There are many perfect things in the world – but some would venture that the most precious of them are those perfect things that can directly affect the nature of our human resilience.
Luckily, there seem to be lots more people fixated on creating good things we can all share in.
With the advent of a more Shared Value, stakeholder-centric view of the world, we find increasing numbers of enlightened CEOs and MDs, social activists, enterprisers and entrepreneurs, sustainability practitioners, CSR and Human resources directors spending increasingly large amounts of time ‘designing’ new collective, swarm-like, crowd-fuelled platforms, communities and initiatives in which we can all benefit.
Which is good.
The only small thing to bear in mind while applying all of that highly tuned brain power to great collective ends is this: most of those perfect things that compel multitudes of people towards a shared moment or community of like minds and hearts are of the ‘accidental’ variety – rarely originated, planned or conceived for the direct purpose of shaping a good thing. Mostly they begin as very particular and individual acts of self.
Music for example.
Much of music is created as an externalisation, amplification and expansion and of our highly individual inner human ‘voice’ in the world.
Our internal cadences and the rhythms of our conscious self are released through a sonorous fabric of sounds, notes, and chords strummed, struck, fingered, rubbed, pressed, plucked, picked and blown to resonate and reverberate through and across the myriad materials tribes and cultures have found to hand.
Abstracted human ‘feelings’ are moulded into personal protestations of human existence – of love, wonder, sadness, joy, recrimination, premonition, politic and destruction.
But none the less, music has given us many ‘perfect things’ that have directly affected our ability to collectively create better lives– clarion calls for better and moments of shared joy that transcend cultural generational and social barriers and definitions.
Music is both universal and particular in the ‘perfect things’ department – and one of the greatest levers for galvanising collective good stuff (as the guys and girls at Rockcorps have demonstrated to both local and global effect).
As a singular ‘universal’ concept, music is one of the most transcendent and primal forces that can be put to work in and on our human condition: a rhythmic syncopated celebration of the ‘vibration of life’ itself – shaped by the hands and instruments of our ever-evolving species.
It also delivers many highly particular ‘perfect things’. Things rooted in highly specific local and cultural mores and rituals and the social idioms that underwrite them.
I was reminded of this while overhearing three people of quite different cultural, generational and social background discuss the Led Zeppelin song, A Stairway to Heaven.
(One, I believe, was a musician, one a chef and the other a DJ.)
To many, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is one of those ‘perfect things’ – a jewel of absolute, inviolable synchronicity; between a medium (music), talents, era, emotion, social comment, context, culture, politic and the human condition: a jewel that sparkles with a quite resilient beauty.
It’s fair to say that it’s definitely got something pretty big going on there: some potency or mysticism that has made it globally famous – a piece of music loved the world over.
But does that make it universal? Does that make a song like this a prized tool in the super powered socio-cultural toolbox of rubbing along better in the global village?
What seems to reveal itself on closer inspection is that sometimes the universally transcendent only become so because they are so particular in their nature: so fiercely authentic to and of themselves.
This seemed a philosophical paradox worthy of a rummage at least.
At face value the song is based upon a startlingly simple narrative structure: a combination of a Stairway, a Lady ‘who’s sure…’, and Heaven.
Now, in semiotic and cultural referencing terms, the first two can be rustled up pretty easily in most every culture the the world over.
We all know where we are with a Stairway or some form of step system. And as for ‘a Lady who’s sure…’, greed, avarice and the machinations of the venal are indeed universal.
Both easily make the transition from a British rock culture rooted in the industrial Midlands or Black Country of the late 1960s and 70s to a broader waiting white western culture (of Christian foundation) and ever outwards along the lay lines of the old imperial and colonial powers.
But Heaven. Mmmnnn. Tricky.
In the world in which we currently exist, you need to ‘mind your language’ when it comes to the H word.
You can’t just go bandying words like heaven about willy-nilly without expecting some flack.
There are many different (and fiercely held) ideas of what constitutes a higher existence or plane of being – either spiritual or intellectual. In some, heaven doesn’t feature at all. They are in fact quite anti-heaven.
And if it isn’t God v. Science, it’s ‘my heaven’s better than your heaven ‘cos my Book says so’.
Three steps sideways and suddenly you’re up to your proverbials in pro-life protests, making love through sheets, fundamentalist settlers, abuse cover ups in the clergy, pogroms, public stoning; a light sprinkling of intifada, flag burning and explosive jihadi polemics.
But we can’t just bin the H word. Heaven is not a negotiable element in this song – the song must have it. Pardon the lateral Zeppelin referencing here BUT for the song to remain the same, Heaven is vitally important.
Without it, we’re grounded in a material and physical world focused on structural models and frameworks of habitation and modes of access and ascent, either of internal or external application and construction.
With the addition of Heaven, the ascendant become transcendent. Tick. Heaven endeavours to expand and elevate the spiritual spatial perspective and vista of the listener.
It is also there precisely because it offsets the materialism of the Lady who’s sure…
(Though far more aligned with the avarice of her materialistic certainty, Stairway to Mammon would make for a dreadful reprise and entreat.)
So; Heaven. How does that travel as a universal concept?
Let’s start by gently exploring and dissecting the types and versions clattering about in the global consciousness.
We have of course Heaven as a place adored and yearned for in the theologies of the universal Christian church.
If that’s all we’re worried about, Hosanna! Cue the works of Titian et al and begin the hearty daubing of seraphim, cherubim, chapel ceilings, lush clouds, spirited holiness, bearded men, the startling brilliance of the sun’s rays – and a lot (and I mean A LOT) of heavenly thronging.
But what of the broader version instituted across all the Abrahamic faiths?
And while we’re contemplating whose heaven in whose book, we must also take into consideration that it’s not just the cultural and theological shape or type of heaven: the number is also in question.
It is singular in our song title but in the realms of the eastern faiths that a lot of western rock stars were becoming advocates of in the late 60s and 70s, the single Heaven is replaced by heavens, the plural: or even as far as to count them – 7 Heavens.
And then there’s the issue of the nature of the Heaven or Heavens you are alluding to.
Heaven or its multiples is theologically and literally all over the place.
Dipping even the smallest toe into the subject of Heaven reveals every good reason to keep it wooly in the specificity department
In some teachings, Heaven is framed as being a plane or realm of actual existence that has physical properties and ‘exists’ in a complex intra-related and mostly interdependent set of dimensions in which ours is but one transient floor, corridor, elevator or pipe.
At its most particular, we find either the Seven Heavens of Jewish Mysticism where the seventh is the ultimate realm in which God dwells, or the 5 major types of Heaven in Tibetan Buddhism with the Akanisththa
For others Heaven is a state of being: one shaped and influenced by one’s proximity to one’s god or gods, their teachings and their ‘way’.
Heaven is in this instance therefore both relative and proximal: the closer to god you are the closer your heaven becomes. And therefore the further from god you are the more equally and appositely hellish your state becomes.
And then of course we have Heaven simply as an atomic abstraction – an expansive sub-atomic particular state of otherness – a place and state of existence other than the one we are in but still ‘of it’.
This is the realm of the Cosmic Fizz.
This is a ‘heaven’ that has not been ‘captured’ or appropriated – geo-located or physiologically and physically rendered in any artistic representation or personification – and therefore is the most ‘other’ of them.
The Cosmic Fizz is predicated on the basis that if an atom never dies, then we will continue to exist materially in some particular form after our immediate death – and exist expansively and potentially eternally. In this realm, Heaven as a state of otherness, becomes closer in its nature to the abstraction of the soul than the construction of the body.
This ‘heaven’ is also perhaps closer to the more scientific view of particularity, multiple dimensions of time space, and an infinite number of expanding, contracting and colliding universes. A world of (to punk another prog rock band of the 60s and 70s) quarks strangeness and charm.
(An article in the Economist recently pointed to the fabulous fact that in the realm of the multiverse, we’ve barely a clue as to the construct of the single one we’re currently reading this blog in – given, they tell us, that 96% of matter in our universe passes unseen through the 4% of matter that we can see. So. Is that heaven? The 96%?)
Right. All getting a bit complicated. So let’s go back to practicalities.
What kind of stairway? And where do you want it?
Umm, good question.
Well, if we’re going for heaven as an actual plane or realm from the culture of the band that wrote the song, let’s have a spiralling stairway hewn from the ancient oak wreathed in bluebells, and etched with runic symbolism, looping up and into a West Country sunset.
As for the Where? – pop it over there, on that cowslip-covered Tor: the one with the Druid’s Oak on top. Yup. There. To the left of the winsome, flaxen-haired girl playing tenor recorder.
Great. But, what if we’re in the proximal state-of-being version of heaven? The heaven as defined by the distance between us and god. Does that mean the Stairway is further away from us and, ergo, closer to god; or is it closer to us? This can surely only be answered by first defining whether the particular heavenly theology in question defines you as innately pure at birth or as born with taint (cue original sin) – and then assessing whether you’ve done anything of any substance betwixt birth and death as to shift yourself towards or away from said stairway.
Knowing what form of heaven we’re building a stairway to is key in regards to not only making structural, material and design decisions for our stairway; but more importantly in deciding whether we need a stairway at all
A stairway that ascends to a singular place makes complete sense; but in a realm of multiple heavens we must assume that multiple stairways are required (unless some form of multiple directional Hogwarts stairway can be popped in there). A heaven of multiple realms and destinations would potentially require more of a wonkavator than a stairway.
And heaven as a state of multiple interwoven planes and particularities might preferably require more a beam me up Scotty form of transportation device for ascension.
If you’re clear on where you’ve netted out on this there hopefully is just one other small hurdle. Is your universal concept of a cosmic metaphysical plane within or without?
As the funk prog-rock band Funkadeic and its master blaster George Clinton opined – “Free your ass and your mind will follow – the kingdom of heaven is within”.
If the Kingdom Of Heaven is indeed within, some form of internal stairway is in order. But then, to be punctilious for a moment, wouldn’t that be more likely to be a stair-well? One where we could peer over the edge of the balustrade up or down and spot some other traveller ascending towards a higher existence.
So, ermmm, where was I? Yes.
The question of whether Stairway To Heaven; a very socio-culturally particular piece of music, has transcended all barriers and idioms to be one of those cultural assets that can be put in the big, sharing, feel-good box of our most resilient humanity?
Dunno. Heavens apart, we can only answer that through the witnessing of its application and effect in the world at scale across myriad cultures.
Do they play it on the radio in The Gaza Strip and Damascus? (My assumption would be that at least one of the settlers from the U.S. will have bought some of their college radio loves with them!)
How does it roll in the Far-East?. I am certain that there are many bars in Korea and Vietnam that feature this on their juke-box. And given the tsunami of Australians surging through from the other direction, I cant imagine that even the distant hills of Tibet and the northern Chinese provinces are immune to its charms.
In terms of its authenticity and integrity, would a lover of the song in Bhutan just be ‘pretending’ to know its meaning and sub-text just because they’re not from West Bromich and have absolutely no clue as to who the ‘Baggies’ are?
Bridget Jones Diary and the women’s prison in Bangkok comes to mind. The original lyrics of Like A Virgin swapped out for something that just sounds more ‘right’ to the singer in their own cultural opinion.
There’s a lady whose nose only tickles if cold.
In the end it doesn’t really matter. If the feeling is right, does anyone care how it thinks or reads?
All that matters is that there is a piece of music in the world, one of tens of thousands of them, that can bring the most diverse groups of people together in the bat of an eye with no need for social engineering, complex structures, trending language or roundtable debates.
A piece of music that can collectively lift peoples hearts and spirits to expect and demand better. Created for joy and expression. Not utility.
When shaping narratives of collectivism and shared value we should remember the joy part of that. The lightness it brings with it. Because we make a lot of these collectivist and shared initiatives far too serious and far less human because of it.
As Robert Plant asks us directly:
“Do you remember laughter?”
I’ll sing badly in the shower to that.
Now, where’s that ABBA album?