When I was 4, my favorite band was Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t know it was called that, but I could recognize it anywhere — at the first strains of Stevie Nicks, I left whatever I was doing and ran into the living room, bunches of Beanie Babies squeezed in my fists. My mom says I shouted “moosic, moosic” as I ran in dizzying circles around the edge of the carpet.
She would stand at the edge of the room, arms crossed, bemused smile settled on her lips, and watch my little legs stumble around in tempoless joy. My dad would hover by the stereo, flipping through his collection of discs.
I fidgeted in the middle of the carpet while he cued up the next tune. Sometimes I would wander over and watch his precise search for the one he wanted. I tilted my head back and looked up at the rows and rows of rainbowy saucers boxed neatly in translucent Tupperware.
My dad liked music in a surface way. Outside of my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs, things played once or twice, never again; it was a point of pride. He had collected more music than he could ever listen to, so he only listened to what he wanted to hear.
Sometimes, other people’s love of the music you’re playing is only a side effect of the feeling you get from playing that music for yourself.
As I grew up, the stereo collected dust. My dad moved his collection to an iTunes catalog of thousands that he funneled into his ears with expensive headphones — he didn’t play his music out loud anymore. I told him I missed it, so when I was 9, he gave me my first iPod: a second-generation shuffle, lime-colored, named “Green Rabbit.”
From his desktop computer, he downloaded a gigabyte of his music collection onto it, dropping the small, shiny block into my palm — “Here you go, I hope you enjoy it.”
Like the multitude of sounds I had heard coming from the stereo speakers, “Green Rabbit” was enormous and directionless.
Finding a song I loved was unusual in the unordered, unlabeled mass of hundreds that I now, all of a sudden, owned. All of the music in “Green Rabbit” was mine — I played it for myself, through my earbuds, only when I wanted to hear it — but I had no control over it.
I remember finding a song I particularly loved one day — I restarted the song over and over again, listening to it in a loop. When I switched on my iPod the next day, it played me a different song. I listened to “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Octopus’s Garden,” waiting for the song I loved to come back, but I couldn’t find it.
At first, I was sad; I tried to remember what it sounded like, but I could only hum myself a few bars of the melody. Then I gave up, and I got used to it.
I played “Edge of Seventeen” for a week and left it behind, swapping it for another, then another, letting my favorite song switch every day, enjoying it fleetingly.
When I was 13, my mom and dad bought me a new iPod. It was as big as my hand, with a touch screen, and an iTunes gift card taped to the top of the box. I created my own music library from scratch, filling it with odds and ends, probably no more than 40 songs in all. I loved scrolling through the list of music I had decided to buy, however short it was. I could select any song by name and listen to over and over again — today, tomorrow, it was always there.
I brought my songs with me everywhere. The day I left my iPod behind in a rental car, I cried.
Now I use Spotify. I still do the same thing — I find a song I love and I listen to it over and over again, letting my favorite parts of it sink into me, hours at a time for days
My friends are often annoyed or at the very least bewildered by me. But I know exactly why I do it. I love the process of getting comfortable with a song. I love the way listening to something 30 times all at once familiarizes you with it — you figure out what your favorite lyric is; you learn the bassline in the bridge so well you can tap it out with your foot while you’re thinking about something else entirely; you begin to associate the song with a certain week of your life.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with listening to music the way my dad did — that’s the way he liked it. When you’re playing music for yourself, you get to decide that.
And this is the way I like it.
Olivia Jerram writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on experiencing art through other people. Contact her at [email protected].