Music we can’t listen to anymore
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question:
What songs/bands that you used to like can you not listen to anymore because of the memories you associate with them? I’m thinking along the lines of the favorite band of an ex that broke your heart, a dead friend’s favorite song, and/or the song that was playing when you got some particularly bad news.
From one of your loyal army of procrastinators,
So it’s high school, and socially, I’m a fuck-up. Like, so deep I’m not sure where the fuck-up ends and I begin. I get good grades, some of my teachers can stand me, but by and large I’m just this weird ball of energy that laughs too loud, spasms if you make fun of him, and takes too many goddamn naps. Oh, and I’m obsessed with dating—like, to the point where it’s the only thing I ever talk about, to the point where if women everywhere were capable of filing one huge restraining order just to get me to Shut. The Fuck. Up about it, I’d have fines that would make my college loans look like Mother Teresa’s bar tab. I keep striking out, but there’s this one girl? I don’t even fucking know. She’s beautiful, and she’s smart, and she’s into me, and I don’t really get why. We spend a day together, ’cause I offered to help her with her algebra homework, and it’s like I’m actually talking and listening to someone, which is something I’ve seen other people do, but have never been much good at myself. At one point, we help her parents make supper, and I burn my hand on the stove, and it hurts, but it’s like a normal thing. Like I’m on a TV show. At the end of the day, she drives me home, and we listen to the Beatles’ Abbey Road, and one song comes on and she laughs and says it’s her favorite, and now I think it’s kind of my favorite too. Goofy as hell, but what’s wrong with goofy? Everything’s perfect. I’m a real live boy. A week later, I see the girl dating some guy, and my stomach just disappears for a while. I ask her about it, and she gets confused why I’m not happy for her. We never really work as friends again. I grow up, I get over it, I became a better person, etc. But it doesn’t ever really go away. So now I’m maybe the only person in the fucking universe who breaks down whenever he hears “Octopus’s Garden.”
I’ve had some trouble listening to Elliott Smith since he died in October of 2003, for obvious reasons. The guy sang about heartache and misery with such depth of emotion that it’s hard not to read some of his songs as one big suicide note. Then there was the SPIN article, written by former A.V. Clubber Liam Gowing, that detailed Smith’s horrible last years of downward spirals, bottomless depression, and desperate drug addiction. There’s also the speculation that Smith wasn’t the one wielding the knife in his death, but that’s tough to believe considering the sheer number of times he declared his own wishes to shuffle off this mortal coil. Instead of the sound of someone writing beautiful songs in order to beat back those demons—that’s what they were when he was alive—Smith’s songs now sound more like a precursor to a horrific act. They’re still gorgeous, of course, but now they’re accompanied by too much darkness.
Two things immediately come to mind: I used to love the Eurythmics’ soundtrack for 1984 back in college, until a close friend committed suicide and I came to associate him with two of the tracks. In the incredibly sad song “Julia,” Winston Smith wonders whether he and his lover will still be alive, let alone together, in a few short months. And in “For The Love Of Big Brother…” Well, just read the lyrics. It’s been more than 15 years now, and I still can’t even read those words without getting choked up, let alone actually listening to the song.
In an only slightly less morose vein, a couple of years after that was one of the low points of my life. I was working 50 to 60 hours a week at a company that had made some horribly dysfunctional management choices, and had everyone on massive mandatory overtime as a result, trying to cover up the mistakes it had made, and kept compounding with further poor decisions. It felt like I was spending half my life scrambling to fix things there, and the other half either being yelled at because it wasn’t happening fast enough, or listening to my coworkers bitch, backstab each other, and quietly decide to defy management, not do their work, and exacerbate the problem. I was deeply depressed, feeling like a trapped rat most of the time, nursing an ill-advised crush on someone with no interest in me, and spending most of my off hours on thought-killing entertainment. And I was really into Liz Phair’s new album, Exile In Guyville, and I was listening to it almost nonstop, because it wallowed in the same guilt, desperation, anger, and sick depression I was feeling. To this day, that album makes me feel like I’m being buried alive; there’s nothing wrong with it at all, it’s just utterly steeped in the sodden emotional memories of a person I never want to be again.
I hate when the guys on my iPod start beating up their girlfriends. It’s not like I boycott their music: I’ve enjoyed the songs of many a criminal, some of whom have probably knocked around a few ladies. But when it happens in real time, I’m out. This small trend started early in 2008. I was reading Elyse Sewell’s blog—if you watched the first season of America’s Next Top Model, you’d recognize Elyse, and maybe remember that she dated a guy named Marty. Martin Crandall plays keyboard for the Shins, and apparently he roughed Elyse up and she wrote about it. Next thing I knew, I couldn’t lose myself in “Turn On Me” or “Sea Legs” or “Australia” the way I could before. I felt vaguely embarrassed when they popped up on shuffle, and yearned for more innocent times. (It was also weird to think about a sweet-looking hipster like Crandall being a violent guy).
The Shins aren’t alone, of course. You may have heard about a young singer named Christopher Brown who was recently charged with felony accounts of assault after beating up one Rihanna. The duet Brown sang with Jordin Sparks, “No Air,” has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, and part of what I loved was how unabashedly over-the-top teenagery it was. Then my view of Brown changed. I like my singing teenagers overwrought and funny, not overwrought and violent. “No Air” is no longer fun to listen to, and the title has nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile, “S.O.S.” hasn’t turned up lately, so I’ll find out whether I’ll enjoy the song more, less, or perhaps just make jokes in my head when I hear it.
Good Christ, I must have a million of these, in every conceivable category. Even leaving aside stuff I can’t listen to anymore because I have belatedly realized that it sucks, there’s tons more: the Songs I Can’t Listen To Because They’re Too Closely Associated With A Horrible Breakup; the Songs I Can’t Listen To Because They Evoke A State Of Happiness To Which I No Longer Have Access; the Songs That I Was Listening To When I Got Some Really Bad News; the Songs That Remind Me That I Am A Colossal Fuck-Up; and even the relatively obscure Song I Once Played To Impress A Girl I Was Macking On At A Party And Which Unexpectedly Triggered In Her A Memory Of Childhood Abuse And Totally Ruined My Play category. But if I had to pick just one, which I obviously do despite my previous attempt to pull a workaround, it would be Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” The story behind this one is a long, depressing, and no doubt boring one, but essentially it boils down to this: a lifelong friend, whom I’d been in love with almost since I’d known her, confessed that she felt the same way about me—right after I told her I’d started a serious relationship with someone else. The song playing on my iPod, through my car stereo, as she ruined my visibility with all the blood spurting out of the hole in my chest where my heart used to be? The second single off of Sign O’ The Times.
Mine has nothing to do with love, but everything to do with the hormonal hell that was 7th grade. The year was 1994, and I was in gym class, running laps (part of one of those Illinois Presidential Fitness type deals), when Green Day’s “Basket Case” came on the radio. For whatever reason, I really didn’t know much about music at the time—it had a lot to do with the fact that I had heard REM’s “Losing My Religion” on some station earlier in the year and, from then on out, only listened in the hopes that I’d catch that song again and stop the madness. But whatever, the song came on, and a bunch of “cool” kids (who weren’t really that cool, but it didn’t take a lot to best the scorekeeper for the boys’ basketball team) said out loud, “Oh, I love this song!” To which I, of course, replied, “Yeah, me too.” Suddenly, all eyes turned on me—while still jogging, so this was no small feat. “Yeah?” one said. “Sing it for us.” To this day, I still don’t understand why I was required to go through that trial, when all the other supposed song-lovers got away scot-free, but so it was. I started: “Doooo you have the schmumm / to listen to me whrmumm / ahum… mnmnm… mmm…” That was it. I was instantly (much more of) an outcast; as Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie would say, “I got hurt feelings,” and they linger to this day. Later that year, though, one of those same kids sold me his old copy of Secret Of Evermore for Super Nintendo, then proceeded to make fun of me for playing videogames. So perhaps there never really was a way to win them over.
Jesus, this gonna be the most depressing AVQ&A ever. While there’s nothing I can’t listen to because of upsetting memories, there are plenty of songs I can’t hear without remembering various traumas (and also, it should be said, good times). I lost my mom seven years ago to inflammatory breast cancer, an incredibly aggressive type of breast cancer that doesn’t show up with a lump or appear on mammograms. Only 35 percent of the women who are diagnosed with it live longer than five years, so the odds weren’t good. (My mom made it two.) The last time I went home before she died, I picked up 89/93: An Anthology by Uncle Tupelo. I love “Still Be Around,” but I can’t hear it without remembering driving around Houston mere weeks later, listening to Uncle Tupelo, and wondering how the fuck I was gonna live the rest of my life without my mom.
I once got a phone call on a Sunday morning—one of those Sunday mornings when the light pours in through the windows and all but begs for music to yawn the day awake—that carried the most ghastly news I’ve ever heard directly, all to the tune of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” It had to do with the violent suicide of a friend’s mother, and I’ll never forget the surreal disconnect between what I was hearing by voice in one ear and by piano in the other. It doesn’t take a whole lot to make old ragtime piano sound haunted now—cue memories of countless player-piano scenes and scenarios on Scooby Doo!—but that Sunday definitely did in a way that can’t be erased.
I tend to take things very personally, so there’s a whole fuckload of music I can’t listen to without it conjuring up all sorts of traumatic memories. One that sticks out in my mind is the music of Belle & Sebastian. I always associated Belle & Sebastian really strongly with perhaps the most important romantic relationship of my adult life. Belle & Sebastian was one of the first things we’d bonded over, so for a long, long time, I couldn’t listen to Belle & Sebastian without getting feeling all melancholy and sad. Then I did an interview with Stuart Murdoch that was extremely awkward and mumbly and filled with uncomfortable silences, so I consequently couldn’t listen to Belle & Sebastian without thinking, “Damn you, Stuart Murdoch! Why couldn’t you have been a better interview!” Then about a year later, I ended up having a one-night stand with Stuart Murdoch, who was all, “You’re really important to me. This so is not just a one-night stand. I’ll call as soon as I get to the next town.” But did he call? Did he write? No he did not. He used me up, then threw me away. Then about a year later, he e-mailed and was all, “Sorry bout being incommunicado, but I’ve got this amazing investment opportunity I wanted to let you know about.” Long story short, Stuart Murdoch got me to invest my life savings in a glorified Ponzi scheme. So while I love the man’s music, I have a hard time listening to B&S without it dredging up a whole lot of dark memories. (At least half of that story is true.)
On a semi-related note, I used to have a Sunday-morning ritual where I’d make breakfast for a girlfriend, then go out for coffee and bagels and come back and listen to This American Life. I really treasured those Sunday mornings, and I haven’t been able to listen to This American Life since the relationship ended about six years ago.