Last semester I was in a writing class that discussed the effects of music on human emotion. For the final, I wrote the following musical autobiography which was more or less a small playlist of songs that have great meaning to me. I quickly explain a memory tied to that song and the significance the beat or type of music has in that memory. While confusing without additional context about my life, I hope you'll like it.
“I’ll Tell Them What the Smile on My Face Meant”
The 2005 black, nine seat Suburban pulled itself over the dune with the constant hiss of moving sand, sounding to the beat of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” pouring out of the speakers. My mom never played the music loud in the car but this was the one album she allowed herself to turn up so it roared over the sound of the hot wind and the ever-approaching Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes my entire family, with the exception of my father, would pile into the car an hour before sunset and drive out on the “back beach” just as the air was cooling over the hot sand. Eight heads bobbed to the looping of the acoustic guitar melody, all awaiting the first verse with Gabriel’s slightly raspy and strained voice that I would mimic to the distaste of my siblings. I can’t listen to this album without immediately being transported to summer days like this when my mom didn’t have to work and we were all little enough to laugh ourselves tired, running away from the waves. Even when “my heart was going boom boom boom” I can listen to this song because it feels like coming home, it felt like my mom tapping her fingers on the steering wheel, and it felt like the frigid water running over my small, pink toes.
“I Won’t Put My Hands Up and Surrender”
On late spring nights you can hear my mom in the basement, singing to Dido’s “White Flag” as it hums its way out of that dusty boombox she’s had since the early nineties and can’t bring herself to throw out. It is only when the spring peepers come out that she sings love songs as she varnishes the booms of my father’s sailboat. She has too much work and is too tired to be jealous of others’ love. The song begins with a hazy, syncopated note, drawn out then layered with sweet, slow violins and, because the old basement stairs creak so loudly, I have to wait until after the chimes and Dido’s frank, sad voice fills the room before I slink my way down. Sharp and heavy, the smell of varnish makes my throat dry but I don’t mind as I listen to my mom sing along to the slow, constant bump of the syncopated beat. I hold my breath from the base of the stairs, awed with the secret performance as the violins swell into the chorus and my mom sings, “I will go down with this ship / And I won’t put my hands up and surrender / There will be no white flag above my door / I’m in love and always will be.” When I was younger, I was confused by the lyrics because I couldn’t understand the depth and breadth of love. Now that I’m older and my blood is far from lukewarm, I know I’d go down with the ship every time, and I understand how my mom wishes she wanted to, too.
“Nobody Else Gave Me A Thrill”
My grandfather dances with my grandmother’s ghost across the blue and white linoleum kitchen floor when Harry Connick Jr.’s “It Had To Be You” comes on the old, black radio sitting under the thin, lace window curtains. To my amazement, the machine swallows the CD and rattles out the trumpets, the rapid piano, and cymbals above the noisy, metal heater that lives under it. With a straight back and poised arms, my grandfather leads her into his small living room, crooning smoothly over the big band with his blue eyes shut and a smile spread across his face. He lets me stand on the fraying couch with my sandy feet and mimic playing the isolated piano and trumpet solos with my hands before I jump down onto the plush carpet and holler “It had to be you!” The bubbly song is over quickly before switching to a Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole song, but he ruffles my short, curly hair and knowingly spreads my grandmother’s quilt over my shoulders as a cape before scooping me up to his chest. I know he’s too tired to let me play superhero, so I let him set me down on his bed before asking him if we can watch Monk. He complies, “Ok Teen,” like he always does, and rubs my arms with his wrinkled hands.
“I Don’t Want This Feeling To Go Away”
You’re about a year old and I’m holding your tiny, warm hands so you can stand up and dance with me on the pale wood floor between the dining room and the living room. Mom has turned on your favorite song, Jack Johnson’s “Upside Down,” and, of course, it has your chubby body moving up and down with the slight bending of your knees. The stereo radiates the upbeat mixture of percussion and acoustic guitar as you giggle and smile, recognizing it by the time the chorus rolls around. It feels like we are on a tropical beach somewhere as my high voice echoes the background vocals and all of sudden it’s strange because I don’t mind being your older sister even though you cry a lot and you’re really needy. By the time the song is almost over, the percussion has quieted down and you’ve stopped giggling. You’re still smiling in the bright light falling in from the large windows and sliding doors and I’m left sitting under your short legs, whispering, “Please don’t go away” with Johnson’s pleas because all I want is this moment. I don’t want to get older, I don’t want to learn math, I don’t want you to grow as tall as me, and I don’t want you to stop dancing.
“I Know If You Could Snap Both Your Fingers Than You'd Escape With Me”
The summer we sank the kayak in the pool was our last free summer before we got jobs, before we were too busy for each other, before excuses and new friends came into the picture. It was the sun-kissed summer when all we had in the cabinet was three jars of mayonnaise but we didn’t mind because our time was split between swimming in the pool and pulling apart malasadas and chicken fingers in town. We set up the radio on the porch, snaked the extension cord through the gap in the sliding glass door, and turned it up just loud enough that the neighbors couldn’t exactly complain. That year we swallowed albums whole while we napped on the beach, and don’t you remember how much we fell in love with Torches by Foster the People? We spent that Fourth of July cooped up on the upstairs deck, waiting for fireworks as the mosquitos bit our blanket covered bodies. We sat there listening to “Waste” by Foster the People, enjoying Mark Foster’s high, childlike voice find its way among changing percussion and synthesized beats. By July, we had memorized all the lyrics and had developed little dance moves for every sounding of a dramatic piano key, humming along as the instrumental rose and fell rapidly with every line. It was the same summer we listened to all of Vampire Weekend’s discography and shouted “Walcott” at the sky before shouting song lyrics became ‘uncool.’ It was just us two, the sunburned Cape Cod girls looking to get off the Cape, to do something different, to adventure as much as possible not because we knew that we’d have no time in the future but because we wanted to. That was all we needed.
“So I Throw My Cards On Your Table”
The green velvet of the pool table is soft against the back of my legs and my short dress as I sit and watch you and the guys play, throwing in jokes and eye rolls as you make mistakes. When the conversation lulls, I look over the bright skyline of San Jose through the massive windows of our hotel and listen to the strumming of guitars in the alleys and parks below. From my perch on one corner, I operate the stereo by hitting shuffle in between episodes of crying laughter and bad games of would-you-rather. You never sing to me but when Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” begins to play and everyone sings along, you fall into place with the slow bass guitar, the nodding, the female background vocals, and the various kinds of percussion. I’m coerced off my seat onto the wood floor and we’re all dancing and singing in the cool air rolling in through the window smelling of sweet of hay, dust, and churros. All I could do was blush and giggle as you pulled me closer and bent down to sing the fading words against my neck. Here, a bunch of affluent white teenagers burned red and brown by the Costa Rican sun, dancing on the top floor of a beautiful hotel, sang Bob Marley, and we left them to their reggae as we escaped downstairs.
“Love is a polaroid / Better in picture / But never can fill the void”
I can’t listen to this song anymore. You took it with you when you left but I guess you’ve always had a habit of running away from things so I can’t be angry. “Polaroid” by Imagine Dragons reminds me of that night I got my car stuck in your snowy driveway. Like a nightmare I never wanted, I’m brought back to the night we spent wandering under Chinatown street lights with two dead phones, two cold, clasped hands, and two laughing voices echoing against the closed buildings. As the constant bass line is accompanied by Dan Reynolds’ hushed, flat, and direct voice, I can feel the weight of your hands on my hips and the warmth of your chest but I want none of it. The drums and a heightened computerized noise come in with a swell of nausea and nostalgia as I recall my time spent with you. I can feel my heartbeat quicken as the percussion grows stronger and his voice becomes louder, more strained. Memories run through my head. I’m there on that first warm spring day, the one when we ran across that wind-blown, abandoned island, found that swing tucked away in the cedar trees, and took the backroads home where you wiped the marsh mud from my new boots as I sat on your wooden counter top. The repetition of the clapping and slamming of the percussion is joined by background vocals so I focus my attention on the lyrics in order to escape the imminent sense of doom coming with the course of the song. My efforts fail me as I find myself ruminating and identifying with the self-deprecating phrases. I’m there in your bed, swallowing my rising emotions, when you sheepishly revealed you thought of me when you listened to this song in the shower, when you had it stuck in your head during swim meets, and when you tried to fall asleep at night. The song closes with an overwhelming layering of instrumentals and vocals explaining the ever-changing truth of love –– it ebbs, it flows, it fades, and it leaves you navigating the space between the reality in your head and the reality around you. Never am I more lost and never am I more found.
“I Keep Dreaming ‘Bout You All The Damn Time”
I wanted to take a shower the next morning and wash him down the drain but I could feel still feel his hands on my skin, imprinted like a tattoo only I could see. I wanted to say no and I wanted to push James and his cocky smile and his blonde hair off that rolling desk chair across from me. But my body was so heavy and I was draped across Neil on the black futon with my hot neck on his arm, his other hand brushing my legs that were strewn across his. I could see the color on my round face as Neil and James spoke words I couldn’t hear over the pulsing of music coming from the corners of the dim, smoke filled room. Syncopated chords slowly open up “Me Liquor and God” by Night Beds, hitting my eardrums before simple percussion and repeating lyrics haunt the track. Immediately it became my anthem as party after party, I created a cycle of slowly killing and rebuilding myself the next morning. There was ease in following a system, in turning off my emotions and not feeling the heat of his hands. In the spaces between the reverberations of the beats I could feel the formation of discomfort and emptiness, like trying to wait for a broken record run smooth but knowing, ultimately, that it never would. Near the end, the percussion dropped out and I couldn’t make out the words but the repetition of lyrics was constant enough to stand out against the spinning and blurred reality I was swimming through as I pushed empty bottles off the futon and looked up at Neil. He picked me up and brought me into the other room.
“Oh And Isn’t It Strange / How A Life Can Be Changed”
The acoustic guitar in Jamie Lawson’s “Wasn’t Expecting That” starts up abruptly and falls into a melody and I’m reminded instantly of last summer when I was in Paris. I was walking into the metro and it hit me like a ton of bricks. It may have been the fact that I hadn't eaten in a few hours, which for me was a feat in itself, but it also may have been the fact that I realized suddenly, instantaneously, that I was in love with him. Like my bittersweet realization, Lawson’s voice is rough, but just on the edges, sounding like a rusty spoon dipped in honey. The song is simple and sweet as his voice dances along to the swell of the guitar before a heavy, serious piano adds to the layering. I’m reminded instantly of talking myself out of my affections, telling myself lies despite knowing the grave truth deep down. I looked for him in the face of those I found in the metro. He had his patchy beard, she had his dark hair, he was laughing that deep laugh of his which rolls up slow from the stomach. My life began to mirror the song, happy chords coupled with grateful but sad lyrics. I noticed I was scared only because he was a safe choice –– the right choice –– and the fear multiplied with my cyclical thoughts and the growing strength of the song with each additional piano key and percussion beat. I was watching him pass by. He was good and kind and I was watching him pass by. We were on two different platforms, staring each other blank in the face, and all I had to do was make some kind of move. But chess has never been my strong suit, and love, even when we are expecting it, makes cowards of us all. I reminded myself that for every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction. If I take no action, does that mean he won't?