Vulnerability in Music
Vulnerability is often described as a form of physical or emotional ailment and to many of us, it signifies weakness or the inability to function at an optimum capacity. Such connotations have made vulnerability something to hide, conceal or be ashamed of in many cultures. It is viewed as something to avoid and when we are vulnerable it often signifies that we are in a crisis. We’ve collectively adopted an anxious avoidant attachment style to vulnerability. We keep it tucked away and we save it for people we trust or treat it as a prized possession, which people around us must earn. While some people are much more transparent or open with their emotions and feelings than others, we all have mechanisms for protecting ourselves from harm and we all have walls – some are simply higher than others or become high and impenetrable over time.
We all develop shields to guard our vulnerabilities (to varied degrees) and art reminds us that it is okay to be human and it is okay to be vulnerable. Art in its varied forms – whether through music, paintings, film or TV – rejects the conventional understanding that vulnerability is something to hide, be ashamed of, or ‘fix.’ Instead, vulnerability is a superpower for artists. Art provides writers, musicians, painters and film-makers with outlets for their vulnerabilities to run wild on public display. It enables artists to make sense of and express their hopes, fears, desires and thoughts irrespective of how it might come across to a wider audience.
The best artists often show up naked even when the world demands that they keep their clothes on. I am in awe of people who express themselves so freely.
Vulnerability in Music
The most emotionally vulnerable project – or one of the most emotionally vulnerable albums in an artists’ discography – will often stand out and hold our attention in impactful ways. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’, SZA’s ‘SOS,’ Adele’s ‘30,’ Florence Welch’s ‘High as Hope,’ and most recently, Kali Uchis’ ‘Red Moon in Venus,’ come to mind. These albums reveal a level of emotional vulnerability which may feel uncomfortable to witness. It almost feels as if these artists should not have shown us so much of themselves and should have been more cautious about letting their audience ‘in’ but they did it anyway, because taking such risks is part of what being an authentic artist is about.
In many ways, vulnerability could also be a double edged sword. Many people rely on artists to express emotions, which they either conceal or do not want to address. Although vulnerability and raw emotions don’t always stem from a sad or dark place, fans are aware that their favourite artists go through painful experiences which are reflected in the emotional rawness of their songs. There is often a song, film or piece of art that will reflect a specific emotion back to you if you look hard enough and sometimes you do not have to search at all. This makes fans quite entitled and sometimes selfish in the ways we interact with artists. For instance, when a celebrity breakup happens or an artist is actively going through a rough period, there are often jokes on social media about how ‘the music will be fire,’ or there’s an assumption that the artist is going to give us great music, which conveys their pain and frustration for our listening pleasure. This happened when Adele’s divorce became public knowledge, when the Weeknd and Bella Hadid ended their relationship and when Drake was going through his public fight with Pusha T. The idea that artists make their best work when they are emotionally frustrated, hurt or sad is dangerous – it could lead to artists intentionally harming themselves or placing themselves in compromising situations, in hopes that the outcomes or experiences from these scenarios lead to ‘great’ music.
Are the emotions real?
In a capitalist world, it is normal to question the extent to which vulnerability and emotions conveyed through music (or art in general) are manufactured or genuine. Did the artist really go through the emotions reflected on a vulnerable record or are they cosplaying? Do certain recording artists rely entirely on their song-writer’s experiences or lyrical ability to convey the emotional depth of the lyrics they perform? Do we have any way of verifying whether we can trust the emotions or do we even need to trust these emotions? Can’t we just experience the music for what it is without having to verify anything? Is it simply enough to appreciate the vulnerability being displayed and does it matter that the heartbreak expressed on an R&B song might not have really happened to the artist or maybe happened in a less interesting and dramatic way?
Honestly, I do not have complete or dependable answers to these questions but they are thoughts I’ve considered in relation to music’s role as a medium for conveying and enabling vulnerability. Blaqbonez has openly said in interviews that he does not discuss fictional scenarios in his music. In addition, Kehlani has been very open and candid through their music, often including names or nicknames of partners to suggest that they are taking inspiration from personal experiences and emotions. Beyonce’s Lemonade was also very blatant and personal in the ways it addressed and confirmed cheating rumours and the issues she was experiencing in her marriage to Jay Z. However, such indications or disclaimers are rare – in reality, there is no clear way of verifying whether or not the events in an artist’s life are entirely reflected in their work. This is why I think the most important factor to focus on is the feeling, not the scenario, subject matter or circumstance surrounding the song or project.
The latter qualities can be easily altered, manufactured or tailored to a particular audience but the feeling cannot. The feeling is what we should look out for when we are trying to determine whether a song or project is genuine, honest and vulnerable. When Adele painfully conveys that she tried to make her relationship work on ‘To Be Loved,’ the feeling of loss is loud and clear. It is so clear that it breaks my heart entirely when I listen to the song and I often pause towards the end because her emotional vulnerability holds an undeniable weight. In that moment, the feeling is all I am focused on, not whether Adele’s divorce was entirely reflected and documented through her ‘30’ album.
Vulnerability as exposure and the ‘come into the water’ playlist
Come into the water is different from rora but in many ways they are interlinked. While rora was more geared towards stepping out of your feelings and being optimistic in the face of despair, ‘Come into the water,’ is more appropriate for floating in your feelings. It is for when you are completely broken and you don’t want to be empowered, you just need your emotions reflected back to you and validated. It’s for when you just want to sit in your feelings and make sense of your emotions, irrespective of how uncomfortable they might be.
‘Come into the water,’ reminds me that there is strength and comfort in vulnerability. We do not always have to view it as a weakness and we can simply just take vulnerability for what it is – exposure. Unfiltered, human exposure.
written by zbk