When I find a song to share with my mom, I always wait until it’s the two of us in the car. It would be difficult to trace how many of our shared obsessions began with this exact scene, but I imagine the fugitivity of the moment and ourselves on the road — minds and bodies alike — are somehow linked.
It’s something to do with not having to watch her face if I don’t want to, which is something to do with fear of finding disinterest in it, which is something to do with how absurdly high stakes these transactions feel to me. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m in the crosshairs; instead, it calls my understanding of the person sitting beside me into question.
A folk cover of a Nirvana song played between those seats, as did my mom’s first contemporary hip-hop record, as did the song that initiated our (neverending) Solange phase. Once, on a night drive during my new wave spurt, I queued a sequence that started with The Replacements’ “I Will Dare,” probably included a Cars song I thought she might be able to pretend wasn’t the Cars (Dad loves, Mom hates), definitely included Echo & the Bunnymen and concluded with Iggy Pop. She told me she hadn’t listened to those songs since she was around my age, commuting to college at U-M Dearborn.
Those moments, identifying, then translating across a synapse I hadn’t detected, are the ones I wait for. The ones that compensate for the face she made when, say, I tried to convince her Bob Dylan could sing.
I don’t know if I should be writing about this. I wasn’t there to see how it began: with the artful labor of creating a mixtape. I’ve never had a cassette slipped into my hands, never consulted someone’s carefully printed, cryptic title to gather a hint as to what I might hear.
I’ve come of age in the days of Spotify and other digital streaming services. I don’t tend to look at the past in a way that lends itself to longing, so I quickly adapted to an increasingly intangible experience with music. Even after admiring box after box of vinyl, I rarely make purchases at the record stores I visit, and I don’t miss the choreography of extracting a CD without leaving fingerprints on it. Does that mean that I have no taste of that old-school magic?
I don’t think so. I think when I pull up the Spotify playlist I commissioned from a friend after hearing his favorite Kendrick Lamar song by chance and finally admitting that I had neglected a revolutionary genre for too long, I know something of its charms. I don’t think that because the songs on the digital counterpart of a mixtape were easier to compile that less attention and care were devoted to the act of compiling them. I don’t think that kind of transaction will ever depreciate if music is still part of it.
I’ve begun to confuse the absence of a person with the absence of their music. I’ve begun to confuse the presence of a person with the sound of their music. I’ll give you an example: It’s not when I visit the house where my Pa once lived that I perceive his absence most clearly. That might proceed in part from my Nana’s refusal to move anywhere else and curator-like preservation of the home they once shared. Regardless, it’s when I listen to a song and think, I know exactly who would love this song, and that person is him, and the music sharing comes to a sad, jolting halt that I know what it means for him to be gone.
It got worse when my Grandma Laura died. Unlike my Pa’s heart attack, her death was anticipated, slowly, painfully ambled toward. At one point, she gathered her grandchildren around her chair and presented us with paper butterflies, glued to adjustable clips so that we could attach it to something. It was supposed to be her way of being with us, even as her mobility slipped away. I cried in the bathroom: Because of what it meant, I both wanted and didn’t want it in the most severe way.
Six years after her death, in the process of moving in and out of college dorms, I lost the butterfly. One of the most fragile, most important belongings I have ever had, and ever will have. Telling my mom was much more shameful, much more distressing than any Catholic sacrament I had ever been forced to participate in. How could my grandmother ever be present if I lost the object in which she vested that presence?
I don’t know, but I can tell you that I turned to music.
“Paper Butterfly,” I titled it. The caption adds, “favorite songs of and songs inspired by the favorite songs of my grandma, Laura Leigh Schmidt (1948-2012).” It’s a playlist on Spotify, with a foundation of Paul Simon and Queen (her favorites), a few songs of special significance interspersed (Elton John’s “Your Song”: the song my mom told me my uncle and Grandma Laura danced to at his wedding) and, of course, songs I wish I could play for her. Yusuf’s “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” Paul Simon’s not the only one with the voice of an angel. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’s “Stars.” I can’t look at the stars / They make me wonder where you are. Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” Tell me what that feels like.
That’s more than translating across a synapse. It’s the letter I’ll never send because I can’t. It’s a language for grief, a less painful iteration of the imagined conversation, where at least the silence, still impervious, is disturbed.
So I’m confessing once and for all: I’m your Spotify stalker.
I can’t tell you how many essays and sorrows and long nights your playlists and inadvertent recommendations have gotten me through, so what I should say next is thank you.
Thank you for luring me into the worlds of dream pop and contemporary R&B, worlds I’m not sure I could have found the entrance to without you.
Thank you for dismantling the concept of “guilty pleasure,” for listening publicly, so I can also listen publicly to songs I worshipped in ninth grade, when I need them to remind me of what that time felt like.
And no, I’m not proud of this one, but thank you for showing me you’re alive when sometimes I wonder. When I haven’t heard from you in a few days, sometimes I stakeout the “Friend Activity” sidebar. Then I’ll see your name and your song and the speaker with the arcs representing sound, and I exhale. You’re okay. It’s post-punk, so you’re probably not happy. But the music is on, so you are alright. In adequate hands, for now.
I’ve used playlists as the language of my grief, so, naturally, I’ve also used them to try to make legible fleeting, off-mark feelings that could have thickened into something like love. “Could have” because I should preface this with another confession, that I forgot how the story goes. It was the same promising, blinding boy-meets-girl, followed by the same violation of boundaries, the levying of power dynamics, for which boy expresses guilt and girl comforts boy. (Who comforts girl?)
But between points A and B of course, there was music. There were songs that said, I’m trying to figure out my feelings for you. There were careful recommendations that said, You might understand this, even though no one else has. The songs added up in our minds and told us what we wanted to believe about one another. For me, that was that I found a man who wasn’t just luring me in with feigned respect for boundaries and limits, who wouldn’t take advantage. (I was wrong.) For him, it seemed something more like I was the antidote to some part of himself, with involuntary powers of healing. (He was wrong, too.)
These song statements and misrepresentations were housed in Spotify’s collaborative playlist function. We had two of them; especially in the beginning, I would contemplate my contribution obsessively. I tried to calculate all the ways it could misfire, both in terms of whether he would actually like it and whether it would say what I wanted it to say. And I would wait for his response song, check the playlists obsessively, listen the moment he added something.
One day, close to the end, at a time where I was somewhere between wanting to see him often and feeling like I was supposed to want to see him often, I was walking to work. It was cold and I’d forgotten the earmuffs he’d once complimented. To make matters worse, my hair was pulled back, so the wind gnawed mercilessly at both ears. I inserted an earbud in each, numbness still blossoming, and queued the most recent songs he added to one of the playlists.
One was about finding a reason to live in another person, which he had promised I wasn’t, that he wouldn’t let one person be that, but the song still had warmth. Another was about a couple’s atypical, wonderfully awkward track to falling in love. I felt a flood of warmth, starting with my ears. His songs playing in them, their lyrics I figured might as well be his words, warmed me from the inside out, swirled around my head, dizzying, almost fashioning a pair of earmuffs out of thin air and a few well-sung notes.
After the boundary violation, I grew resentful of his music. I didn’t look forward to adding songs to our playlists anymore; when I did, it was perfunctory and begrudging. I shuddered when I saw him listening to a song I’d recommended or whenever his name displayed on my “Friend Activity” (“friend,” the word I questioned). When I realized how not only permissible but also how simple it would be to escape this dimension of his lingering, it was ridiculously liberating. How unburdening it was to unfollow the playlists, to delete the one I made for him and lastly to unfollow him.
It’s unnerving how still, when I listen to a song by an artist he liked and I once liked, it carries a new weight of having been part of a trust I developed with someone but deeply regret. Maybe it’s that we surrender pieces of ourselves to our songs, the transaction, the dialogue that they are. We must because the associations between a person and their music is wonderful sometimes, unbearable other times and always incontrovertible.
We must, because getting free from him and getting free from his music felt like the same, almost possible, depriving but necessary thing.
It used to make me sad, how integral music or really any form of media can be to some of my relationships. I thought of it as the mark of a fizzling connection, like the unintelligible audio that occasionally bursts through static as you drive away from the tower.
Now I’m not so sure. What if, instead, it was the strongest connection we could have among ourselves? What if it’s the cables buried deep, the ones that survive the storms and are there even after the soil and pollution are piled on top?
My favorite line of poetry comes from a sam sax poem called “bury.” In it, sax entertains his fascination with burial rites, concluding with his own such preferences: “when I’m gone, make me again / from my hair. carry me with you / a small book in your pocket.”
When it comes down to it, I think I see music in a related, baseline way.
When I’m gone, remember me by my songs. Make a playlist in my name; I’ll be there, somewhere, probably in between the minor chords.