Fourteen years ago I was traveling solo on an old train in France. I can’t remember if I was going somewhere new or returning to a familiar place but I do remember sitting near another solo traveler, a young man. He was listening to headphones and I could hear a little of the hip-hop beat just sitting across from him.
So I got his attention and asked him in my broken French what he was listening to. He removed his headphones and held them out to me so I could hear for myself.
I knew this genre of music and I wasn’t a huge fan. Not that I had any complaints about the style. It was just the lyrics that made me cringe. They were in English and full of racial slurs, f-bombs, objectification of women, and violence. I was disgusted.
After a minute or two, I handed back his headphones and tried to be diplomatic.
“Do you understand the lyrics?” I asked him.
“But you still like it? Why? Some of the things said in here are really mean.”
“I don’t know. I just do. It’s cool, you know? I don’t need to know what the song’s about to like it.”
I didn’t quite understand this point of view even though I’d come across it a couple of times before. In fact, it was 2002 and a year earlier, I’d begun collecting those Putumayo CD’s they used to sell at coffee shops. One of my favorites was a collection of songs called Arabic Groove. All those songs, of course, were in Arabic and I guess I was a hypocrite because it didn’t bother me much to listen to and not understand those songs. The CD insert may not have had a word for word translation of the lyrics, but at least it had a description of each song. After all, this brand was marketed to people like me who didn’t speak Arabic.
French music and even Spanish music have been highly effective language-learning tools for me. The year before I studied abroad, one of the international students from France lent me his French CDs and even went to the trouble of printing out the lyrics to every single song for me. Moreover, listening to Notre dame de Paris by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon and watching it on DVD with and without subtitles (over and over again) helped my language-learning immensely.
Of course, now that I speak and understand French, I listen to French music about as often as I listen to music in my own language. Occasionally I’ll include some Spanish music in the mix because I took four semesters of it at the community college and it’s a common enough language in the Southwest that it almost seems wrong not to. But other languages still kind of elude me.
“Music has the unique ability to be honest, and I think it invites us to do the same. There are words we sing in songs that we would have trouble saying in conversation. Music says it’s okay to be human, okay to ask questions, okay to feel things deeply.”
“In many ways, my life lessons have been music lessons: the song has taught me how to live and life has taught me how to sing.”
After I wrote the first draft of my memoir last year, I began compiling a memoir playlist of songs that meant different things to me at different times in my life. Each song became a part of the emotion of a particular moment, but much more so than a simple soundtrack. The words were inextricably as important as the melody. So each song is a key to the time-capsule of my memory. Play it and the past will flow through me along with all the happiness and despair it contains.
Below are seven songs from my playlist. I capped out at 156 songs in the end beginning with my adolescence all the way to age 35. I like to say my taste in music improved with age but at the same time, I don’t want to betray the younger version of me by denying the fact that she connected with Disney songs and contemporary Christian music.
So here they are. I won’t tell the story that goes with each song here, but I will tell you how old I was when it had the biggest impact on me and where I was living at the time.
18 years old – Listening to my discman while walking home from high school after a bad day.
20 years old – Transitioning from a private Christian university to Northern Arizona University and trying very hard to remind myself why I needed to keep my faith.
22 years old – This song is forever linked with my time studying in France. It was on the radio a lot so it was impossible not to hear it but I also liked the mixture of my language with the language I was learning.
24 years old – back at my parents’ house. All I wanted to do was fly, somewhere, anywhere….
26 years old – living on my own in Phoenix; lost, broken, and wanting to die.
31 years old – I moved back home again and had only just rediscovered my faith.
34 years old – A very emotional year and the last time I had to be hospitalized.