It is startling the impact that the right images in a music video can have. We all know this in our hearts, but we are so used to the visuals that generally accompany music being such a blatant case of style over substance, shallow visual cheerleaders for the ego of the artist or merely for the promotion of the song, that it is often forgotten how impactful such can be. But not everyone is content to just add silly dance routines or self-aggrandising imagery to their music, and certainly not Tobin Mueller.
Was There Once A Time is a graceful and gossamer song, a slow-burning piano and vocal track that builds tastefully into a bigger yet no less considered sound. Written originally as a cathartic exercise in his downtown Manhattan apartment following the tragedy of 9/11, the track was later used in a stage play about the Holocaust that he penned in 2005. And although the circumstances might have been very different, the song’s sentiment remains relevant.
Even though, in some aspects at least, humanity might not learn from its past, doomed to repeat its mistakes unthinkingly, the past is also a wellspring of comforts – virtue, gratitude, resilience and fortitude, warm nostalgia and fond memories – and the song reminds us that there is more to be grateful for, more that unites us, more shared experience, love and life, nourishment and guidance to be found in its lessons than that which separate us and tear us apart, sometimes in the most violent of ways.
And so, it is fitting that Tobin Mueller has chosen an array of art and images by Norman Rockwell to be the visual underlining of his sonic message. Rockwell’s work seems full of those same elements and emotions, and often, with his paintings being from the perspective of the child’s eye, add not only warmth and whimsey but also innocence and hope for the future.
Context is everything. Originally, Was There Once A Time, through the use of family footage and images, had a very personal point of view. But for all its unique and personal poignancy, it is also universally relatable, and so, with just the change of images, the song takes on a much wider embrace. Its use of Rockwell’s powerful images reminds us of what matters in life – companions and kinship, friends and family, music and celebration, trust and love and the nurturing of the next generation. No matter what tragedies befall us, no matter what horrors are imposed upon us, the importance of those things never changes.
Such a simple song. Such a powerful and perhaps perfectly timed reminder of what life is all about.