Before the onslaught
Before the onslaught KH

There’s an odd piece of graffiti on one of the light rail trains in Seattle. I haven’t seen it in person, but I’ll get a photo of it at least once a week. “Don’t cry, Katie Herzog,” it says in thick black Sharpie. “You are wonderful!” There’s a little heart drawing after the exclamation point. Assuming this is actually about me and wasn’t written by some teen Katie Herzog’s teen boyfriend, I suppose I appreciate the compliment, but I’m also confused. Do people think I cry a lot? On the light rail? I mean, I can see why you’d think that, but, honestly… I take the bus.

I’m not sure who is responsible for that particular work of graffiti, and I would like to say, for the record, that I'm not that much of crier, but had the anonymous artist observed me at Pop-Up Magazine at Benaroya Hall last night, he or she might have written instead, “Don’t cry Katie Herzog. You’re getting snot on all over your shirt.” While I’m not sure that I’ve ever cried on the light rail, at Pop-Up, I nearly dissolved.

Pop-Up is a magazine come to life. Based in San Francisco, the group tours around the country with some of the most interesting writers, storytellers, radio producers, photographers, and thinkers around. But it isn’t just a night of reading stories. There’s a live band that plays behind the speakers and they are frequently accompanied by short films, animation, or audio clips. I’ve been to Pop-Up each time they’ve been in Seattle, and this year’s performance, was, in my opinion, the best. It started out funny—Mohanad Elshieky told a story about being kidnapped in Libya, and somehow may something disturbing and fucked up seem hilarious. There were light pieces as well, like one by Chris Colin about a man in Portland who got locked in a bathroom at Burger King, and there were some stories that were just tragic. Sophia Nahli Allison told the story of Latasha Harlins, a vibrant, ambitious 15-year-old girl who was shot in the head by a shop owner in 1991 for absolutely no reason. Her killer was sentenced to probation and community service, and Harlins’ death, which came less than two weeks after the LAPD beating of Rodney King, is credited, in part, with sparking with the Los Angeles riots. And I’d never even heard LaTasha’s name.

Allison’s piece, as well as one by Xyza Cruz Bacani about the lives of domestic servants in Hong Kong—including herself and her mother—left me in tears. Not gulping, weeping, gasping tears, but the kind of tears that happen in a theatre, when you’re hoping no one is paying attention and you wipe pretend to scratch your nose while wiping your face.

Still, it wasn’t just the sad stories that triggered crying. Sam Harnett brought along the Cappella Romana choir, a vocal ensemble based in Portland that sings ancient religious chants. The singers were brilliant on their own, but then Harnett told us about this new technology that mimics the acoustics of the Hagia Sofia, and when the choir chanted with this audio effect, my whole body shivered and the tears started up. That was bad enough, but then, during a fucking Google commercial, I really lost it. The ad, in the form of a short film, told the story of a Swedish researcher using Google Street View to help people with dementia, and while I knew, cognitively, that my emotions were being manipulated, it still worked.

What the hell is going on in moments like this? I suspect that music has something to do with it. Pop-Up’s soundtrack is meticulously curated. The live orchestra swells in moments of high emotion and it triggers something uncontrollable inside: namely, tears. Had I read any of these stories in the comfort of my home, I would have learned plenty, I’m sure, and probably felt something, but I doubt I would have actually cried. Music does this to us. The question is, why?

There’s an entire field, music psychology, devoted to answering this question, and plenty of
researchers have looked at the effects of music on both the brain and the minds. In the ‘90s, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, wrote: "I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of… our mental faculties." In other words, music stimulates parts of our brain connected with emotions like pleasure, sadness, and awe. This, Pinker argued, is a byproduct of adaptations rather than an adaptation in itself. He thinks it may be related to human’s capacity for language.

Others argue our reaction to music is about memory. This is backed up by studies that show people react more strongly to music they’re familiar with. At Pop-Up, I was unfamiliar with the music on tap, but there’s also a theory called “emotional contagion,” which, to simplify it, postulates that emotional response are catching—not just when they are transmitted person to person, but also music to human.

Stephen Davies, a professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland and one of the leading thinkers in his field, wrote in 2011: "The music is the perceptual object and cause of the listener's echoing sadness; it is her attentional focus, and her reaction tracks the unfolding of the music's expressiveness. However, the listener does not believe that there is anything unfortunate or regrettable about the music (or anything else) and she is not sad about or for the music. In other words, her response lacks the usual emotion-relevant beliefs and does not take the music as its intentional object. Despite this, the mirroring response is emotion-like rather than mood-like or irrational." In other words, it’s not that different from engaging with a sad or happy human: music, like people, spread emotions.

This, to anyone who was at Pop-Up, was probably obvious. During the Cappella Romana choir, as voices reverberated across every surface and light filtered through the smoke behind the singers (really, they brought a smoke machine), I looked around and saw many cheeks that were glistening. I wasn’t alone. It was everywhere, these tears, so I decided to stopped trying to hide it, and just listen.

I have yet to cry on the light rail, but given the right soundtrack, I realized last night, it really wouldn’t take much.