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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Earwormz: Tension

This week we decided to explore how artists use various forms of tension to elicit a physical response to their musical performance.

Jaw clenched, head vibrating, breathing deep. Tension, when used definitively, is an extremely powerful tool when creating an emotional response to music. Whether it’s from a dynamic buildup or intense lyrical word-play, this week we decided to explore how artists use various forms of tension to elicit a physical response to their musical performance.
Heroin - The Velvet Underground
A repetitive strum of a guitar, a singular drum and slow drum beat. Add in an electric violin, and Lou Reed’s shaky but commanding voice, and we’ve already begun toying with the idea of tension. This track feels like the tension I felt between my skin and the needle when I got my first tattoo. It doesn’t feel like the feeling, it is the feeling. Lou Reed’s short releases takes me back to watching the first passing of the tattoo needle on my skin as Morrison’s punching drums remind me of the machine dropping ink into my skin with each pinch. It was painful but with a side of ecstasy, as I took pleasure in watching my body change with each infliction of pain. I didn’t know which emotion felt stronger, and I surely didn’t know what felt more visceral. The track reminds us of a similar cycle, tension being built up with no start or end, taking you between frustration and relief in oscillations. The buildup of this song is relentless. Even within the song’s structure itself, I found myself questioning when the peak would finally explode, when the chorus would even show itself, when would Lou Reed even say the song’s titular word ‘Heroin’? With the ridiculously diminished and compressed drum bass line, almost indistinguishable by the ear but very much felt by your body, against the electric violin imitating a chaotic and eerie headspace, The Velvet Underground show us how tension can be used to elucidate the rise and fall of an addiction. And quite honestly, after finding ourselves listening to this song together on repeat listening session after listening session and losing control alongside the band, it is addictive in itself.
Untitled 02 - Kendrick Lamar
This track embodies the feeling of fleeting tension that comes with your thoughts as you’re struggling with a set of thoughts you can’t quite comprehend. Like the voices in your head in the midst of an anxiety attack, unable to be rationalized, fleeting by before you can hold on to them. The tension comes from a fight with yourself and your mind, and Kendrick exemplifies the feeling dramatically. The synths on the introduction take Kendrick’s delivery with it, like a kite trying to hold on against a gush of wind. His voice flails and meanders. Throughout the song, he tries to ground himself, calling for God (or the voice in his head) to listen to him as he raps about his difficulty choosing between his successful career and his life back in Compton. A chilling single note piano chord holds the tension throughout the track, as he switches his delivery style as he finally “gets God on the phone” (in classic style of Kendrick switching between his alter egos). In this conversation, Kendrick goes from confusion, through anger, and finally to triumph, reminding his audience with the beat drops that he’s only at “number 2, [I’m] not done”, merely scratching the surface. As he spits verses faster than the bassline, climaxing at the end with, finally, a release of the tension caused by his internal conflict, it feels like taking a deep breath with your body to ground your mind.
Goodnight, Travel Well - The Killers
At the tender age of ten or eleven, I remember begging my parents to buy me the new Killers CD, “Day and Age”, at its release in 2008. Using the CD player handed down to me from my dad, I chucked my new prized possession into the disc drive and experienced for the first time what would be a defining and career-altering album for this band I had grown to love. A major departure from their previous work, I started forming my own opinions of the album but stopped in my tracks at the track Goodnight, Travel Well. The final and longest song on the album, I remember staring at my ceiling as the long-winding, ruthless and unforgiving helplessness of the song grew stronger and stronger. As singer Brandon Flowers mutters at the first chorus “There’s nothing I can say, there’s nothing I can do now,'' my little ten-year-old self shivered. Never a band to stray away using electronic processors and unconventional noises to convey emotion, Flowers’ reverb is hauntingly concerning. The song’s tension is meticulously planned out, with the slow addition of louder and more impactful chords alongside the growing synths. No longer muttering, Flowers belts out, “Stay, don’t leave me, the stars can wait for your sign, don’t signal now.” We are now in a full blown emotional release. Here I am, a well-adjusted and privileged ten year old on the floor of her room, crying relentlessly alongside Flowers and guitarist Dave Keuning as they perform their emotional response to their mothers’ deaths. This was my first emotionally-induced physical response to music. The band reminds us that the goal of emotional tension is imminent release, and from helplessness comes acceptance. With Keuning’s electric guitar now coming out of hiding into a windling, they wish their mothers goodnight, and I lay still on the floor recovering.
Check out this week’s playlist to feel what we’re talking about.
Aravind Kumar and Reema El-Kaiali are columinsts. Email them at
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