“Looking For a Feeling”
Written by Waylon Payne and Pam Tillis
The wisest person that I ever met was my college philosophy professor, Dr. Virginia Osborn. She observed that we judge other people on their actions, but that we wish to be judged by others on our intentions. This contradiction exists because we know what is in our own heart, but it is difficult to truly see what is hidden in the hearts of others.
One of the only ways to do so is through art, and the intimacy of music makes it the best vehicle for understanding and empathizing with others. As both a singer and a songwriter, Pam Tillis has demonstrated a special gift for cultivating that empathy, and she does it by fully seeing those who often go unseen, like the heartsick friend of “Spilled Perfume” receiving morning after comfort, or the prodigal daughter of “Homeward Looking Angel” returning home to a father who “never talks about” her but she “still turns up in his prayers.”
This gift is fully realized on “Looking For a Feeling,” the lead single and title track of her first studio album in thirteen years. It is a remarkable rumination of human longing, as Tillis traces a common thread of yearning through the experiences of a disparate collection of characters without passing judgment on any one of them. Is there any fundamental difference between the “woman in a motel room with a seven year itch” and the “man in a cubbyhole dying to get rich?” In their actions perhaps, but not in their intentions.
In the second verse, Tillis paints a vivid portrait of a relationship in just two lines: “There’s a couple in love but they’re both thinking about leaving, wondering if the pain they’re feeling’s worth the promise they’re keeping.” We don’t even know what their eventual actions will be, but we fully understand and sympathize with them because of their revealed intentions.
The production of the record heightens a feeling of wandering desire, with a pulsating groove that drives these stories forward. An undercurrent of tension is developed but never released, suggesting that the human experience is a lifetime of always looking for a feeling but never quite finding what you’re looking for. Tillis floats above it all with a restrained vocal that offers no commentary on the stories she’s observing, saving all of her emotion for celebrating the yearning itself in the chorus. “Who can point a finger? Who can say what’s wrong?” she wonders. After all, “we all get high or low, turning over every stone, looking for a feeling.”
There’s a powerful moment at the very end of the song where her sense of wonder turns inward with a revealing couplet: “Seventeen when I joined my first band. Twenty-one when I gave a heartache my hand. Looking for a feeling…” The stories she’s been telling is her story too, and her deep understanding of her own intentions informs the empathy that she feels for others. Maybe she can’t know what their hearts long for, but we can do better by others just by acknowledging that the longing is there.
At its best, music can transcend the barriers of distrust and misunderstanding that are constructed by human nature. “Looking For a Feeling” is music that transcends.