This week’s question comes from reader Phil Martin:
We’ve probably all had that “wow, what is this?” experience at some point—the song that makes you suddenly tune everything else out, or the picture or video you glimpse for a moment and suddenly can’t tear your eyes away from. Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)“ comes to mind; the first time I heard it on a mix someone had made, I remember dropping whatever I was doing and standing still on the spot until it was over. What piece of art has actually stopped you in your tracks?
I was just thinking about this the other day, actually. I remember hearing a remix of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” on Milwaukee’s finest college radio station, WMSE, way back when. I’m not entirely sure I had even heard the album version at that point—this would’ve been right around the time of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got—but the “Apple Brightness” mix stopped me dead in my tracks, and I called the station to see exactly what it was. It’s actually not crazy different than the version on the album (itself a version of an old Irish poem), but this one adds some bombastic echo to the sample of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” that serves as its rhythmic bed, and also grabs some snippets of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” for color. But it’s those huge, recognizable drums that have been sampled so many times, along with O’Connor’s gorgeous, pained vocal delivery, that make the track so hauntingly fantastic.
One of my most significant “stop you dead in your tracks” encounters with a piece of art happened while in transit, so my tracks were actually barreling down the interstate at around 72 mph. I had just turned 21, and was on my very first tour with my band at the time. It’s no big shocker to reveal there were a couple of rather hungover mornings on that tour, as we hadn’t yet learned that the whole “party all night then leave at 7 a.m. to make it to the next town” wasn’t the best idea when it was just four of us and a van. But it was around quarter past 9, and we were on that beautifully austere (and endless-feeling) bridge that leads in and out of New Orleans, when my guitarist popped in the CD of Philip Glass’ Solo Piano. Two minutes in, I was transfixed. Eight minutes in, I started feeling like I could divide my life between pre- and post-this-piece-of-music. Fifteen minutes went by, and tears were streaming down my face. I had never heard something that so perfectly captured a timeless sense of existential meditation, yet felt so contemporary. It shook me to my core, and to this day, if I want to listen to that album, I have to carve out some time to be alone afterward. (Needless to say, getting through Battlestar Galactica became very difficult at times.)
It may be shocking to imagine now, but there was once a time when a found-footage horror movie was a clever twist and not a desperate gimmick. Sure, the Blair Witch Project did it years ago, but the modern found-footage renaissance began (and ended, frankly) with the original Paranormal Activity. I’m not even really big on horror movies, but very few films have ever pinned me to the edge of my seat the way that one did the first time I saw it. It’s so careful and purposeful with the way it draws out tension, to the point where the text popping up on-screen to indicate that it’s now nighttime is more frightening than a lot of the actual ghost stuff. It’s not even that the things happening at night are so spooky, it’s just that not knowing how scary things will be is sometimes even creepier than seeing a door slam on its own or whatever. Case in point, I felt all of that tension completely dissipate at the end when the girl kills her boyfriend and reveals a crazy demon face to the camera. That was so over-the-top it basically ruined the movie, but I was totally absorbed in everything before that.
This happens to me pretty regularly when I latch onto a song semi-obsessively. The very best of these can still stop me dead in my tracks years later, like “You Were Cool” by The Mountain Goats. I love it, but it also leaves me a little gutted every time I listen, which is a problem when I go on periodic “You Were Cool” kicks. I think that’s because it taps into powerful memories, and not because I had a rough go of it in high school. The song’s about empathizing with someone who was bullied, and while I took my fair share of shit freshman year, I saw others who had it far worse—people I liked or, ahem, considered cool. All-male prep schools can be maelstroms of alpha-male posturing, crushing sensitivity or eccentricity because these traits mark you as weak or weird. It feels like an accomplishment to get through it relatively intact—or as John Darnielle sings, “It’s good to be young / But let’s not kid ourselves / It’s better to pass on through those years / And come out the other side / With our hearts still beating / Having stared down demons.” It gets me every time.
I’ve wondered about this ever since I saw the Seinfeld episode where Elaine dated that guy who tuned her out whenever he heard “Desperado.” I’d ask people about their “flip a switch” song—a piece that just shut them down whenever it came on. I finally had my own answer to the question when I first heard Elvis Perkins’ “While You Were Sleeping” in the spring of 2007. The song, off his Ash Wednesday album, was inspired by the death of his mother, who was killed in the 9/11 attacks. The singer had also lost his father, actor Anthony Perkins, about 10 years earlier. I think I wept the first time I heard it, though I couldn’t quite figure out why it resonated with me so much. But when my own mother passed away in December of that year, it was one of the only songs I could bear to listen to. It starts off sparsely, but the opening line still stops me in my tracks: “While you were sleeping / Your babies grew.”
In high school, I traded a lot of my allowance and summer-job paychecks for blank VHS cassettes, which I filled with Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, Saturday Night Live reruns, and VH1 specials. Among the “100 greatest” countdowns and Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies, I managed to snag a segment about Devo—one of my first and deepest pop-culture rabbit holes—from a documentary about the history of music video. Catching glimpses of “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize” and “That’s Good” in a post-broadband, pre-YouTube age was reward enough, but the biggest treat arrived after those clips: Excerpts from Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” video. In addition to explaining a bit I’d seen Rich Hall doing in one of those aforementioned SNL repeats, “Once In A Lifetime” opened up a whole new avenue of obsession: What was this song? Did Toni Basil really teach David Byrne to dance like that? Where can I get glasses like his? (Follow-up question: “My God, what have I done?”) Exposure to “Once In A Lifetime” wasn’t just a drop-everything, stop-dead-in-my-tracks experience—it was a formative moment, influencing my musical taste and my personal style long after high school (and VHS) was over.
When I started to watch the series finale of Wonder Showzen, at first I was let down that the episode didn’t follow the typical “deranged kids’ variety show” format of most other episodes. But my disappointment didn’t last, because before long I was gaping in dumbstruck awe as the show conducted an inspired televisual experiment: The combative puppet Clarence, Showzen’s man-on-the-street reporter, simply offers members of the public an impromptu opportunity to create what he calls “compelling television.” “One, two, three, GO! MAKE GOOD TV!” Clarence barks, and the puzzled citizens react in a variety of ways as the camera fixes on them. Some go silent; some babble; one man launches into an astonishingly long monologue about the structural defects of modern society. Each segment seems to uncover another weird facet of human nature, and as such the quest for compelling television becomes, in itself, compelling television. Clarence’s “special report” distills Showzen’s marriage of big ideas and base comedy, and I am always stopped dead in near-worship of the comic minds that created this finale—a work that’s superficially junky yet possesses moving and provocative complexity beneath the surface.
Back when I lived in Chicago, I made a point of visiting the city’s Museum Of Contemporary Art at least once a month (usually on Tuesdays, when it’s free for Illinois residents). The best thing I ever saw there, which made me freeze up and just let the awe wash over me, was a piece by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who specializes in creating bizarre, beautiful spaces; he’s the guy who built a series of artificial waterfalls that poured for days into New York’s East River. At the MCA, Eliasson ran rampant, filling the entire first floor with mossy walls, rooms blanketed in pulsating colors, and beautiful sculptures made out of the interplay between glass and light. Walking through it all was actually kind of overwhelming, so when I saw a blank black opening in one of the gallery’s walls, I stumbled toward it, not entirely sure whether it was part of the exhibit or not. When I rounded the corner in the darkness, though, this is what I saw: a dark room, lit with a single, angled spotlight. From the ceiling, a gentle mist of water was constantly falling, and when the water hit the light, it exploded into an ever-shifting ribbon of rainbows. That’s Beauty, one of Eliasson’s earliest works, and on its own it more than lives up to its name. But the first time I saw it was even more magical, because the only other people in the room were an older man, standing off to one side, and his granddaughter, who was jumping and dancing in the mist, overjoyed to be playing with the rainbow. Eliasson should hire that kid to tour with him, because it was her joy in that moment that really stopped me in my tracks.
I had one of those moments when I heard Nick Waterhouse for the first time. I was at a college house party, doing what I always did at college house parties: try to ignore the music and awkwardly weave my way from conversation to conversation until I get fed up and go somewhere to stare at my phone before repeating the process. At some point during this party, though, someone with similar musical tastes to my own was handed the keys to Spotify. I was probably off leaning on a railing or sitting on a couch when the opening electric-piano chords of “Say I Wanna Know” caught my attention. When that chorus of froggy saxophones made its entrance, the rest of the party faded away, and it was just me and Waterhouse’s spirited soul throwback act. I’ve been spinning Time’s All Gone ever since.
Like many of you, I could answer this question one of a dozen different ways, but I’ll go with something relatively recent: the interrogation scene in the final episode of season two of The Fall. After the mindfuck cat-and-mouse games between serial killer Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan, who, despite finding fame as Christian Grey, really is exceptional) and DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the two go head to head in an interrogation room. For two seasons, Spector is portrayed with more context and more empathy than Gibson, whose narrative is reduced to the single purpose of hunting down Spector. When their good guy/bad guy relationship finally comes to a head in the interrogation room, Spector and Gibson come face to face in a scene that’s poignant, painful, and uncomfortably complicated. I’ve watched just this scene three separate times now, and it unspools more like theater than television: Sometimes the camera spirals slowly around them, sometimes it looks over one actor’s shoulder, and sometimes the actors speak directly into the camera. The scene is a solid 20 minutes long, with just two actors speaking to each other, but it’s a wholly consuming and unbearably intimate portrait of two people finding their intellectual match in the person they most despise.
My answer to this question is a live performance, although it has since been released officially on several occasions: Lindsey Buckingham’s live version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love.” I was fortunate enough to see one of the handful of dates that Buckingham did in support of his 1992 album Out Of The Cradle, and I can still remember standing there in awe as he delivered an absolutely scorching version of the song by himself on acoustic guitar, his fingers moving so fast that they were effectively just blurs. I walked into the concert as someone who had always liked the idea of playing guitar in principle but had never pursued it. After watching Buckingham’s performance, which was positively mesmerizing, I thought, “As soon as I leave here, not only do I need to buy a guitar, but I need to start practicing 12 hours a day.” A few years later, Buckingham started playing the song the same way in Fleetwood Mac shows, resulting in millions of fans being introduced to this new arrangement via the band’s 1997 live album, The Dance. No matter how many times I hear it, I’m in awe each and every time.
I feel lucky to have seen Fight Club and The Sixth Sense opening weekend in theaters, free of online spoilers and before they entered the cultural zeitgeist. Those were genuine shocks, but they feel like a cop-out of a subject, as I knew there was some big twist lying in wait. A truly unexpected, jaw-on-the-floor moment occurred the first time I saw The Prodigy’s uncut “Smack My Bitch Up” video. The 4:33 minute video, directed by former Bathory drummer-turned-video-visionary Jonas Åkerlund, is an uncut POV of chemically induced mayhem, viewed through the eyes of an unseen miscreant. Viscerally and visually, the video is like a Gaspar Noé nightmare on overdrive, as the subject shits, showers, shaves, snorts, and enters the night. From there, it’s a blur of excess: puke, fights, and violently misogynistic behavior. Strippers are accosted and one is finally brought home to bed. The final reveal is so simple yet staggering; a fun house mirror trick, revealing a vantage point bias, born of film and media, so ingrained that if it doesn’t shock you, you’ve already been tipped off.
In 2009, in the Guggenheim in New York, Anish Kapoor’s “Memory” took me entirely by surprise. The installation was essentially a giant, rusty riveted metal pod, shaped roughly like a blimp, taking up one room so completely that visitors were expected to have their first encounter with the thing by trying to enter a gallery and finding their way blocked by this immense bulging object in the way. But there were two more approaches to the exhibit, and the one I encountered first was the apeture: a hole cut into the side of the blimp that opened into such a dark space that from most angles, it looked like someone had painted a flat black rectangle onto the wall. When I stepped up to the hole and realized it was an access point into this giant, shadowy interior, I actually cried. It was such a strange and profound experience, seeing how this hunk of rust was such a perfect representation of memory—a huge, echoey, enclosed, private thing, most of it more felt than seen. The area near the aperture could be seen, but the rest of it stretched into shadow and darkness, representing the subconscious. Standing there and staring into the interior, my eyes slowly adjusted and I could see deeper and deeper into the space, like trying to recall a half-forgotten memory. But most of the interior was still completely unilluminated and impenetrable. Even so, the space could still be viscerally felt, like standing in a tiny room with your eyes closed, getting a feel for where the walls are. It’s still the most striking and profound piece of visual art I’ve ever encountered, and still a shock to think about how perfect the symbolism was.
Tasha’s answer reminds me of mine, which also happened in a museum: The Clock, a 24-hour film by Christian Marclay came to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York almost three years ago. Marclay cut together clips of movies (and TV shows—definitely caught some Columbo in there) that show clock faces, timed to run in real time, so the resulting film is always telling you what time it is. It sounded neat, and a friend visiting the city wanted to go, so we popped in, intending to watch it for a half-hour or so, depending on our interest levels. Guys, we were transfixed. We sat there for around 90 minutes, and kept turning to each other saying: “Okay, just another couple of minutes, then we should go,” before sitting there, fascinated by the explicitly illustrated passage of time (and, fine, also by silently playing can-you-guess-the-movie). We only pulled ourselves away because the museum would be closing soon and we had a few other things to see—and because I knew I’d be coming back to watch more of it. For a little while, MOMA let visitors access the exhibit at all hours, so I went three more times, always getting lost for hours at a time in the film’s combination of pop-culture feast and existential awareness. Part of me thinks it’s the best movie ever made.
I had this experience a lot as a young music hound, whether it was loving a song so much at a record store that I had to ask the clerk what it was (Big Star’s “O My Soul,” in one case), or hearing an album at a friend’s house and immediately asking if I could tape it (as happened with R.E.M.’s Murmur, The Replacements’ Let It Be, Meat Puppets’ Up On The Sun… I could go on). When I started writing about music, and CDs would arrive in the mail unsolicited—back when publicists still sent CDs—I’d sometimes wait years between one of those kinds of moments, where I’d push play on something I’d never even heard of and be completely in love by the end of track one. The first time it happened in my professional career is still the best. Back in early 1991, when Uncle Tupelo were booked to play the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia, their publicist sent a cassette copy of No Depression to the offices of The University Of Georgia’s independent student newspaper The Red & Black. As the staff writer responsible for calendar listings, I dutifully popped it into my Walkman to figure out if they were worth a write-up. I was physically shaking by the time opening track “Graveyard Shift” kicked into high gear. I upgraded them from “pick of the week” to a full-length article, and did a phoner with Jeff Tweedy (who wasn’t all that talkative back then, but was more press-friendly than Jay Farrar). And then I started evangelizing to all my friends. It’d take a few years before they started to catch on, but I could tell within a minute of that first song that I was hearing something major.
I didn’t watch the first season of 24, as I thought the real-time gimmick was going to be stupid. But I heard enough things that, still skeptical, I checked out the second season premiere. In that first hour, terrorists have a nuclear bomb on American soil, CTU’s only tenuous connection to them is a criminal gang Jack Bauer had gone undercover with in years past. Jack drags the government’s star witness—himself a loathsome criminal—into his boss’ office, shoots the witness in the chest, and growls, “Somebody get me a hacksaw!” One commercial break later, Jack’s bringing a severed head to prove his bona fides with the criminal gang, and I’ve gone from being disinterested in 24 to being terrified of missing the next episode. From then on, any moment that makes me an instant fan—the carousel speech, The Heavy on Letterman, Liz Lemon giving herself the Heimlich in an empty apartment—those are my hacksaw moments.
This one’s easy—Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” I was, coincidentally, driving in my car—a decidedly not-fast and very used Grand Marquis in my freshman year at a very overpriced Eastern college—when this came on the crackly radio. I pulled over and let the traffic pass. I was in tears by the end of the song, then listened carefully until the deejay told me what I’d just listened to, drove to the local record store, bought the cassette, and then drove around for an hour listening to it over and over. I was a sensitive white boy primed to be affected by a song like that, but that doesn’t change the effect it had (and still has) on me, Chapman’s resonant Joan Armatrading voice making the song’s blue collar tale of love’s disappointment and economic hardship the most moving thing I’d ever heard. (I remember a ludicrous backlash harping on the fact that Chapman wasn’t actually a poverty-stricken single mother, which reinforced how great the song really was.) Not even the fact that Michael Scott loved the song (even though he thought it was by Bruce Springsteen) can rob it of its power. I don’t pull over any more, but I always stop and listen.
I first read Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure in college, and I still remember the astonishment I felt at a certain passage. It’s a relentlessly depressing (and beautiful, and haunting) novel about failure, social classes, and bad baby names (“Father Time”? Seriously?). Early in the story, the young hero is left alone by the roadside, devastated by some recent news. The narrator explains, “Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian. But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.” Reading that the first time—the direct brutality of it, the simple, unadorned acknowledgement of how often we’re left alone and devastated in a world that has no real cause to care—was like getting punched in the gut, and I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over it.