If you’re not careful, the message that we are, in fact, living in perilous times can be overpowering. But I’ve been thinking lately that there’s been no better time for people who love music than right this very minute. As someone who remembers playing scratchy LPs on a stereo the size of my parents’ station wagon, I am enthralled by the ease with which I can play the music I want to hear. Because—let’s face it—the balm of music has the power to blunt even the most distressing news of the day, to give us courage, and to connect us all.
I recently found an old friend from my San Francisco days via Facebook. He’s the type of guy who’s always humming a tune under his breath and absently trying out new dance moves at his desk, in his car, walking down the street. He frequently dispenses advice, wisdom, and commentary in the form of song-lyric snippets. I believe he knows the words to every song ever written. Music is his medium.
When my friend and I have our online conversations, I feel like a baby bird being fed by its mother. We’ll be chatting away and he’ll write, “Are you ready for another?” and then up pops a YouTube video featuring a lyrically luscious song— usually of the electronica or obscure dance genres, by groups with names like Treasure Fingers, Santigold, and Fare Soldi. He “feeds” me in this way throughout our conversation, our chats flow with the rhythm of the music and we glide along, enjoying the ambience he spontaneously creates for us.
I have been blessed with several friends who experience music as a sort of lubricant for their lives. These people all have a particular yen for ferreting out good music via channels with names like imeem, iTunes, and jango and through music-centric radio stations such as KEXP and KCRW streaming to their laptops. Luckily, in addition to being hip, sensitive, resourceful individuals, they are generous; they share their finds with me.
One of those people is my little brother, who has recently given me the greatest gift: he introduced me to Pandora.com. (Before you start thinking you’ve been hooked into reading an ad, let me say that I have nothing to gain from this endorsement. My friends will tell you that they’ve all heard this spiel from me too.) Pandora.com is, in my opinion, almost too good to be true. It’s what everyone wishes for as they’re flying down the road, furiously flipping through stations: The ability to listen to radio that plays only the type of songs you like and have a hankering for right this very minute. I won’t go into the details of how it works because that’s easy to look up and read for yourself, but I will tell you that it has made a big difference in this writer’s life. The inspiration for this very article is brought to you by Thievery Corporation Radio on Pandora.com. Hosting friends for tapas? Create Gipsy Kings radio and transport yourselves to Seville for the evening. Have a hot evening at home planned with that special someone? Yes, you can even set up Tom Jones radio. R-r-r-rrarrr!
I’ve given some thought over the years to why music has such a transformative effect on my daily life—especially now, when I can dial up whatever I’m in the mood for or acquaint myself with entire new genres of music with a click—and one of the reasons I’ve come up with is this: On some level, aren’t we all starring in our own little documentaries? We need soundtracks!
When we’re working out, Eye of the Tiger still gives us goose bumps and the urge to throw our arms up in the air, right? When we’re enjoying a cup of tea, reading, with a cat in our lap, we think George Winston’s piano—soft, in the background—sounds just right. Iron and Wine’s laid-back vibe makes Saturday morning errands more of a dance than a chore.
And when we hear an old familiar song, we’re transported, no matter if it’s delivered via vinyl album, cassette tape, mp3 player, or YouTube. Just as certain smells can evoke memories of gramma’s kitchen, vacations at the beach, and college apartments, the right song has the power to catapult us right back into that particular chapter in our own personal documentary. For me, old Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap, and Dolly Parton (Please don’t laugh; this is my personal documentary, remember?) transport me back to fifth grade when I was given my first clock radio. I’d lie in bed in that small room and listen to the tiny music and marvel at this brand new world I’d found. Until then, we’d just been exposed to music at church and dad’s old Kingston Trio, Burt Bacharach, and Jim Croce albums. This was music I was choosing to listen to. I recently purchased Ronnie Milsap’s Only One You from iTunes and thoroughly enjoyed my little joy ride down memory lane, surprising myself by remembering all the words.
And the music we choose for our soundtracks can be so personal, can’t it? I cringe to remember that I irritated more than one college roommate by playing brilliant selections from my tape collection for them, aggressively imploring them to “get it” when all they wanted to do was hang out. Ronnie Milsap’s recounting of worldly wonders (“There’s only one Mona Lisa, one Leaning Tower of Pisa, one Paris, and there’s only one youuuu…”) was a strong elixir to my budding romantic mind back in 1970-something, but I can hear you snickering.
I think that’s why music is so important, can be so universal in its power to change our lives, but still so personal to us. We are doing more than hearing it. We feel it and it changes us: We become softies. We’re 17 again. We get over it and find our happy face. We finally see the answer. We connect with someone. We grieve a loss. We’re distracted from the hard work at hand. We find the courage to do the thing we think we cannot do.
One day, as I rode the ferry over from my home on Anderson Island to Steilacoom where I was to meet a marathon-training partner for our first 20-mile run, I was feeling uninspired, lacking in courage. I contemplated bailing on the run. As we approached the dock, I remembered I had a Steve Winwood cd and my Walkman (remember those?) in my bag. I popped it in and dialed up Arc of a Diver. I stood on the ferry deck, listening to this man’s amazing voice, and feeling my mind’s focus narrow to just me, just my muscles and my heart and my breathing. And then I ran 20 miles.