Personal Essays

Songs of Herself

Hearing old songs is a great way to get in touch with your past, but what happens when every song points to a different ex-boyfriend?

The salespeople at Bed Bath & Beyond were avoiding me. I was noticeably close to tears while shopping for a dish rack. But the urge to cry into a colander had nothing to do with the cost of kitchen accessories, it was the damn song on my iPod: one of the Magnetic Fields’ 69 love songs from their creatively titled three-disc album, 69 Love Songs, that my ex used to sing along to in his celestial tenor. That, plus the simple fact that the last time I was in Bed Bath & Beyond, he and I were shopping for domestic merchandise together. The convergence of memories caused an emotional flash fire.

Luckily, the next song made me chuckle through my sniffling. It was Kristin Hersh’s “A Loon,” which begins, “Some store/I’m not going back there anymore/Wandered in/Don’t think I’ll do that again.” I used to blast Kristin Hersh in my first car, and her music still reminds me of that earliest taste of autonomy, without the dangers of really going it alone as an adult. (Never mind that during that time I was sick with a dogged, mono-ish virus that gave me a fever for months; freedom beat out the physical pain in my long-term memory.) And after Kristin came some David Byrne song that a man in college once played for me while making a failed attempt at seduction: He’d placed a book of Weegee photos in my lap and asked in a husky voice, “Can you tell where the light source is?” I’d laughed then, and I laughed again, years later, looking like a lunatic in a crowded housewares store.

This was all my own doing. As of that morning I’d given myself the challenge of listening to every song on my iPod. A week earlier, I’d set it to shuffle and I kept hearing songs I forgot I’d loaded in, or songs I hated, or both. Then I’d thought that what I should do is listen to every song on this thing, so I can know what’s here and delete mercilessly as necessary. I had not, however, anticipated the emotional fallout of hearing my complete music collection. Memories flooded back in nausea-inducing cataracts. Which is weird, considering I’m both a music lover and indisputably sane in the membrane.

Before I started listening, I made rules for my seemingly harmless venture.

1) I had to listen to every song in its entirety. You know how people with iPods often look like they have ADD? All the skipping past songs the second they lose the slightest bit of interest—I would not succumb.

2) That said, I was allowed to skip podcasts because they’re not part of my music collection. Sorry, Dawn and Drew of Dawn and Drew Show fame.

3) I had to listen in alphabetical order. That way, if the iPod restarted unexpectedly I could just pick up where I let off. Also, I’ve noticed iPods on shuffle tend not to give a very even distribution of songs—I might end up hearing the Clash every three songs. Not cool.

But my quest ended at the Housemartins’ “Anxious.” Giving up at the letter A meant I missed my favorite—and slightly embarrassing—guilty pleasure, the Indigo Girls. And I heard only one Ben Folds song, which is decidedly not enough. I also didn’t get to the Danny Elfman film music that my best high school friend used to pump at full volume late at night as we drove on creepily winding one-way streets along the river. (We were nerds; that was our idea of a thrill. I still love us for that.) But finishing the project would have entailed another 166 hours of listening, about 2,150 songs. Seeing that one in 20 flayed my sense of well being, I’d have had to face the possibility of 107 more meltdowns before arriving at U2’s “Zoo Station.”


* * *

There once was a man who was incapable of forgetting. His memories never faded. The friend who told me this story during an eighth-grade assembly cast the man as a skinny, tormented 40-year-old who lived with his mother. His past completely infiltrated his present. And it always sucked. Memories of painful moments smarted for obvious reasons, but even the memories of joyful times stung because they were over. He took to hiding alone in his bedroom. His mother brought him Salisbury steak TV dinners. After the Bed, Bath & Beyond episode, I imagined myself in a similar scenario, except with my friends in place of the mother, bringing me Tasti-D-Lite. I was determined once I got home to purge my iTunes library of every song that made me feel bad.

These songs point to parts of my history—as markers, they’re perhaps my most reliable paths to the past.I was also starting to wonder if my experience was rooted in universal human biology or if I was a freak. In 1998, Steven M. Smith of Texas A&M published a paper in the American Journal of Psychology about the relationship between music and memory. He found that people recall a list of words best while listening to the same music they had heard when first memorizing the list. Granted, he didn’t focus on the participants’ emotional reaction to their memories (who reacts emotionally to a list of random words?), but it’s a logical conclusion that if a memory that music helps facilitate is intensely charged, the music itself would inspire a strong reaction, too.

And it turns out I’ve loaded a lot of charged-memory triggers into my iPod. I hadn’t noticed before because when they played when I didn’t feel like hearing them, I’d skip to the next song without thought; forcing myself to hear them, to really listen to them and relive their associations out of obligation, made me literally sick to my stomach.

I returned home feeling raw. The phone rang as I unlocked the door and without looking at the caller ID, I turned off the ringer. It was as though I’d spent the day staring at dead-pet photo albums while smelling my former lovers’ shirts.

Even though it was time to abandon my project, when it came time to fire up iTunes (and then set it on fire) I couldn’t erase a single song. The Magnetic Fields had to stay. So did the Strokes’ “12:51,” even though it had arrived in my library by way of an ex-boyfriend’s mix CD. These songs point to parts of my history—as markers, they’re perhaps my most reliable paths to the past. Even if a song like “12:51” reminds me of the hours I spent envisioning lifelong happiness with a man who lost interest in me after a month, that memory is still invaluable in its own excruciating way. My past is inextricably, intimately mine, and I don’t want to remove any trace of it.

But I do want to choose when I remember it.