I’ve been told that I make an unusual number of associations between songs and the circumstances in which I heard them, or that I let these memories have too great a hold on me. Whether the extent to which I do so is unusual I can’t rightly say, but it’s certainly true that I strongly link music and memories.
I’ve never “had a song” with any of my ex-boyfriends, per se, but every guy I’ve dated or even had a long-standing crush on has a few songs that I associate with him. “Cowboy, Take Me Away” and “Would You Go With Me” remind me of one; “Teenage Dream” (the Boyce Avenue cover) and “White Blank Page” another. My first roommate has a song (“My Life Would Suck Without You”), as does the camp at which I’ve spent at least part of the past four summers (“Wagon Wheel”).
Sometimes, the songs even trigger specific memories; the last Dixie Chicks album calls to mind the college visit to Boulder during which my mother and I listened to the CD on repeat. And because I was also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams at the time, the three are somehow inextricably linked; the Dixie Chicks are the soundtrack to that book, whether I’m actually listening to them at the time or not, and playing the album inevitably calls to mind images of mountains and our old neighborhood in Denver.
I’m sure there are scores of psychology papers documenting and analyzing this phenomenon, but I haven’t read them. All I know is that certain songs have the power either to leave me basking in the glow of happy memories or devastated by my current distance from them. Some could go other way, depending on the other emotional influences at play.
The Playlist of Exes is one I know well, and I can gauge whether certain scones will buy or depress me on a given day and shape my listening habits accordingly. But I hadn’t realized that category of music might have similar effects on me.
An ex of mine, like many of my friends, was perpetually shocked by my lack of musical knowledge – my inability to name most of the biggest rock bands of the past 40 years, to recognize what songs were by AC/DC or Led Zeppelin. But the simple fact is that I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of classic rock. My father favored Sting and Coldplay; my mother, a mix of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Heart, and Bonnie Raitt.
As a child, I never gave much thought to my parents’ music or the way it might have shaped my own musical tastes; it was just background noise, something I heard regularly and without question. But when I went away to college, I found myself missing the music I had grown up listening to. It started as a vague, unidentified longing, and it was a long time before I learned to place it. But in the fall of my sophomore year, I heard a Bonnnie Raitt song on the radio, and the realization came crashing down. I raided my parents’ CD collection on my next trip home and made trips to the library to expand my Bonnie Raitt and Patty Griffin collections.
With the exception of Patty’s music, without which I would surely lose my sanity, most of what I obtained from my parents remains buried in the rarely-explored depths of my music collection. But a recent taste for Billy Joel and a subsequent Genius playlist brought several of my parents’ favorite artists together. As I sat, listening, I found myself hit with a sudden and inexorable tide of emotion. I was hard-pressed to name which emotion, exactly; it mixed melancholy and nostalgia and longing in ways I haven’t felt since the day of my grandmother’s far-off funeral. It left me open and reeling, vulnerable, so that the later appearance of a song that reminded me of an ex threatened to reduce me to a weepy puddle of mush. I fought the tears I felt prickling at the corners of my eyes; I was at work, and my (shared) office was no place for an emotional meltdown.
I won that battle, but I still eyed iTunes with suspicion for the rest of the day. How could it ambush me like that? What other songs might I need to be wary of? (Anything that played regularly on WXRT during the early 2000s, apparently). A song or two in isolation I can handle, and many of them I’ve grown to enjoy on their own terms, rather than because I grew up listening to them. I always liked Sting’s “Russians,” but it’s particularly poignant now that I have a military brother stationed not too far from a nation threatening to go ballistic. But put too much of this stuff together, especially if you mix both parents’ musical tastes, and I’m useless.
Expats, repast, and other readers – is music an emotional trigger for you too? Are there songs that make you homesick? Is it the vaguely nostalgic, man-I-want-a-real-hamburger kind, or the more crippling kind that leaves you huddled in a corner? How do you handle these associations, and what do you do when they catch you unawares? Enquiring minds want to know.