Picking up the pipe dream

Songs of Myself

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Sitting in my apartment alone a few weeks ago, I started to enter full-on crisis mode. As usual, I was listening to Twenty One Pilots and getting emotional. No homework tonight? One large helping of existential crisis coming right up, ma’am.

I was thinking about my future — a recipe for disaster, I know. Everyone my age seems to be experiencing similar fears of the future as we slowly creep over the threshold of adolescence and into adulthood. It’s not like my panic over the uncertainty of finding employment as a humanities major in an unstable job market is anything new or special.

More specifically, I was thinking about music and how it fits into my future. In this moment, I felt absolutely certain that I would never get a chance to chase that pipe dream like I had always imagined I would. I thought about all the gigs I played and songs I wrote in high school, and then I considered with disappointment the minimal times I’ve reached for my guitar or sung to a crowd since starting college. The visions of immediate musical success I’d had as an eager incoming freshman just didn’t sync up with the reality of my infrequent trips to the practice rooms and unshakable writer’s block.

But music is so tied up with who I am that I don’t think it’s something I’ll be letting go of anytime soon. It’s always been a constant for me. It marks the passage of time, saddled with the emotions and self-identities of different points in my life.

Childhood is my dad singing along to “Hey Jude” in his pickup truck and my mom playing disco in the living room. Middle school is downloading Avril Lavigne’s entire discography off iTunes after watching the music video for “My Happy Ending” for the first time. Early high school is screaming the lyrics to “Teenagers” at a sweaty My Chemical Romance concert, and late high school is blasting “Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon with the car windows rolled down. Freshman year of college is sitting in my residence hall room with my floormates, “Heartbeat” by Childish Gambino reverberating off the walls. Or it’s falling in love for the first time to “Don’t Go Home Without Me” by Lights. Or dancing to “Style” by Taylor Swift on repeat with my best friend in her Unit 3 triple. And now, sophomore year is a whole new playlist of songs I haven’t even finished listening to yet.

In the midst of my droopy puddle of self-pity, a good friend of mine gave me some advice that really stuck. “Just do it for you and for the fulfillment it gives you, and then everything will fall into place,” he told me. I realized he was right. I shouldn’t be so focused on making a career out of music — instead, I should focus on the joy it brings me.

Looking through my journal entries from early high school, you would find angsty poems in which I vowed to never work a boring desk job or settle down behind white picket fences. I was an Alternative Teen and nothing but a rock-star career was going to cut it for me. Touring the world with my guitar on my back and a thrift-store flannel around my waist seemed like the only logical solution. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize that my interests don’t have to be so monolithic. I’ve discovered a love for other things: primarily, writing. Maybe I’d like to focus on pursuing a career in journalism, or even PR. Just because I have a variety of career paths I’m interested in, doesn’t have to mean I have to give up music.

So I’m starting to see that my fears about the future are unfounded. Just as long as I’m able to keep chasing that feeling I get from creating, performing and listening, I will be content. I can keep music in the back of my pocket or fling myself headlong into the ill-advised pursuit of a career in the arts. Either way, it will always be a part of my future.

At the same time, through the process of writing this column, I’ve started to see a renewal of my rock-star ambitions. I’ve written about everything from my embarrassing “Twilight”-influenced songwriting beginnings to the inspiration that my jazz piano-playing grandpa gave me at a young age. Just by virtue of writing about music every week, I’ve come to see with new eyes the value it holds for me. And as a result, I’m building up the guitar-playing calluses on my fingers again. I’m filling up the pages of my songwriting journal. I’m planning to finally learn how to restring my guitar and to actually figure out how to use the recording software I’ve had lying around in my desk drawer for months.

I’m not sure what the future holds, but I feel more certain than ever that I’m not putting away the pipe dream. And no matter what happens, I know that music will always be there for me, evoking emotions I could never put into words, giving me a voice where my speaking voice fails to be heard and filling my body with a rush of creative energy like nothing else on this earth.

Madeline Wells writes the Thursday arts column on trying to make it in the music industry. Contact her at [email protected].