My life used to have a soundtrack

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My relationship with music started when I was young. My parents’ albums were the first ones I listened to, and they set the tone and tenor of it. They had a lot of classical, and Broadway show cast albums, and an eclectic mix of sea shanties and French Canadian fiddle music and Leonard Cohen and for some reason Quarterflash, all of which I liked (well maybe not the Quarterflash), but I mean specifically their Beatles albums: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper’s, Abbey Road, The White Album. I listened to them on a turntable (remember how we all did that?) and taped them so I could play them in my Walkman (and that, and those?), and as a result, those two dinosaur forms of technology will forever be entwined with my relationship with that music. For one thing, the version of “Come Together” that lives in my head to this day still has the skips in it in those distinct places where there were scratches on my parents’ LPs. For another, since it was not easy to listen to one song over and over again (without causing aforementioned scratches, or having to go back and forth forever to get to the beginning of a song on tape, which I knew would eventually wear out the tape), I got to know an album as an album. I not only pored over cover art, photos and lyrics, trying to figure out what the artists had been thinking when they chose them, but I listened to the music in a particular order that the artists themselves had created (or so I thought). That meant something to me. Continuing with the albums my older brother owned — Kansas (I know), Queen, XTC, and, most importantly, The Police — the experience of listening to a record made me feel close to those artists. If I could listen to “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” while staring at Sting’s face on the album cover and/or reading the lyrics he’d written, I could absolutely convince myself that he and I were connecting, which was something I desperately wanted at the time, since I wasn’t anywhere close to having a real boyfriend. Radio and music videos — MTV arrived in 1981, when I was in 7th grade, perfectly timed to spur more budding adolescent musical infatuations — were serendipity machines, introducing me to new music or somehow playing the song I really really really wanted to hear at just the right time. 

But I truly began to define myself as a music lover when I started buying my own music, because back then, your record collection mattered. When I tell you, therefore, that the first record I ever bought was a single of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and that my first album purchase was H2O by Hall and Oates, your salient take-away should be that I, at age 13, was very much a work in progress. Always afraid of being pinned down, I declared that I had not one favorite band, but five: Hall & Oates, The Police, Duran Duran, INXS and Men at Work. I collected music by plenty of other artists (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Howard Jones, Prince, OMD, The Cars, The Bangles, Michael Jackson), but I felt like these five bands defined not just what I listened to but who I was. Because shared love of music was also, of course, an essential part of my friendships. My friends and I would go record shopping together, at the mall or, if we could swing it, to Tower Records in Manhattan (which we’d combine with a trip to all of the used clothing stores between 9th and Canal Streets). We’d go to shows together and make sure to wear the t-shirts from them to school on the same day. We’d watch our favorite videos repeatedly, mimicking every move the artists made (I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that we learned John Taylor and Nick Rhoades’s every gesture in the video for “The Reflex”) because it made us feel closer to the music. Even when we disagreed about bands (one of my friends loved Air Supply and Barry Manilow, neither of which I could abide), that, too, was a part of our jokes, our banter, how we related to each other.

College was about exploration, and music was a big part of that too. Probably the most important thing I brought to college with me, aside from the electric typewriter that could store an entire page in its memory (I know), was a massive boom box with detachable speakers. Its pivotal feature was not its portability, because realistically it was too big for me to take anywhere, but its tape-to-tape capability, which I deployed with extreme promiscuity, recording songs and albums from anyone in my dorm who had something I wanted to try. Combining those with my own tape collection, I created mixed tapes that became not just the soundtrack to my college years, but, again, I felt, a defining part of my identity. Dance Mix #1 combined pretty much everything I learned about what people liked at every party I went to freshman year, a crowd pleaser in which I took an incredible amount of pride. It was one of the many important ways in which I got to redefine myself in college: I was now someone who danced (whaaat?) and someone who could get everybody else dancing too. That was a powerful thing.

All of this continued more or less into my 20s and 30s — more parties, more concerts, more dancing, more relationships, and all run through with grunge, post-grunge, hip hop, soul, neo-soul, alt rock, alt metal, indie rock, post-punk, and on and on. The technology was changing but that, if anything, enhanced my relationship to music. CDs were much easier to collect than records, and now I could digitize them into iTunes, rather than making tapes. When I stopped buying them and just bought music from iTunes, that was even easier (I never took the time to learn how to use Napster or LimeWire, which, embarrassingly, might make me the only person my age on down to maybe 20 who can say they never stole music off the internet). Making mixes was also much easier, I could do it in my iTunes library.

The result of the omnipresence of music in my life was that a lot of my memories had musical accompaniment. Specific songs will forever be associated with moments and people. I can probably connect a song or an album with each of my friends, each of my successes and failures, and especially my hook-ups and break-ups. I know, it’s so girly, but those moments were the times when I had emotions that music could bring to a fever pitch. “Linger” by the Cranberries and “Strong Enough” by Sheryl Crow (I know) will be forever associated with guys who I pined after but never managed to date in my 20s. The excitement and potential I felt about one guy I dated in my 30s will always be associated with “Young Ones” by Peter, Bjorn and John; breaking up with another is forever connected to “Your Heart Is An Empty Room” by Deathcab For Cutie. Yes, they are all very on-the-nose; apparently my romantic side isn’t very deep.

But then at some point that just…stopped. Slowly, I think since turning 40, I found myself listening to music less and less and going to fewer concerts (I’m not sure I went to any last year, not even free ones). And at some point, I stopped buying music altogether — because I wasn’t finding new artists, because I couldn’t seem to get into new music by artists I knew (maybe because I wasn’t giving it the time), and because nobody buys music any more. As a result, aside from commercials or music videos that I worked on where music was part of the finished product (and therefore was played over and over and over again during production, making it impossible not to hear it in my head for hours/days afterwards), I can’t think of anything that’s happened to me recently that is tied to a piece of music. There are no moments in my relationship with Damon which cue a needle drop in my head, except for maybe the weekend trip we took last year where we binged on Talking Heads in the car, but there aren’t any emotions attached to that except not wanting to listen to Talking Heads any more on the way home.

I think one reason for this slow ebb of my relationship with music is that I can’t seem to write to it any more. In high school, I did all of my homework either in front of the TV or the stereo (admit it, you all did too). In college, I could study anywhere, and well into my 20s and 30s, when I was writing screenplays, the occasional short story, my first forays into blogging, I felt like music and background noise actually helped me concentrate; it was that little bit of distraction that kept my mind from wandering. Somehow, though, it doesn’t work that way any more. I can sometimes write a first draft to musical accompaniment, but when it’s time to refine, I need to be able to hear the words in my head, and listening to other people’s words now seems to make that too difficult.

But then I have to ask myself: did I stop listening to music because I couldn’t think to it, or did I stop being able to think to it because I stopped listening? Because somehow streaming, which was supposed to make discovering and listening to music easier, didn’t for me. I did Pandora Radio for a while — my favorite “station” was the one based on Beck, because it was so eclectic — until I realized that it, like conventional radio, played the same stuff over and over again. I sometimes stream on Spotify, but they don’t have Prince, and, perhaps emblematically, they don’t have the Beatles. I have some of their albums on CD, but they’re in two giant books gathering dust somewhere, and since I no longer have a DVD drive on my computer, I can’t easily digitize them into my iTunes collection – but of course I refuse to buy the albums as mp3s or mpeg4s because I already own them. The only logical place and time for me to listen to them is on the DVD/CD player in the living room when I’m working out, but why would I do that when watching TV is a much better distraction from the sweaty tedium of indoor exercise? And at other times when I used to blast a CD on the stereo — cooking, cleaning, folding laundry — my husband is usually working in the 30% of the living room that is his studio. The long and the short of it is that as other things have taken up space in my life — video-on-demand, Facebook, podcasts, a live-in spouse — music has just slowly disappeared.

These days, I’m just a binge-listener. If I’m working on something that doesn’t involve writing or video editing (for which I also need to hear), I’ll open Spotify and play everything by one artist over and over again. I do it this way because I’m only giving the music part of my attention, and/or because it’s easier just to let whatever’s playing play than stop what I’m doing and change it. The bad end of listening to music this way is that, unsurprisingly, it tends to facilitate the morphing of songs into ear worms that bounce around in the echo chamber that is my brain, possibly for days. Considering that that now generally happens with TV or commercial theme songs (since that’s the music I’m most regularly exposed to), this is an improvement. Still, at the point where I’ve been living with the song for a few days, either on Spotify or in my head or both, I can’t tell if I’m craving it or so sick of it that I never want to hear it again, or both (another and completely different way in which music is reminiscent of certain relationships I’ve had). The latest artist I discovered and then ruined for myself this way was Elle King. I heard the song “Ex’s and Oh’s” on the radio in a cab — one of the few places I hear radio these days — and it was just so catchy. So I Shazzammed it, found her on Spotify and started listening to all of her music, which is basically just one album and an EP, so it’s no wonder that I very quickly got to that place where I really want her to go away, but can’t seem to kick her out. I guess this is the way it now works for me..although I’m not sure that it really works for me.

I know things change, but considering how much music used to mean to me, it’s hard not to wonder, as I tend to do on this blog, How have I changed, and how do I feel about it? And this is generally where I tell myself that maturity is good and all that. I wouldn’t want to have the same feelings about an album or a band that I did when I was 16, because, among other things, Sting’s a massive narcissist, and real life has taught me to steer clear of those. For another, I’ve found that people around my age who are still really passionate about music seem like they’ve arrested at that adolescent moment and so haven’t developed the ability to be passionate about anything else. But still, I have to wonder, does the fact that I seem to no longer need music around mean that something fundamental that I used to like about myself is gone? Do I have less passion? Less rhythm? Less soul? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a song in my heart, but if the one currently in my head is the theme from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, does that mean I’m I dead inside, the way everyone always said we’d be when we got old? Or is it just that I’ve got other priorities right now, and music isn’t one of them?

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