Listening to music isn’t just about hearing melodies and parsing lyrics, but about replaying the memories a song evokes. Just as a movie’s soundtrack can vividly summon its scenes (the way “Stuck In the Middle With You” can give you the Reservoir Dogs shudders, or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” suggests that a fun thing to do after a funeral is wash dishes with the cast of The Big Chill), we retrieve little sensory blips of our lives each time we check out a song from our mental libraries.
That’s because, during the years that we’re actively accumulating new musical input, we’re storing along with those songs the people we were when we heard them. Each time I hear Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” for example, I cruise the Avenue once more with Lisa and Gitta and Sue, the windows of Lisa’s silver Camaro rolled down for the boys who are also cruising, until we all draw too near the stinky Quaker Oats plant, and roll them, swiftly, up. The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” takes me on a visit to my brother at Iowa State, where I slam-dance in his dorm room with his cute new friends. Whenever Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” plays, the air blues over with cigarette smoke and the smell of cashews heating in the Nut Hut of the bar I tended in college. Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” brings me home from grad school, where I shuffle around the house in rhinestone-encrusted sandals, singing “Diamonds on the TOPS of my shoes” until my mother suggests I take myself outside and see if there’s a neighbor I could also irritate.
As we age, however, we eventually stop listening to new music. Maybe we settle down with a partner of a different generation, and grow weary of arguing the merits of Elvis Costello over those of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Maybe we have children, and not only do we no longer switch on the radio, but we’re forbidden to sing any lyric that wasn’t first voiced by an imaginary animal. Maybe the technology shifts, and none of our REM cassettes works in the CD player of our new minivan.
By the time we return to ourselves for long enough to listen to music we’ve chosen again, we inevitably choose the music of our youth. The question, then, is why?
Well, partly because we already have it: we take all the brand new technology and use it to transfer our albums, cassettes, and even the stray CD we bought for that rare moment in the minivan when all three kids would fall asleep, to a miraculous place called an “iTunes library.” There, we discover a process called “shuffling,” which, like a manic DJ, arbitrarily arranges our old songs in fresh new ways, the Fine Young Cannibals chasing the Talking Heads until the Police show up and take them to the Queen.
But we also return to our music because we miss being the people we were when we heard it. Oh, sure, we’d like to be more current, but what a thrill it is to summon our pasts and twirl them around the room.
This phenomenon, as much as anything, explains why many of us feel a certain age in our heads that is jarringly distant from the age of our bones. For me, that age is, roughly, 27—just a little more than half the age I am right now. And while getting stuck in time is one of the ironic markers of advancing through it, there comes a point for all of us when we can simply no longer listen to the same ten songs, time after time, without longing for the lyrics, and their associations, to shift. Yes, girls just want to have fun, but what about middle-aged women who have once again torn the meniscus in their knee?
How do we get unstuck?
The answer: find some teenagers and give them the password to your iTunes account.
Yes, at first it will be unsettling to find artists you’ve never heard of, like Marina and the Diamonds or Mumford and Sons, jockeying for position with your beloved INXS, and you may be tempted to shake your fist at your computer and order Ed Sheeran and Regina Spektor, whoever the hell they are, to get off your iTunes lawn.
You could just keep hitting “skip” until the shuffle returns you to 1982, which is a fine place to live in your head, I suppose, if you’re still happy to have Ronald Reagan as your president, your term paper on Chaucer due tomorrow morning by 8am, and seven dollars left over after this month’s bills for the purchase of either beer or Ramen, but not both.
But if you do this, and if you have enough teenagers (say, for the sake of argument, that you have three), you’ll eventually find yourself skipping more music than you’re listening to (as well as marveling over the charges on your credit card). And while you are a relatively adaptable “old” and can almost determine, without adolescent help, how to make a playlist that includes only your 30 year-old songs, iTunes will change its location the very next day, and you will have to once more endure the whites of a teenager’s eyeballs when you ask her to show you where your playlist has gone.
Or you could give in, and listen.
Before you know it, you will have created brand-new memories to store with these new-to-you songs, like the beatific expression on your son’s face when you took him to see the stage adaptation of “Monkey: Journey to the West” in New York City, because now both of you really liked the animated band Gorrillaz.
Or the time you took your daughters to a pumpkin patch, even though they were way too old for that sort of thing. On the way you there, you listened to Florence and the Machine, and decided that “Dog Days are Over” would be an excellent song for one of those musical montage scenes they throw into movies to help zip you through the boring parts. Later, when the three of you found yourselves in the middle of the world’s lamest corn maze, you each started to sing the song, all at the same time, and though parents pulled their toddlers close, you were, magically and suddenly, having an excellent time.
Cage the Elephant will become your go-to band for running whenever your bum knee allows you to hit the street, and the lyrics to “In One Ear,” a song about how people don’t listen (it goes in one ear/and right out the other/people talkin’ shit but you know they never bother), resonate just as much for middle-aged mothers as they do for angry young members of bands.
Hozier’s “Like Real People Do” will be the haunting place you store your bewilderment and delight over finally finding, in mid-life, the kind of love the songs of your youth, endlessly, sought.
And while some of the songs might well take you back, as your old songs do, to the person you used to be, there’s something reassuring about returning to that place from a distance, with something approximating wisdom. Lourde, for instance, is the sort of artist I probably wouldn’t have listened to when I was her age (she’s only 18 at the time of this writing), because her music would have rebuked my desperate-to-fit-in teenaged self. But oh how valuable she is for the mother of teenaged girls now, reminding them that it’s okay to be “kinda over gettin’ told to throw [your] hands up in the air/so there.” That the concept of a “team” can be about supporting one another, instead of choosing up sides.
And then there’s Taylor Swift, or, as nobody likes to hear me call her, my girl Tay-Tay, who doesn’t so much remind me of the girl I used to be as represent the girl my inner 27 year-old would like to be and is trying to be as she becomes unstuck in time: buoyant. She’s aging quickly now, but even so, she “keep[s] cruisin’/Can’t stop, won’t stop groovin’.”
“It’s like [she’s] got this music/in [her] mind/sayin’ it’s gonna be all right.”