When I was 14 my parents did something exceptional and found a way to send me to France with my high school. I still don’t know how they managed it. My dad’s a priest, and, at the time, my mom was raising kids full-time. But they did it.
I brought home a folder from my French class about the trip. It prominently featured a raccoon holding a baguette and included an itinerary that included staying in a chateau. “That’s a CASTLE,” I explained to my mother, a French literature major who somehow managed not to backhand me.
Thinking about that trip now, at 31, sometimes makes me wonder if I have an eidetic memory. I swear I can recall each singular instance of the trip, moment to moment, second to second. I know that can’t actually be true. I know it’s not that my memory is good, it’s that the music I was listening to provided me with a key back to a time in my life that was formative. Music does that, if you let yourself love it.
I climbed the double-helix staircase at Chateau Chambord while Thom Yorke’s plaintive voice invaded my mind and heart. I got nauseated at the back of the bus in wine country listening to Natalie Imbruglia sing that song we were all singing over and over again. Our tour guide Joel stank perpetually of whiskey and cigarettes and when I listen to Jacques Brel singing Madeleine today I can practically taste his light brown leather jacket, feel how it would’ve given if I’d put it between my teeth and bitten down as hard as I could. Ha, outside of Notre Dame a vendor tried to sell me a rubber monkey that, when squeezed, popped out a bright red and angry looking penis: Blur was playing. Eating crepes and Alethea trying to teach me how to Get Jiggy With It, the smell of the Seine.
If you really love music, there’s some of it you can’t listen to at certain times. For a long period of time, Bob Dylan made me angry and sad, until a roadtrip with my best friends through the Southwest reminded me that Bob didn’t belong to one person in one time. No music does.
That’s its beauty, right? That a song -- good or bad, pop or otherwise -- can latch on so completely to one particular moment until they fuse together and become inseparable, and then, just when you think you’ve left the song and the memory behind, it comes back and connects to a new memory, it turns into something utterly different. “This is a song about marriage,” and a baby in a chair designed to help him sit upright clasps his hands and coos and the time I wanted to burn every Dylan album into ash seems like a funny, misshapen piece of amber. This new memory, I think, this will be the one that lasts, and it’s the right thought but not quite. It will last in its way, and then another bead of golden time will be added to the thread: I am collecting strange jewels.
Right now, there’s music I can’t listen to. I mean, I could, but it would be akin to making a Y-shaped incision in my own chest and performing a living autopsy. So, you know, vastly unpleasant.
I know it won’t be this way forever, but for right now I’m creeping carefully through my iTunes playlist because it’s loaded with landmines: One false move and I’ll wake up, ears ringing, eyes focusing in on on my own charred limbs peeking out of the wreckage. Lying there half dead I spot playlists and artists that have survived the blast. They are not innocent, but they pretend to be.
I can’t hate them, and I can’t risk being blown to pieces, so I’m letting them rest. I know where they are when I want them again. It’s hard when your heart wants a song, but your brain knows well enough that listening to it will melt your innards into a viscous red paste. Like jelly, but, you know, savory and awful.
But I can’t go around existing without music. So what am I doing? I’m just listening to iTunes pop radio a lot. This means I’ve probably driven my roommate to thoughts of murder by not-ever-actually-stopping my chorus-only renditions of "All About That Bass." It also means I saw the worry reflected reflected in a friend’s eyes when I told them the idea for a T.V. pilot I had after listening to Pitbull’s "Fireball" four times in a row while taking a long, icy walk.
There is a gaudy glory in a catchy pop song. I mean, pop, that’s popular, and popular implies some universal appeal so it’s not like I’m saying something earth shattering and new: It’s popular for a reason. For whatever reason, I do associate the hits with periods of healing. I listened to Jessica Simpson’s “With You” roughly eight hundred times. I used it in a solo show I performed in college. I was aware that it was not a "good” song, but I felt warmth in my chest and in the poorly timed shaking of my booty as I bopped along to something simple and happy and something to which I was subscribing value. You can’t not belt a catchy pop song without feeling a certain sense of confidence, of plastic-packaged self-assurance and silliness that is un-take-away-able.
I will remember the time when I listened to Sia rail about wanting to swing from chandeliers as a time where I was also listening to my bones knit themselves back together. I will remember the time I earnestly expounded on the positive qualities of Ne-Yo’s catalogue as the time when I understood that I cannot control anyone, least of all myself, not if I want to be truly present. There is soaring and there is hanging in mid-air, letting the wind buffet you, keeping you aloft: Both are flying.
The songs I love remain. My heart is singing Jenny Lewis. It’s doing it so quietly I can barely hear it, but it’s there. “You are what you love, not what loves you back.” But my mouth is singing “Bang, Bang” and there is a weird sort of almost joy in that. The songs I love will be there. They will come back. They will be transformed into something new but just true and just as vivid and weird. We will hold each one up to the light and we will marvel at everything we never knew they contained.