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Music That Soothed The Soul Of The 2020-2021 Ebert Fellows


Back: Michael Phillips Front from Left to Right: Grace Johnson, Casey Daly, Scarlett O'Hara Steve Morck/Illinois Public Media

Editor’s note: Recently the 2020-2021 University of Illinois College of Media Roger Ebert Fellows – Casey Daly, Grace Johnson and Scarlett O’Hara, all rising seniors -- met with fellowship advisor Michael Phillips in the studios of WILL to explore the songs that helped get them through the last 15 months. These were songs from the soundtrack of life amid a pandemic, vast social unrest provoked by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and so many other crises.

The conversation can be heard above; below are the essays fleshing out the notion of why certain songs offer comfort, escape and a reminder of better times ahead.

“Dumb,” Nirvana, 1993 version

By Casey Daly

Kurt Cobain was a great weirdo. The 1998 documentary “Kurt & Courtney” included a tour of his childhood home in Aberdeen, Washington, in which his high school girlfriend mentioned his after-school art conquests including dismembered parts of baby dolls. Iconic wedding photos of Cobain and Courtney Love depict the couple on Waikiki Beach, looking like hell.  Love later become his punk-rock widow.

Casey Daly

Photo Credit: University of Illinois College of Media

In 1993, Nirvana recorded a live session with MTV Unplugged, comprising 14 unique renditions of the band’s popular tracks. The session was released six months after Cobain’s untimely death, solidifying his membership in the “27 Club” along with greats like Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. MTV Unplugged in New York became a posthumous, haunting and raw compilation of what would forever be Cobain’s greatest hits.

The original version of “Dumb” is a really good piece of music. The organic and tender MTV Unplugged version is even better. The stage is pink and purple like a Waikiki sunset. Cobain’s voice  swallows a room without speakers. It is the sound of yearning, pain, contentment, enlightenment -- the sound of nirvana.  I think I love this version so much because his voice cracks so much, especially when he sings “my heart is broke.”

Every few weeks on college radio, I play this song when I’m feeling particularly stormy. This seems to happen more often than it did last year. “Dumb” is a grey sky, and the sky has been grey for too long.

“Put Your Records On,” Corrine Bailey Rae, 2006

By Grace Johnson

As a girl, with my Afro-textured buns that resembled Minnie Mouse and a voice learning how to bury its tremble, I learned to internalize false obligations assigned to Black girls. One of those obligations included rejecting fear, even if my emotions told me otherwise.

Grace Johnson

Photo Credit: University of Illinois College of Media

That’s why I immediately feel grounded as Corrine Bailey Rae makes a reference to nature in the opening line of her hit song, describing how “three little birds” encouraged her not to worry. Societal norms have instructed me how to closet my magic, and to sacrifice parts of myself even when I get nothing in return. The second single of Rae’s self-titled debut album, “Put Your Records On” (2006), reminds me to take a breath and return home.

“Girl, put your records on, tell me your favorite song. You go ahead, let your hair down.”

During the past year, I’ve been a college student who has shuffled between academic, professional, and personal responsibilities, all while navigating a pandemic and a world ignited by continuous waves of social injustice.

“Some nights kept me awake. I thought that I was stronger. When you gonna realize that you don’t even have to try any longer?”

I’ve found myself going back to this song as it affirms my right to find this juggling of experiences difficult. The guitar notes throughout create an easy and playful mood. Consistent, gentle percussion, accented by chimes, creates a sense of summertime nostalgia. These sounds pair with therapeutic lyrics, leading me back to a curious girl allowed to savor her multidimensional being and reclaim her girlhood.

“Hallucinations,” PVRIS, 2019

By Scarlett O’Hara

PVRIS delivers the kind of alternative electro-rock that makes you want to stomp around in Doc Martens.

Scarlett O'Hara

Photo Credit:University of Illinois College of Media

The music creates a visceral whirlwind of lost love and ghost stories. The paranormal atmosphere heard in “Hallucinations” — the titular single off the band’s criminally underrated 2019 extended play — is there if you want to explore it. But the gravity in songwriter Lynn Gunn’s emotional vocal performance is unavoidable.

My music taste has always revolved around nostalgia, for me a feeling both comforting and terrifying. I remember stomping down a brick Urbana street while listening to this EP for the first time. It was fall 2019. I had just transferred colleges. Everything glittered with novelty, so I welcomed more new things (cautiously).

PVRIS hooked my heart in high school. Today, nothing feels quite new anymore. Urbana certainly feels colder. Just as I had gotten settled, the pandemic swept through our collective reality. It left me in out in the fog, a little confused and unsure how to find home again. Remembering how quickly that early momentum of excitement turned into a year of stillness makes me sad.

I fall back on “Hallucinations” the way everybody returns to their favorite songs. The song’s rhythmic power helps release the sadness; the lyrics speak to a shared experience stirring up past and present simultaneously. Both unsettling and calming, it’s joyful noise for streets that, until just recently, have been practically noiseless.