12 Rules For Life — the playlist!
I don’t often make playlists, but devised this one as an interesting experiment into whether I could “de-politicise” a piece of writing that holds value for a lot of people, helps them to “live with grace” (yet offends others); make it somehow more accessible to those for whom hearsay may have precluded their giving it a chance before dismissing out of hand.
There’s also a little wry enjoyment in the fact that merely making a playlist of songs that interpret the chapters, provides no indication as to whether I condone or condemn the contents of the book. It’s merely a lens on things, a creative “different take” to provoke thought and prompt debate. Can you tell, from this post and the choice of tracks, whether I’m a fan or a detractor?
Perhaps that’s a templatable model, and I can invite others to build playlists inspired by similar books.
- For instance, what might Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century “sound like” if you managed to pick a pop song for each Lesson?
- I recently enjoyed Lois P. Frankel’s Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office and can certainly think of songs relating a few of the “101 Mistakes” she describes I can heartily recommend the author-narrated Audible edition.
It’s an idea I’d had on the boil for a while after realising 12 Rules For Life has no musical complement except Akira The Don’s settings of voice recordings to his chillwave beats. I think JBP’s work deserves re-interpreting into as many artistic media as possible, especially given his declared interest in sculpture & music amongst others… so I’m glad for Akira’s contribution (especially as it led me to rediscover a love for DMX). Something that didn’t use JBP’s words verbatim would, however, surely be more thought-provoking. So here’s
In addition to the playlist, I’m hoping to work up a 12-piece set of original instrumental/orchestral works reimagining the chapter titles. Each seems fairly conducive to musical ideas… but you can’t imagine how difficult it is finding songs about “posture” (Rule One), “precision“ (Rule Ten), or their synonyms: some of these are just not what folks seem to lyricise! I’m looking forward to taking on the challenge of transmitting those concepts wordlessly.
The playlist’s title is the only obvious link back to its inspiration, so I’m writing this post as a more explicit discussion of how each piece of music was selected. Read on for an analysis of each song and its reasons for inclusion.
1. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”
Do I better my chances if I stand up straight? Open up my lungs to bring the winning edge […] stick your neck out!
Whilst the whole album is a joy, this track is particularly punchy in its lyric, veering by the end into Lose Yourself territory as they bring in combative images and attitudes, to describe whatever “opportunity” it was that sparked the song’s creation. There’s something about it that reminds me of Otouto, a firm favourite whose songs handled drowning, dancing, microscopic analyses of conversation. I would love to experience a collaboration between the two bands with the latter as producers to bring an enhanced fidelity to the drum sound. There’s also an element of Family Friends, in the guitar sound and overall phasing of the mix. But back to the reasons for kicking off the playlist with this track: the lyrics have something of a universal appeal in their unpretentious pointing out of physiology’s effect on the mind and its ability to grasp the nettle, take life in hand, make something of oneself. Admirable and admirably performed, delivered without pretension. Hell of a wake-up alarm.
2. “Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping”
This is the first of several in the playlist which, despite not explicitly lyricising anything around the Rule or even the title (what does “imagine tasting” have to do with self-care or self-help?), has a gorgeous resonance with the sensation of being kind to oneself. The music is like a bath, or a waterfall in the forest after some heavy rain. It’s also one of only a handful of instrumentally “unreal” tracks, i.e. those that have barely any discernible acoustic playing (it’s mostly electronic or synthetic) and yet it seems to touch some ancient rooted feeling that any human could understand, intuitively. Taking a pause in any day, to listen to this and remind oneself of something grounded, centered, mindful, seems like it fulfils the lessons of Rule Two.
3. “Make friends with people who want the best for you”
I should call my parents when I think of them; tell my friends when I love them
Never fails to fill my imagination with scenes of a packed festival arena with buddies arm in arm singing along to some shared favourite band, perhaps a little worse for wear but faultless in every syllable of every one of the lyrics.
The song only fleetingly gives explicit mention to friends & family, but maintains a subtext that relates grief & confusion back to the loss of those two key elements of human existence. We need community, and we benefit from a supernuclear family. We have to remember to build & nurture those, as a way of remaining tethered to reality and not getting lost as the story’s narrator has.
4. “Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today”
If I’m judging you, then my ego’s the jury; whispering in my ear always trying to deter me
This collaboration could never have come together without the four individuals working on their own skills separately, before joining forces. So often in music we see idolatry of some successful pop force and this can act as a watershed: half the kids feeling so inspired they start up a career to try mimic that success, the other half giving up in the belief they’ll never be good enough. The lyrics are certainly strong contenders for Rule Six.
5. “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”
And you of tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by; and so please help them with your youth: they seek the truth.
From the same album as Woodstock, Cut My Hair, and so many others focused on the thrill of rebellion, the sentiment of this song (albeit the one with the least coherent lyrics of the lot) gives the more sensitive side of the band, softer & in a sense more inclusive.
6. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”
If you can’t clap on the two and the four, don’t you criticize me; if you can’t boogie and shake yo’ ass, don’t you criticize me
One of the few tracks which has come to me purely as a result of this exploratory playlisting project; Gaye is not an artist I’d ever heard previously. I’ve no idea how well-known she really is, but the production aesthetic is hifi enough that she comes across as fairly established & endowed in terms of budget. Love the sass of this and it’s deceptively simple lyrics which take it all back down to those simplest human intuitions: joyous dancing & clapping as the truest measure of whether somebody has got “it”.
7. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”
Tou-toujours les projets, toujours les conférences; tou-toujours les dossiers, ja-jamais les vacances
[Translation:] Always your projects, always your meetings; always your documents, never a holiday
From these lyrics with translation you can confirm what’s already hinted at, by the sassy swaying music that Pomplamoose have crafted; the sense that this is a song about deciding how to direct one’s attention in a romantic partnership. That’s just one of the arenas in which attention is a precious commodity and certainly I could’ve looked for songs that more generally discuss being better at “prioritising” or “discerning”. However the relationship is one area in which JBP constantly reminds us of this:
Pomplamoose first lit up my radar around 2009 with their exquisite singing-head video covers of everyone from Beyonce to Edith Piaf… then in 2014 when they published their full tour profits for fans, fellow artists, and promoters, to get an inside view of touring as a revenue stream. They’re a couple and a wider band collaboration too, with this 2021 documentary taking the tour-profits-exposé approach to even greater depths. Jack & Nataly are another example, like the Petersons above, of a copule living out the romantic partnership side of Rule Seven.
8. “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie”
Tell the truth — who’s been fooling you?
Another of the Rules that was surprisingly tough to match to song. Whilst its lyrics focus more on the revolutionary sentiment surrounding the band at the time of writing, rather than explicitly telling the listener that truth is better than fabrication, I couldn’t convince myself that any of these contenders might’ve been better chosen.
9. “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”
How could this be done
By such a smiling sweetheart?
Without wanting to tread too close to the breaking of Rule Thirteen (12 More Rules is out next week — have you pre-ordered?) I’ve always held a criticism that The Kooks never quite live up to the potential of their songs especially lyrically. Why for instance was this song allowed to feature just one verse, whose words are repeated verbatim except for a tiny change in the first line each time? It’s a pretty great verse (the single reached #5 in the UK during that heady summer 2006, and those repeated lines seemed to be on everybody’s lips) but it could’ve been such an opportunity to tell a clear story with proper narrative arc and a fully imagined world of its own. Despite this worry, I’m always caught off guard by the “smiling sweetheart” line and how Luke spits it out with such spite; what a capturing of the concept of mistrust.
10. “Be precise in your speech”
Lyrically the least decipherable of the list; this was chosen on the more ephemeral basis of how the title and overall sonic sentiment fuse. I challenge anybody to find a song that communicates this Rule. Toughest of the lot!
11. “Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding”
When they saw a street, they would think about driving on it; I would think about the texture… today would be a miserable day for me
So I became a skateboarder
The only “spoken word” piece in the playlist, this takes a more direct approach at relating the story of what it’s like learning to skateboard, knowing you’re bending & perhaps breaking a whole bunch of rules, but doing it in the pursuit of something artistic, challenging, higher, and highly social. I always experience this as the climactic focal point of the playlist as we experience Bruno’s highly articulate, honest lyrics stating so clearly what skateboarding has meant to him over so many years. And the beat is just 👌
12. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”
Who will love a little Sparrow, and who will speak a kindly word?
“Not I,” said the Swan, “the entire idea is utterly absurd;
I’d be laughed at and scorned if the other Swans heard.”
I’ve always marvelled at the early works of S&G as they poetically put the case for every being from (in this song) tiny animals to (in Peggy-O) country maids to (in The Sun Is Burning) the victims of Hiroshima. Paul Simon is an astoundingly eloquent lyricist and the guitar styles that underpin his writings, are some of the most instrumentally inspirational (by the way, did you know he had an identical twin who also played a mean guitar?).
I’ll be creating another for the follow-up book “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life” once I’ve read it to fully understand the message behind each Rule name / chapter title. I’ve found this exercise of trying to “sum up” JBP’s Rules using 2–3 minute songs, has been challenging in many ways most notably the fact it forces you to verify your understanding of what the chapter/Rule is truly saying. It’s not enough to go for a song of simply the correct title or the most similar vague sentiment. And not good enough to select just one or two “scenes” from each chapter: as you can see, no songs mentioning lobsters (which, frustratingly, seems to be how every reviewer reads Rule One).
Again, I invite you to build playlists inspired by your books and enjoy the challenge, the adventure, in seeing how music can provide an extra lens on the text… even change your opinion about what the text is trying to say.