Cue La Femme, “Septembre.” The song is not mine, but it belongs to me. I hear the name spoken in my voice — the familiar weight of the vowels as they collect on the tip of my tongue, the way the words taste like weak tea as they leave my mouth, rose sweet and watery, a little bitter. I’m proud of the song in the way people are often proud of the things they’ve made.
This kind of familiarity in tandem with a thing that is yours is hard to describe without metaphorical teas and tongues — the feeling is baseline and warm.
Record scratch. For me, nice, familiar things are extraordinary. “Septembre” doles out the rare comfort of easy listening, as it exists storyless — I just heard it and saved it to my music library.
People love to be shocked by how little I know about popular culture. When something comes on that I’m unacquainted with, an expectation that I will explain myself follows. People often recount how they got to know something — “My dad played me the ‘Star Wars’ movies when I was eight,” or “I danced with my boyfriend to Joy Division,” or “ ‘George of the Jungle’ helped me discover my bisexuality.” But the request to proliferate on how I abjectly did not come to know something is odd, as if I have a story to recount about the process of being utterly unaware a certain thing existed, or, perhaps worse, becoming aware of the existence of a thing of great popularity and not immediately racing to catch up, a la Forrest Gump in his quarterback days.
So, my friends have taken it upon themselves, and my life has filled up with teachers who explain why the subject they’re teaching is important.
The stories I hear from them before I’m introduced to art become my stories.
I think of the people before I hear the music. Manchester Orchestra, for instance, is Chris’s. The precursor to any Manchester Orchestra song is remembering how he texted me while I rode on the train — around the sputtering battery on my phone and the slow trickle of disparaging texts from my mother, he shared his favorite songs from the new album release, patient with my attempt to distract myself from the idea of going home.
I remember the conversations I had before the films more than the names of the actors I watched on the screen — “500 Days of Summer” is Sophie’s. When I hear the Regina Spektor soundtrack or see a tweet from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I remember her dorm room and the tacks digging into my back as we sat on her bed, leaning against the wall, wearing our party dresses because we had thought we wanted to go out.
No art is designed for the purpose of absorbing it alone, so it’s natural for stories to mark the art people love. But for me, nearly every piece of art in my life has a story attached to it. And it isn’t because every piece of art was memorable enough for me to remember the context — it was contextualized in a way that forced memorability.
There is art that I love more because of the story I have to go along with it. Four different people argued over the order that I should watch the “Star Wars” films in, and they texted me for the entirety of the 48 hours it took me to watch them all back to back to back to back, demanding a running commentary, sending me “Star Wars”-themed snapchats of themselves.
There are also things I would probably feel ambiguous about if I heard them for the first time by myself. The indignation or enthusiasm of the friends that showed them to me paints over the possible emotions I could have felt otherwise. Most of the art I remember processing I don’t remember for my own sake, but for someone else’s — cue “At the Bottom” from Brand New.
This makes it difficult for me to establish something as a thing of my own — even among the things I love, the comfort I should feel around them is muddled by knowing that I am not the first person to talk about loving them. There was a point when I thought this might go away when I spent more time I around them, calling them my own, but I don’t think that point will ever come.
I like all the stories around the art in my life, but sometimes I miss listening to something without an expectation or a someone else.
And with that, I miss “Septembre,” so I turn off “At the Bottom” and return to it.
For a moment, I’m alone with something that I consider mine, and it’s quiet. When the song ends, the context of all the art in my library rushes back in to meet me, because art can never really be taken away from its stories.
Olivia Jerram writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on experiencing art through other people. Contact her at [email protected].