El Jaleo: A Love Letter to Music, I Suppose

November is a horrible month. Horrible because it is penultimate, overwhelming with the anticipation of change so near: the upcoming holiday season, the inevitable new year. Horrible because I’m somehow still stuck in school after 15 years of being stuck in school, and midterms have sucked the life out of me. Sometimes, I think music must be the only cure. Other times, I think I must be the most dramatic person on planet Earth.

Because it is November and November often feels like too much, I think it’s fitting to introduce my favorite painting of all time, a painting that also makes me feel too much, but in a more resonant, hopeful way: El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent. Looking at it is a musical experience. The dancer is moving through dark shadows, everything in sharp yet muted tones of brown gray black, except for the flash of red in the background, a hint of orange in the fruit resting on a chair.

We cannot hear the music this dancer surely hears, but we can imagine. She is swept away, eyes closed, pointing at something out of frame, overtaken by the moment. She is contemplative and lit up, but also enrobed in shadows. In the background, the audience is enraptured. Their heads are tilted back, or their arms are waving, or they’re gazing intently at their instruments. I, too, am enraptured. There is something darkly captivating about this painting, something vulnerable and exposed but also very, very hidden. There is much the viewer cannot see or understand, though there’s also a sense that we don’t need to understand. It is enough to sway in ecstasy for a mere moment looking upon this scene. I may not know exactly what is going on, but I don't need to. It is enough to feel, for now. It is enough to feel.

Last year, I made a playlist of songs that feel like El Jaleo. Darkly captivating, somewhat unhinged, deeply emotional, a bit confusing. Darkness awash with flecks of color, shadows infused with moments of light. Sometimes I like to imagine these songs are what was actually playing, though I would obviously be wrong (sadly, performers from the late 1800s did not rock out to modern indie/alternative songs or parts of the Succession soundtrack).

Below are songs I recommend you listen to while gazing upon this favorite painting of mine. These are songs that feel like the El Jaleo, an emotive and evocative, shadowy and sorrowful scene. Songs that make me (and soon hopefully you) want to simultaneously dance and cry and laugh and sing and go feral. Songs that are contradictions of themselves and of each other. Are they happy, are they sad, are they hopeful, are they bleak? I don’t know, but I do know they make me feel something. Hypocrites, like all of us are. Songs that make me want to tenderly peel an orange for someone I love, grab them by the hand and lead them to this painting and ask: Can you feel what I feel?

el jaleo feelings

Some lyrical highlights from this playlist:

  • You can’t separate a fire / From the flame that already burns — Cowboy Gangster Politician (Goldie Boutilier)
  • Time is here to take you by the hand, and leave you there alone / Time has come to take the last commandment and to carve it into stone / Time has come to take you by the hand, and leave you here alone — The Alien (Manchester Orchestra)
  • Ten years since I’ve seen you / Climbing out of my dreams — Sweetheart (Long Beard)
  • I need my golden crown of sorrow / My bloody sword to swing / My empty halls to echo with grand self-mythology — King (Florence + The Machine)
  • The gateway to the world / The gun in a trembling hand / When nature unmakes the boundary / The pillar of myth still stands / The swan upon Leda / Occupier upon an ancient land — Swan Upon Leda (Hozier)
  • I thought that if I stuck my neck out / I’d get you out of your shell / My faith is sick and my skin is thin as ever / I need you alone / Goodbyes always take us half an hour / Can’t we just go home? — Nobody Else Will Be There (The National)

This playlist is my love letter to the El Jaleo hanging in all its glory at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A love letter to all the patrons of art out there, who saw art they might not have been able to make themselves, but still decided to open their hearts and minds to it, to build homes for it. A love letter to all the people who consume and create art, because it is humanity’s lifeblood.

Most importantly, this playlist (and honestly, all my playlists and all my writing) is a love letter to music. My testament to how it can take you away from reality, make you breathless, make you laugh and dance and cry. How it can make you feel something inexplicable, an emotion that exists only between the walls of our chests, alongside our thrumming heartbeat. Something that becomes less when it is captured in writing, something that can only be conveyed through the sounds and sights of music and art and creative expression. I call it El Jaleo feelings, but you can call it whatever you want.