When my parents split up, my mom reacted to the music that had often been playing by not playing any. I think the silence was relieving to her.
The stereo system had been packed into boxes in the back of his pickup truck, and so had the desktop computer, and the headphones, and his anger. As he drove away from her for the last time, she slumped against the wall in the living room, taking in the stillness of a Sunday devoid of her husband. Devoid of noise.
I watched her posture soften, her grimace slip away — she listened to the sounds that didn’t exist anymore. No one shouted at her, no one slammed the plate glass door so hard the kitchen floors shuddered, no one threw the vacuum cleaner at the living room wall, no one muted conversations with music or played music over her opinions.
She stood up and swept the floors. She tossed a pile of leftover aux cords and portable speakers into the broom closet along with her dustpan and took music away from me.
Meanwhile, it was the summer after middle school.
I finished two years of gym class with an appetite for mid-2000s autotune. I didn’t know what the Billboard charts were yet, so I looked up phrases from songs I had heard over the radio in the girls’ locker room on the laptop I shared with my little brother.
I found Katy Perry in “Firework” — a glitzy, purple-hair-dye pop princess — relatable. Katy and I were a newly minted adolescent stereotype at its finest. I listened to her sing to me about being misunderstood, and I felt very misunderstood. “Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin / Like a house of cards / One blow from caving in” — I was pretty sure that house of cards was me, certifiably one blow from caving in.
“Firework” gave me the space to mope about my parents’ divorce.
Only, I really didn’t think about it like that. If someone had asked me why I liked the song so much, I probably would have answered that it was bouncy and colorful. The catch is: No one asked.
Bluntly put, my mom associated the presence of music with a part of her life she was trying to rapidly move away from. She never bothered asking me what I was listening to, and she definitely didn’t want me to show it to her.
So I tried showing it to my friends.
They would smile a little bit and murmur in the way that ends a conversation. Unwavering academic focus didn’t lend a particularly large amount of time for them to listen to music or develop favorite bands. So I listened to “Firework” by myself, and then I listened to “Raise Your Glass,” and “Call Me Maybe” and “Poker Face,” and I never bothered to think about what precisely it was that I liked about all of them.
Between my mom and my friends, I was left with no vocabulary to talk about music with, and no one to justify my opinions to on what a song was about or what made it good.
When I got to Berkeley, Katy Perry was basking in her latest smash, “Chained to the Rhythm,” a song I didn’t bother listening to but figured I would probably dislike. I applied to the Arts & Entertainment Department of The Daily Californian on a whim — “I like music,” I told myself.
It seems odd that Joshua hired me — I had never been to a concert before. I had never listened to a full album in one sitting before. I had never explained what I liked about the songs I listened to to anyone before. “I like music,” I told him.
“Fitz and the Tantrums” played me my second concert — my first as a writer. I walked out of the Fox Theater, clutching a handful of pink confetti, ears throbbing, “Out of My League” stuck in my head and not so much as a wisp of an idea of how I could talk about what I had just listened to.
But I had to write an article about it; I had to spew 660 words about what the performance sounded like, what it looked like, what I thought about it, whether or not I liked it. So I stumbled around with a thesaurus and wrote about all the “symbols” that were actually “cymbals.”
I turned in my review nervously. When I walked into the office, Joshua looked up and smiled at me, pointing at the swiveling chair next to him, and resumed his conversation with Rosemarie: “You know Katy Perry wrote ‘Firework’ about sex, right?”
“She did not,” Rosemarie protested.
Joshua turned to me and whispered, “Katy Perry wrote ‘Firework’ about sex.”
Olivia Jerram writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on experiencing art through other people. Contact her at [email protected].