Conductor at a music stand conducting a piece of music

The mediocre music that moves us

A few nights ago, I found myself doing what I haven’t done in a long time: Digging through my Spotify favorites and playing songs I was once obsessed with. On repeat. 

You know how it goes: Each one is connected to a specific memory, a moment in time. And I don’t know about you but what surfaces first are not the details — names, dates, places. I feel first. How a breakup felt. The release when I quit that god-awful job. The moment my mom was declared cancer-free. And simmering underneath it all, a realization: “Damn. I’ve been through kind of a lot.”

This is not all that unusual, I know — we all have these milestones. But I get into it. I mean, really into it. I flap my arms, conducting every song, while energetically mouthing the words. I know how ridiculous this must have looked to my dog, eyeing me with suspicion on the couch. And heck, I saw it too: flailing limbs and intense facial expression reflected back at me in the sliding glass door of my living room. 

These songs, these musical totems, strike a chord because of music, not lyrics. In fact, the lyrics often don’t play a role at all. They can be about nothing or anything. They can even be terrible — and often are. I know one song in particular that gets me is called “Walking.” It’s written by a Norwegian pop artist, and features a simple chorus: 

So, I’ve been walking, I’ve been walking alone

Waiting for the hour, waiting for the sun

Waiting for a dream, waiting for the time

Waiting for a place to shine

It’s not poetry, but … the last line resonates. Waiting for a place to shine. Where am I supposed to shine?

The gender matchups in love songs may not exactly align either (Cher crooning about lost loves still hits, even though I’m gay.) I also spend a few tears and rabidly conducting moments on Babs. Not her classic stuff, actually; I remember getting lost in my sheets one rainy Sunday listening to “Walls” over and over again. Specifically, “The Rain Will Fall.” Dramatic. Almost cinematic. And no direct connection to my existence. But it felt so painfully yearning, so deeply sad that I connected to it. (God, what does that say about me?)

There are other tunes that just happen to cause an emotional ruffle. My Dad owns a number of Czech albums from an artist named Karel Gott. I remember listening to 45s in our basement, his popy voice scratching out ’70s hits in Czech. I was carefree and happy then. Karel always reminds me of those days.

Now, as I navigate the awkward dating landscape, I’m faced with questions about my musical taste and preference. “What do you like to listen to before bed?” “What’s a good Saturday morning and coffee album?” “What do you put on when you go to bed?”

I don’t really have answers to these questions. Not really. I’m not a Swiftie or a Beehiver. I never was a Belieber or fan of any one artist — at least, not enough of a fan to warrant a nickname. I just collect songs that play in pivotal moments in my life. And many, I confess, are mediocre. Bad lyrics. Overly simple melody. Rough around the edges or just too saccharine sweet to be given much merit. 

But I love them — because they were the soundtrack to a first kiss, an epic night with a close friend, a night spent in tears on my couch, recovering from broken-heartedness. They help me remember where I came from, what I’ve done, and who I am. And despite the pain that absolutely surfaces, it is a sobering reminder that I am uniquely me: Made for unique things, accomplishing unique things, starting ripples that will (hopefully) shake the future. I have done good, I have survived the rough stuff, and I’m moving with the possibility of making the change I want to see in the world.

Cheesy, I know. And perhaps a bit naive. But that’s me. And if you’re lucky enough to get me on a date and ask me what songs I like to listen to, I’d have a few that cement that very belief — along with stories that invariably start with my feverishly conducting in my living room while being judged by my eye-rolling puppy.

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