Pop songs from our past selves

Love in Conversation

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Sonnet: I’ve never really gotten the hang of Spotify. I’ll get the idea for a playlist and then immediately the impulse to shove in every song that feels even tangentially relevant, dumping entire albums in so that it quickly devolves into a 15-hour ordeal, spoiled by all the incongruous tracks I didn’t spend time culling. That, or the playlist will remain a three- or four-song-long stub, doomed from the whim it began with because the threshold for its success was too ambitious. 

What I’m trying to do, I think, is to distill a feeling: to find the perfect combination of songs to accompany — and then, later, to return me to — a particular mood or situation.

But despite my reams of disjointed, unfinished playlists, there are a handful of albums into which I’ve already stuffed the full range of my emotional spectrum: Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s Surf, Regina Spektor’s Far. And then, of course, there’s alt-J’s An Awesome Wave.

Listening to that album is like climbing in beside sheaves and sheaves of my selves, all of us listening in alongside one another. I am walking my dog — Eighteen-teen strides and she stops to abide/ By the law that she herself has set  on the hot asphalt of the parking lot below my house; I’m driving, recently licensed, on my way to take the SAT; I’m 16, attending my first concert at the Greek Theatre, unaware that this will be the site of a dozen more brainbending emotional exorcisms in just a few years; I’m on the bed in my freshman dorm room mourning my ex’s first Instagram post with a new girlfriend; I’m in Doe Library studying for a hundred different exams; I’m on the wrong train out of Rome; I’m calming myself down before a nervy first date; I’m signing the contract for my first job; I’m playing it over again. 

My superplastic adolescent brain must have formed entire synaptic circuits that loop the contours of that album. Every electric guitar squeak, every idiosyncratic lyric, every fizz of the snare: the whole thing is indelible in my consciousness. 

In a moment of panic, victory, heartbreak, elation, dejection or sorrow, whenever I feel like I need to return to myself, I can curl up, find the album cover’s blue-green square — rainbowy rivulets of the Ganges delta captured from space — and relax into its enfolding warmth. 

If only the band name wasn’t so valiantly kitsch, maybe they could live up to my dad’s assessment when I first showed him: “kind of a revamped Pink Floyd.” Couldn’t my 15-year-old self have taken that as a hint to go sniff the real stuff? 

But I’m not really embarrassed. I love that album, and its even more brilliant successors. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening to them, of tuning in to those ruffled soundscapes alongside all of the past mes, feeling everything together. 

Madeleine: Albums lend themselves to this sort of emotional layering and repeated listening, easing you in and out of feeling. Some albums become homes for years, ready and waiting for any version of myself to come in and feel their familiar warmth. I watch Sonnet reach for alt-J and I think of my own shelters: Amy Winehouse’s Frank or Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City or Saba’s Bucket List Project or (most recently) Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. 

Then there are my playlists, which become backdrops to whole chunks of time: a September in love, a summer in Brooklyn. On them, there are spare songs that reappear now like bugs in amber: relics of some old feeling. These songs, because they fell out of regular rotation, offer a glimpse at a past self that no longer exists, one untainted by all that came after it. 

“Coffee” by Sylvan Esso plays, and I’m lying on the edge of my high school best friend’s bed, staring at the ceiling while she decides what to wear, tossing discarded options on the floor. She is talking about the cultural significance of Lana Del Rey, then about Paulo Freire and her independent study, then about the utter superiority of Tex-Mex tacos, and I am humming along, savoring these bits of her. This was before our big fight, before three years of silence, before a tumbling summer of rekindling.

Or “Drifty” by Sjowgren plays and I am back in the first months of breakup with my first love, crying in my twin bed in my college home while my roommate is in the kitchen. I remember the particularly acute pain of breaking my own heart and of disentangling my days from years of togetherness. This was before he began to text me (nearly a year later) multiple times a day, messages designed to startle, or wound — before I eventually blocked him, letting go of the idea that we could be good people to each other. 

So much of my relationship with music is an experience of nostalgia, which feels funny to say at 22. My love for a song is loving the way it sounds, yes, but also loving what that music is attached to. There are songs or playlists that I don’t listen to unless I want to taste a particular nostalgia, and then that music becomes more entrenched in the memory: attached both to an experience and the remembrance of that experience.

That nostalgia is (like all nostalgias) a lie. Remembering the moments of beauty before the sadness, or the moments of sadness before the anger. But this romanticism does serve a purpose, maybe. To hold truths more complicated than the ones I carry: the way I can love a person who would later hurt me, miss a person I chose to lose.

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Music is a vessel to hold our experiences, our many selves — it gives us words (and a drumbeat) for every moment of euphoria and every particular strain of heartbreak. Sometimes, a song will encode a specific moment, transport us to a feeling we didn’t know was still there. Other times, it’s a catchall, a refuge that will welcome any version of ourselves, in any mood. 

Even now, this summer’s musical backdrop is absorbing moments of our lives. In a few months, when Rosalía’s “Milionària” plays, it’ll send us right back to the kitchen of our shared home, frying tempura vegetables and laughing as we spill them all over the floor. Then we’ll get sad, and nostalgic, and we’ll crawl back into our respective musical shelters, hoping there’s enough room among all those previous selves for our new ones. 

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected]