On Hearing Oona’s ‘Don’t Look Down’ During a Week of Tragedy

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A woman in a window with shadows across her face
Oona.  (Brittany Powers)

Welcome to Pass the Aux, where KQED Arts & Culture brings you our favorite new tracks by Bay Area artists. Check out past entries and submit a song for future coverage.

As the first song on Ruin, the latest EP from Oakland singer Oona, “Don’t Look Down” had already gotten a few plays around my house before this past Tuesday, effectively working as nice background music.

Then came Wednesday morning, after the second-deadliest school shooting in America. The world should be stopping after the violent deaths of 19 children, but instead I was driving into work. I decided to play the song again, listening close this time.

I know that moments of despair can open one’s heart wide to any possible beauty, and magnify it, even exaggerate it. But Oona’s distant, cracking voice filled the car, and her words about broken hearts and lost innocence and fallen tears hit me right in the gut, the way only the perfect song at the perfect time can do.

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When my elementary school-aged daughter is with me in the car for moments like this, she makes fun of my “leaky eyeball.” On Wednesday, as I kept replaying “Don’t Look Down” while my daughter sat miles away in a classroom, the tears came from imagining what these children in Texas, age 7 to 10, saw and felt and thought in their last five horrific minutes alive.

In one instant, “Don’t Look Down” had gone from a nice background song to a cutting lament for lost innocence, and for the way adulthood wraps us in protective naïveté. We grow older, we grow higher, and we cannot look down at our past selves, those idealized dreamers of yesterday. No—we are grown-ups, a nation of Icaruses flying too close to the sun, horse blinders blocking out tragedy, don’t look down, don’t look down, keep flying, keep doing the “right thing,” keep making money, keep voting for the approved candidates, with our head so high, full of foolish pride, keep buying new cars, keep up, keep up, keep up, higher, higher...

Until suddenly, one day, 19 children are dead, bodies ripped apart by bullets, never to go home again. And we have to face facts, fall back to reality, lose our hearts, and finally, look down at what’s happened—while we’d flown higher and higher, ceaselessly against common sense, willfully ignoring the American reality of sanctioned death.

Was “Don’t Look Down” written about mass shootings? I could contact Oona and ask—but sometimes songs mean what they mean to the listener, and after this week, that’s how I'll always hear it.