Graded on a Curve: Various Artists, Songs of the Humpback Whale

On December 15, 2004 international book, film, and would-be musical artist Moby Dick bullied his way into Los Angeles’ famed recording studio the Record Plant, where he proceeded to destroy $398,000 in recording equipment. “We got off easy,” said engineer Donny “Awesome” Tong. “Squeeze 27,000 tons of pissed-off blubber into a relatively small space and I’m surprised anything was left.”

Police apprehended Dick at West Hollywood’s Viper Room. When asked what led to his rampage Mr. Dick replied “They say sperm whales can’t sing. But you should hear my take on ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.’ Kills ‘em at the Karaoke bar.”

Dick is a good singer, but he has nothing on the humpback whale, who’s famed for the beauty of its singing. The proof lies in 1970’s Songs of the Humpback Whale. Its 127 tracks were compiled by the late Dr. Roger Payne, the biologist and environmentalist responsible for compiling the field recordings that make up 1973’s award-winning Snap, Crackle & Pop: The Sounds of Children Eating Delicious Breakfast Cereals.

In the compilation’s liner notes, environmentalist Lars Van Greif writes, “People think all humpback whales sound alike. This is the equivalent of saying Glenn Danzig sounds like Justin Bieber. Common wisdom has it male humpbacks sing to attract chicks. But there’s evidence to suggest their songs are also trash-talking challenges to other males. Your male humpbacks are always looking for a fearsome fin fight. And I can tell you now, Justin Bieber wouldn’t stand a chance.”

But seriously. Scientists may reduce the songs of humpback whales—some of which last as long as twenty minutes and are repeated for as long as 24 hours—to a simple matter of attraction and repulsion. But what I hear when I listen to these otherworldly songs is a fathoms deep mourning. And an ancient one at that.

Humankind has been in the sad song business for a paltry 315,000 years. Humpback whales have been at it for 50 million. That’s a lot of time to get it right. And sadness aside, the songs of the humpback whales are otherworldly, and small wonder—the sea is a largely uncharted alien universe. We may build sandcastles on its shores and wade in its surf, but we know less about it than we do Mars.

And there’s more going on down there than just singing. Listen and you’ll hear moans, groans, cries, clicks, moos, farts, bugle calls, some oceanic Miles Davis, and lots of petty bickering—at times you’d think you were in a small apartment listening to mom and dad arguing in the kitchen while junior practices the bassoon in his bedroom. I also distinctly hear Yanni screaming in a plunging helicopter, but that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

It’s true I’m anthropomorphizing humpback whales, and by doing so doing them a disservice. We may share a few character traits—evidence supports the fact they hate Nickelback as much as we do—but we likely know less about them than they do about us. It was Captain Ahab alone who understood Moby Dick, and it was Moby who dragged Ahab and his knowledge both to the depths of the South Pacific Ocean. Say what you will about whales, but they know how to keep a secret.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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