to you collapses. Having blatantly disregarded your flight crew’s directive to fasten your seatbelt while in flight, you’re sucked out, hurtling toward certain death. Now, suppose you had the presence of mind to dial up one final song on your iPod, which will be playing as you hit the ground. What would you want that song to be?
Personally, I think the only sensible reaction to a death that ridiculously unfair and unlikely is sheer, impotent rage at the entire universe. I would thus console myself by imagining that I was a meteor, and that when I hit the ground, I would take all life on the planet with me. The ideal track to support this fantasy: “The Earth Died Screaming” by Tom Waits. See you in hell, planet Earth! —Anonymous
Really? Rage over the unfairness of it all? You were the one who chose not to fasten your seatbelt. Me, I’d be looking for something a little more calming and a little more philosophical. Not to mention distractingly weird. And hey, thematically appropriate. So what could possibly be a better song to die to than The Doors’ “The End”? Nothing like an ironic chuckle as you check out… and the calmer, insinuating parts of the song are hypnotic enough to put me into a relaxed and ready state of mind. The song would speed up and get more intense as the ride came to an end, too. I have to think that falling to your death to “The End” would be like being in a snuff film soundtracked by God.
Well, first of all, thank you so much for describing one of my worst nightmares (second only to “chimpanzee mauling”) shortly before I take a plane trip. No big deal. But I choose “Slow Life” by Grizzly Bear. A friend of mine who is a Twilight fan sent me the song when I told her I was getting into the band. I confess I never even looked at the lyrics until right now: It always just sounded like a great song to either fall in love with a vampire to (can you tell I’ve never seen or read anything Twilight-related?) or perhaps die beautifully to. Every girl has a fantasy of dying beautifully: It’s that whole Ophelia thing. So if you’re going to die a horrible, tragic death, why not close your eyes and pretend that it’s in slow-motion, and give it a shimmering, underwater feel? And with the lines “Even though you’re the only one I see / It’s the last catastrophe,” I can think of my husband as I plummet to my death, trying not to focus on whether they’ll need a wet-vac to collect my remains.
I’d want to be listening to “Prophecies,” the closing track on Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the movie Koyaanisqatsi, so that as I tumbled to Earth in slow motion, I’d feel like I was all emblematic of the imbalance between man and nature and shit.
I have to go with John Williams’ main theme from Superman. It’s heroic, rousing, and has a lot of good associations for me; I like the idea of plummeting to my doom high on an adrenaline rush that isn’t just sheer terror. Mainly, though, I’d pick it because I can’t think of another situation when I’d be more desperate to believe that a man could fly.
While it’d be badass to go out with a rager—maybe “Ace Of Spades”? “You win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me”—I think I’d prefer something to help alleviate the heart-attack-inducing terror of my final moments. Something contemplative. I made a mix CD of such songs about a decade ago, and I believe it was anchored by “Table For Glasses” by Jimmy Eat World. It’s a quiet, minimalist song that slowly builds to a crescendo with vaguely spiritual-sounding lyrics—“Lead my skeptic sight”—that will be fitting. “It happens too fast to make sense of it, make it last,” goes one line. I think it’d find that strangely comforting in my final moments. Splat.
Although it’s a different Sigur Rós song—”Njósnavélin”—that’s used at the end of Vanilla Sky where Tom Cruise [SPOILER ALERT] takes a header off a skyscraper, the Icelandic band’s majestically depressing “Svefn-g-englar” made it onto the film’s soundtrack. It’s also a song I could imagine might bathe me in some sort of angelic bliss as I plummet to a messy demise; as the instruments soar and enshroud, frontman Jónsi coos in Hopelandic, the made-up language he uses in most of his music. Either that, or I’d do screamy karaoke over the song in my own made-up language, one composed entirely of the morphemes “shit” and “fuck.”
I’ve got an “apocalypse playlist” I’ve been saving for a hellfire-rainy day, and I suppose the end of my own personal world would be as good a time as any to dial it up. The first song on it is actually Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”—and while that’s a fine tune to go out on, during a plane crash, the screams would probably all but drown out those spoken-word interludes about a little girl watching her house burn down, and I don’t want to die impatient. So let’s go with an equally existential ballad of old: Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” specifically the Fred Astaire version from Follow The Fleet. It’s an ominous, minor-key little ditty about knowing there’s trouble ahead, but living while you still have the chance. Seems like an appropriately sardonic way for my story to end.
I didn’t think I had a real answer for this one—at least not one that didn’t involve Hank Locklin’s old country weeper “Please Help Me, I’m Falling,” a nice record I don’t really think I’d want to hear under those circumstance, at least if I were able to stop humming it to myself, which I probably wouldn’t be. But I do have an answer: Herbert’s “Harmonise.” My interest in Matthew Herbert’s music has waned over the years, but this is a later song, from 2006’s Scale, and it’s a coup—a song taking a jerk to task, written as tongue-in-cheek praise, performed by a notoriously opinionated musician and sung by his now former partner, Dani Sicilliano. It’s written in verses and choruses and a bridge (which, because Herbert likes being contrary, repeats “This refrain”—a refrain is a chorus, while a bridge is a palate-cleanser), but it undulates more like a Steve Reich composition. This is the sound Stereolab was going for on Dots & Loops, full of daubed pastels and muted brass, but Herbert’s rhythm chugs hard rather than laying back. It’s the culmination of the weirdly human constructions Herbert always made as a house-music producer, like a janky jalopy whose guts you can see, that still moves as a unit. It’s a song I never play just once—it blossoms, but there’s wear and tension at the core, thanks to the lyrics, which climax, “You are the world, I am your people.” I wouldn’t want to hear this on my deathbed—give me something riotous with joy like Franco & TPOK Jazz’s “Limbisa Ngai”—but falling to the earth? At least I’d be too distracted by the maze in my ears to notice.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea rides such a rich balance between ecstasy and agony that any of its tracks would make appropriate accompaniment to this scenario. “Holland, 1945” lacks the lyrical images of ashes spread from an airplane or plummeting death found elsewhere on the record (the title track and “Ghost,” respectively), but it’d be my only choice for this last dance with gravity. I’ve always found comfort in the song’s existential uncertainty, and the surge of the song’s kitchen-sink psych-folk arrangement would mirror my downward momentum nicely. And since this is all theoretical, I can say that my fall would be perfectly synchronized with the song—the eruption of distorted acoustic guitar timed with the bulkhead collapse, my impact with the ground coinciding with the wind instruments’ final, strained chord.
I’m a big fan of parallelism, so if I were to have my slow-motion death-from-falling accompanied by anything, it would have to be the first pop song I remember liking as a kid: “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando And Dawn. So basically, my life would end like the climax of a mid-’90s direct-to-video Quentin Tarantino rip-off. So be it. (Also, nobody’s picked “Miracles” by Jefferson Starship, out of love for the film Crank? I’m kind of shocked.)
Mine is, strangely, somewhat based on science. A while back, I was listening to the Radiolab podcast about falling. Somewhere between a story about the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and how cats manage to land on their feet, they explained that when a person’s falling—or doing anything traumatic, like crashing a car—seconds seem like minutes because the brain’s memory center kind of opens up. Radiolab does a much better job explaining this than I can, and I recommend listening to the podcast, but here’s the gist: During a normal day, a brain remembers a fraction of what a person does, like checking e-mail, what was for dinner, and so on. But during a trauma, the brain remembers every single thing. Hearing this, I know that, as sappy as it is, I would just want to listen to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as I slowly plummeted to my death thousands of feet below. Not only is that probably the best song ever, in my mind, it also just seems incredibly cinematic to me, and in a dramatic death shot in slow motion, that’s got to be the way to go.
I’m going with the gorgeous “Soon” by Low, from one of my favorite albums of all time, Secret Name. The lyrics are actually pretty relevant to the situation, including “soon it will be over” and “nobody’s looking at the sky.” But it’s also a soothing song, and thus might help some of the natural panic usually associated with hurtling toward your own end at a hundred miles an hour. (Or whatever speed a human body falling reaches—I’m no scientist.) It might even make the landing feel soft.
I’ve spent far too long thinking about this, and only coming up with joke answers—including “Landed” by Ben Folds and “Home” by the Engineers, which scores the season-four and -five Big Love title sequence, involving the main characters falling toward the camera—that I eventually gave up trying to decide on something appropriate, and just decided to go with one of my favorite songs of all time: the Elvis Costello cover of “What’s So Funny (’Bout Peace, Love, And Understanding)?” At the very least, it might help me remember some of the things I wouldn’t miss about planet Earth, namely all those resolutely against peace, love, and understanding. Also, it’d be a pretty kick-ass way to go out, right?
It’s possible I’m taking this question too literally, but the contemplation of my own sudden death doesn’t fill my head with music. In the unlikely event that the suggested scenario should come to pass, I don’t see myself cueing up something soothing; somehow, with the ground hurtling toward me and my body about to become a pile of smashed bone and shredded flesh, I don’t think I’d be in the mood. I’d need something to drown out the screaming in my head, and what better than Rocket From The Crypt’s “Drop Out,” a song so kick-ass, it makes dying seem almost all right. That guitar riff, those horns, the shouted vocals: What more could you want for your last moments on earth? Now that I listen to the song, I’m reminded that the first lines are “I was picked the last round, falling rotten to the ground,” which is a little on the nose, given the givens. But at that point, I doubt I’ll be listening to the words.
As someone with severe mortality issues, this question creeps me out. That said, on flights, I find myself humming Andrew Bird’s ”Fiery Crash” while the plane is taxiing, a really morbid habit no good for anyone sitting next to me. (“Envision the fiery crash” indeed.) But if I’m taking the question more literally, The Divine Comedy’s “Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont” fits the bill nicely. A fictional count takes off on a hot-air journey, contemplating his death in transit: ”If I’m to die, then let it be in summertime in a manner of my own choosing / to fall from a great height on a warm July afternoon.” If you’re in the mood for over-the-top faux-Romantic poetry, it’s pretty awesome, though it’s probably too florid for most people.
I’ve always hoped for a quiet exit, but if that isn’t the case, I’d still try to make it as peaceful as possible with R.E.M.’s “Perfect Circle.” Tinkling piano, Michael Stipe’s baritone croon, a beautifully circular chorus: It’d make for a peaceful freefall. While the meaning of the song itself is open to debate, as with many of the band’s early songs, it has several phrases—“a perfect circle of acquaintances and friends” and “Heaven assumed, shoulders high in the room”—that conjure images that would (hopefully) be a calming influence as the ground rushes up. A hushed, relaxed song by one of my favorite bands playing while I think of my closest friends and Heaven (whether it exists or not) is about as peaceful a death I can think of, given the circumstances.