Sanctuary. I can’t get that word out of my head lately, especially after reading your latest missives highlighting its importance. It’s one of today’s most relevant political terms, calling to mind the worldwide refugee crisis and America’s unresolved role in it, resonating with many who fear their civil rights are currently threatened, and truth be told, echoing in the minds of many others for whom those very liberties, afforded to people different than themselves, represent the spiraling end of the America they want to make great again. It’s not coincidental that stories about the search for haven resonate so strongly now, in Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award–winning novel The Underground Railroad; in the endlessly popular, stunningly dystopian The Walking Dead; in all those superhero movies in which landmarks and homes are detonated every 10 minutes. “There must be a better place to be somebody else,” chant the rogue lovers—a fugitive slave and a sentient computer, two archetypes of 21st-century dystopia—in Splendor & Misery, the unjustly overlooked 2016 space opera from experimental hip-hop trio clipping. As one of Whitehead’s more pessimistic characters put it, “Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick, yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.”
Jason, I’m so sorry that your life is being upended by the gentrification waves swallowing up affordable living spaces from New York to Nashville, Tennessee, to Los Angeles to Seattle, which is losing some of its most dedicated creatives to other climes amid an onslaught of homophobic tech-bros. Julianne, your naming of the dance floor as a sacred space recalls a connection I felt strongly this year, between our current predicaments and the troubles of the 1980s, when for the LGBTQ community, dance clubs became sites of political organizing and soul rejuvenation. (Tim Lawrence’s exhaustive histories of New York nightlife, the second volume of which came out this year, provide insight into this period.) And Carl, I love your stopped-clock description of listening to Halvorson. One thing sanctuary offers is that sense of time waylaid, with the chance to take a breath and run interference on impending catastrophe.
Many people seek shelter in darkened movie theaters or (increasingly) on their own couches, isolating themselves within the cocoon of Netflix-and-chill. I’m no exception, and I’m always interested in how cinema and television incorporate music to stop or otherwise manipulate their own narrative clocks. Several of my favorite musical experiences this year came within films. In Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a kind of refugee tale about semi-legal, roving “magazine crew” rings, the Top 40 becomes the central mode of self-expression for the unmoored kids who inhabit its strip-mall heartland. Their confidence comes from trap music, their sense of romance from Rihanna; these hits’ blaring beats and cartoon swagger amplify their very self-hood when they’re otherwise utterly unheard. In one amazing scene in the van carrying the kids from hustle to hustle, Q.T., a tough girl from Florida with a buzzcut and a penchant for filthy jokes, takes the lead on Lady Antebellum’s titular sorority-girl anthem. This is a profound self-revelation: Q.T. exposes a layer of herself beneath the butch demeanor, the part that still feels close to the Southern culture that has demeaned and rejected her. The scene is deeply optimistic, even romantic. It claims music as a way to maintain connections that have otherwise been exploded. It feels very true.
In Moonlight, a song played on a jukebox becomes the key to another resurrection, rekindling the desire between the main character, Chiron, and the only lover he’s allowed in his life, Kevin, who was also the agent of the violence who overtook him as a teen. (I hear you, Jason, on the film’s issues and the burden it bears.) Chiron enters the diner where Kevin, whom he hasn’t seen in years, is a chef. They laugh and haltingly converse until closing time, when Kevin turns to the jukebox. The song he picks, Barbara Lewis’s 1963 droplet of longing “Hello Stranger,” works that clock-stopping magic: Suddenly the two men are in a zone where no personal history or social circumstance can hurt them, and they can begin to open up. It’s a disconcerting moment even within a film grounded in the imperfect logic of memory. Returning home, I pulled out my old Barbara Lewis compilation and read the liner notes: Fascinatingly, “Hello Stranger” has had a Southern afterlife, it turns out, becoming a favorite within the “beach music” scene in the Carolinas. Kevin really might have found that song on a Miami jukebox in the 21st century. The complexity of Jenkins’ musical choice, creating a plausible nostalgic moment that felt like both a fairy tale and a real person’s spontaneous attempt to resurrect a dream, reminded me of how people use recordings as time loops every day.
Music can also become a portable form of sanctuary, even across a lifetime. In the soapy, wonderful NBC drama This Is Us—a program for which I’m so grateful as an adoptive mom because it’s exploring the realities of that realm of hope, love, and grief in ways that television shows almost never dare—the early story of adoptive son Randall’s birthfather William unfolds in visuals as Jackson C. Frank’s acoustic chestnut “Blues Run the Game” overtakes the soundtrack. The song recurs throughout the episode, representing the sense of loss that never fades for William, though his life gets better, and the different version of it that Randall’s adoptive mother Rebecca tries to manage even within the richness of her raising him. Frank’s languid ballad about living with sorrow, of how sorrow ebbs and resurges and becomes a thread of sound inside your head, perfectly frames the episode. And the song’s presence shows how we use music that way, too, not as something into which we escape but something we carry along even in hard times, maybe most of all then, because even just a few minutes of shelter make a difference in a storm that turns out to be the everyday weather of life.