Life is weird: One minute I’m dancing in a concert mosh pit, happily crammed between strangers like a sardine in a can, and then bam – pandemic. The gaze tilts, the music stops and I flop around without the tension and connection of live music in a packed house, my favorite place on earth.
But since the lockdown, I’ve been able to find one major replacement: NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts.
Tiny Desk concerts are exactly what they sound like: An artist performs while living behind, well, a rather small desk. The series has been running since 2008, starting with indie acts like Dr. Dog and the Avett Brothers, and in recent years to big names like Taylor Swift and Megan Thee Stallion. The setting is casual, the performance is relaxed – it can be as basic as a performer and an instrument – and the songs are often stripped down to the core.
Quite right, right? Actually, I’m so glad you asked. It’s a huge deal, even if it doesn’t seem like much at first glance. While I appreciate the in-your-face experience of a concert (it’s hard to forget your friend dragging you out of a mosh pit after getting hit in the face), the magic of Tiny Desk is in its simplicity. It’s just music and people in a room, a pairing that’s been sorely missed for the past year and a half.
Many of my favorite Tiny Desk concerts were released towards the start of the pandemic. There’s the gentle serenade of King Princess and the playful laughter of Harry Styles as he jokes with the audience – two videos that fill me with incomparable warmth over and over again.
But the one that has stayed with me the longest is a performance by Alicia Keys. Recorded in February 2020 and published in June, the video begins with Keys telling the audience that she “just wanted to have fun with them.” And she enjoys it. Everything about this performance – from her invitation to the audience to join her as she sings, to her unwavering smile as she plays along with her band – is exactly what music is about: living with those around you.
While playing the introductory chords to her song “Show Me Love,” Keys talks about needing love “more than ever before,” because “that’s really what connects us.” I remember shivering despite the unbearable summer heat and how heartbreaking it was that her call to unity was answered a month before the world shut down.
I think that’s what I love most about this performance. It was uploaded at a time when the world was in desperate need of love, and Alicia Keys gave me an awful lot to hold onto. It wasn’t just the wisdom and mindfulness she showed on the show, but the way she poured her soul into the music and how she hugged the audience in front of her, praising them for their voices, offering everyone in the room — the audience, her bond – a collective sense of belonging and purpose. The natural chemistry between the individuals in that room made me forget the grind I was stuck with and instead considered the value of human connection I once took for granted. Even through a screen, music can connect.
While I have seen the world return to something akin to the normality of life before the year 2020, the Alicia Keys Tiny Desk concert has remained a constant source of comfort that I often turned to. It was the accompaniment of my happiest and saddest days, but each time it was just what I needed: a gentle reminder that life isn’t eternal, but we’ll always have these humiliating tidbits of humanity. This Tiny Desk concert is my precious digital artifact. It is my memory that music is limitless, and that despite the ever-changing world we live in, it is the universal constant – the only thing that helps us understand our existence.
And if nothing else, Tiny Desk confirmed that “Fallin'” is a damn masterpiece. It’s not moshpit stuff, but I’d still do anything to be a sardine in that crowd.