I’m a huge fantasy fan, and I’m embracing it. I love a good witch (or a bad witch for that matter), flying carpet, epic quest, or fictional kingdom. I gave up my budding magician career at age 6, but I still hold a torch for Harry Potter and his wizarding education. I’m pretty foggy on the details of the Iraq War, but I can dissect battle tactics from Game of Thrones’ War of the Five Kings. I know little about my own religion but followed avidly God’s death in His Dark Materials. Escapism is deep at the heart of this devotion, combined with a deep feeling of mundanity about one’s own life and world; whatever the psyche behind it though, I am a fantasy nerd.
What strikes me about the list of fantasy stories I love is that they’re all books, and in time also TV shows and movies. I have always been more of a watcher and reader than a listener, but it occurs to me now that my favorite genre is not unfound in the world of music. I hereby create the genre of Fantasy Music.
Fantasy Music, like most hipster things, is like water: ephemeral and ever-changing, the more you try to grasp it the more it slips through your fingers. Essentially, it is whimsical. Of course, like book fantasy, it can be rough around the edges (and is often better in such cases). There are characters, and importantly, narrative. Sorry, Rihanna, but onomatopoeia choruses do not Fantasy Music make. The lyrics must contain at least one outlandish or otherworldly element. The music may, but does not necessarily have to, contain a harp/dirge-like chanting.
Let’s look at some examples!
“Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright
Let’s start with something simple to ease in, shall we? “Hallelujah” in a nutshell is the story of a character (addressed in the song as “you”) who loved once, until it went bad. This character is some sort of king or other medieval-type entity, because he had a throne (that “she” broke) and in the beginning some sort of courtly entertainer named David was playing music for him. The whole thing is very melodramatic bad romance.
“You and I Are a Gang of Losers” by The Dears
Talk about moody! This is pure outsider angst. There is an ominous element of war somehow, with people “getting massacred” by illiterate animalistic foes who sign their names in blood. Through it all, “You and I” share one heart and are apart from all that horror.
“Neighborhood #1” by The Arcade Fire
For more misanthropic camaraderie, you need only look as far as The Arcade Fire’s album Funeral, which is one of those albums people always feel like they should have listened to by now, which they are right about. In the first of the four “neighborhood” songs, the narrator’s neighborhood is buried in snow; he and his paramour dig tunnels through the snow to each other and live there in hippie-hobo seclusion, where they forget their old lives and “the names [they] used to know” but sometimes “remember [their] bedrooms and [their] parents’ bedrooms.” Also, there might be alchemy when he wants his lover to “change all the lead sleepin’ in [his] head to gold”? Uncertainty and inexplicability is at the heart of fantasy music. Three minutes leaves less time for explanation than, say, 4000 pages.
“Furr” by Blitzen Trapper
Blitzen Trapper makes great music to wear flannel while listening to, and “Furr” is the ultimate raised-by-wolves anthem. The narrator is “drawn into the pack” where he finds instinct and God. It is only when the manimal finds a like-minded young lovely that he “brushe[s] the leaves off of [his] snout” and settles down with her in domestic bliss. This is a great metaphor for the wandering and spiritual openness of post-adolescent youth (the late teens and twentysomethings), but also, the guy is raised by wolves.
“Wolves” by Josh Ritter
Let’s stick with the lupine theme for a moment here. First off, they are totally the new owls (anyone who’s shopped in a Forever 21 in the past two years will know what I mean), mark my word. Secondly, they are the hot new fantasy/indie animal, all instinct and ferocity and mystery. In this ditty, the wolves circle in around Josh Ritter – “in the piano,” “underneath the stairs,” and even “inside the bedsprings clickin’ cross the floor” and all he can think of is that time he and this girl were dancing to a song they didn’t know the words to. It’s like a desperation so strong you realize what’s really important, and despite the fact that you may imminently be ravaged by wolves, the music is really upbeat and pulsing and alive.
“Wolf and I” by Oh Land
Repetitive, I know, but I did warn you how hot wolves are right now (like Hansel.) Here, we delve deeper into fantasy elements. The narrator and the wolf meet “on the mountainside,” and “the only time [they] had to meet was night.” There are also dreams, which perhaps are the entire container of this whole narrative, but in which case it is no less real by fantasy standards. The music here, too, is especially weird and creepy-crawly, replete with synthy OoOoOoOohhhs. “You are the wolf and I am the moon,” that’s not a normal thing people say in this world.
Florence + the Machine, “Howl”
Last one, I promise. This is very Twilight with “the curse that falls on young lovers” which “turns them to hunters.” Florence has become “a beast” and hunts for her (scorned?) lover with “bloody feet across the hallow’d ground”, which sounds eerily like a short story I wrote when I was 14. This is basically the musical equivalent of what made the Amanda Seyfried star-vehicle Red Riding Hood great: it’s animalistic, sexy, dangerous, and almost too cool for its own good; in short, it’s what Twilight could have been.
“Lady on the Water” by Blitzen Trapper
Now we come to lyrics so rich and trippy that I can’t even really decipher them. The title here hearkens to the Arthurian legend’s Lady of the Lake, who raised Lancelot, enchanted Merlin, and gave Excalibur to Arthur. Again, there’s wilderness (fantasy stories, at least the ones I like, don’t often take place in cities) and a deep connection to nature: “Bring me branches, bring me twine/Wrap my heart upon the vine/With your wine dye my feathers/As the cock crows keeping time.” Here we also have the narrator becoming somehow animalistic, as he seems to have feathers. There is “worship” and a “divine” quality to the lush water-world this lady is in. She is painted as some sort of goddess-nymph who entrances and nurtures the protagonist. Even that it is a little hard to follow lends to the esoteric nature of the fantasy realm.
“Only If For a Night” by Florence + the Machine
Linking thematically, we again have a spectral female front and center. Here, she is a ghost from Florence’s past, a maternal figure first seen in a dream where our young heroine “threw [her] arms around her legs” and “came to weeping.” Florence readily admits that the story is “strange and so surreal”, but that the ghost is giving her very “practical” advice. There are perfect fantasy settings: lush green grass, a graveyard; there are religious overtones in the meeting being like “some holy rite” and Florence performing her own “secret ceremonials.” And, of course, in true Florence fashion, there is chanting and swelling music and harps, the song itself like “some holy rite.”
“Never Let Me Go” by Florence + the Machine
It must be said that Florence is the poster girl of fantasy music, which must be why I love her so much and have bought numerous floor-length skirts and boxes of red hair dye to transform into her. Pretty much her entire songbook could make this list, but I have attempted to abridge. “Never Let Me Go” makes the cut for having a different set of imagery than the “wilderness-wolves-wood-nymphs” paradigm. Here, she is “under” the ocean, which is “breaking over [her].” “The crashes are heaven to a sinner like me” encapsulates the linked fascination with nature and spirituality that permeates this genre, and as the chorus likewise crashes over you, you feel surrounded by the “arms of the ocean” (particularly if played at high volume in your car.)
“The Curse” by Josh Ritter
Lest you think, though, that all fantasy music must be overwrought with huge and imposing imagery and crescendos of sound, I present this quiet ambling melody. In it, an Egyptian mummy is reanimated when a female archaeologist discovers him; she brings him back to New York, where he is laid in “the tomb that she calls a museum.” The two, perhaps predictably, fall in love. One day, “it’s too much” and “he decides to get up.” Chaos ensues, but he only wants to find her. There’s a bit of the Benjamin Button to this story as the young archaeologist brings him to life and as he grows stronger she grows older, but since it’s not three hours long the saga is sweet here. Ritter also cleverly employs that country-music device where the same line is repeated with new meaning: In the beginning, “the dry fig of his heart starts back to its beating” and in the end, “the dry fig of [her] heart stops its beating.” It’s an achingly sweet love story, except one of the lovers is a mummy come back to life.
“Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up)” by Florence + the Machine
Finally, the coup de grace. I hope you enjoyed the quiet reprieve of that last song, because this one is in your face with the fantastical. There are “wrong pill to take,” a la Alice in Wonderland. Midas is turning Florence to gold in the sunlight. The “water turns from blue to red” a la Moses. Mainly, it is a coming-of-age hero’s journey. The narrator, a “rabbit-hearted girl,” “must become a lion-hearted girl”: it’s a tale of courage, bolstered by the repeated call to action, “Raise it up!” There is story, there are kings, there are heroes, there is “a price” to pay… it’s everything good fantasy should be, in three and a half minutes.
Thank Midas I finally figured out what to call my preferred genre of music, and that I now have a soundtrack to read Game of Thrones by. Any other notable fantasy songs I should know about?