If you’ve listened to a song for the very first time, during a particularly emotional period in your life, chances are the song will evoke “ghosts” of the exact same memory weeks, months, and sometimes even years later. This is precisely what happens when you relate a song to a person or a memory or something so distinct that you can’t isolate the music from that time in your life.
I am, to begin with, someone who is very easily triggered by sensory cues. When my high frequency hearing loss got detected, I began to appreciate my hearing range even more deeply. So naturally, at the peak of my hearing loss, the songs I listened to became an extension of my fight. In 2014, one of my closest friends had me listen to Summertime by My Chemical Romance. It became, so as to speak, our song. He was one of my biggest sources of strength, and unfortunately, I let myself associate him to the music. It became, I dare say, a musical representation of the endless ocean of comfort that was our friendship.
I must admit I’m not someone who finds it easy to open up or even just get comfortable with a lot of people. So during that phase, when I was still figuring myself out, I let an acquaintance get close to me despite repeated warnings from all my close friends and family about the importance of not making snap decisions in moments of emotional vulnerability. Of course, I paid no heed to them. The girl turned out to be a classic manipulator. I knew her habits, but I was naive enough to think she wouldn’t turn on me, inspite of having seen her break up long term relationships repeatedly. When all else failed, she played her best card – she’d break down on the phone or in person, depending on whether or not she wanted to get into your pants and then proceed to tell you the story of her adoption, the subsequent death of her adoptive mother, the abuse she faced at the hands of her father. It all came out in torrents of well practiced grief you couldn’t help but succumb to. She’d end with a watery smile, and make you promise to keep mum. “I haven’t shared this with anyone else. You’re my closest friend, I’ve never opened up like this before,” she’d say. And you’d believe her, because she knew, like most emotional manipulators, exactly when to attack.
I’ll skip the details of a BBC Drama worthy story, this girl made it a personal challenge to turn my friend against me, concocting lies and starting rumours that I still haven’t quite dealt with. Long story short, within three months, I lost my faith in my best friend when he allowed himself to be swept away (and later get cheated on by the girl with two other guys) because he of all people, turned on me when I needed him the most. And almost imperceptibly, his actions effectively destroyed the connection I had with and the comfort I drew from the music. Crippling anxiety followed, and I was forced to break away, feeling betrayed and utterly alone, from both of them.
Three years later, I still have panic attacks if the song happens to play on radio or on TV. I’ve had to delete it from all my playlists, and as I type this right now, I can feel the weight of those days on me, tangible and ugly on my shoulders.
I can’t even describe the tsunami of emotions that it unleashes. I’m left utterly drained, shaking uncontrollably and sometimes in actual physical pain.
Especially since the lyrics run thus –
“When the lights go out, will you take me with you?
(…) How long, till we find our way in the dark and out of harm?
You can run away with me, anytime you want.”
I came to realise, that I have in effect, broken up with the song – not merely for what it used to mean, but also because it represented a promise I thought would never be broken. Perhaps someday I might be able to listen to it, and smile – like meeting an old love I’ve finally made my peace with. But for now, the struggle continues.
When the healing process started, I decided to reach out to others who’d had smiliar experiences, and explore the connection we make in our minds between music and memories. Here are some of their stories.
“There’s a song by Radiohead called Paranoid Android that is divided into separate sections. I was preparing for entrance exams for a stream I didn’t want to pursue, that I was forced into. I wasn’t just depressed, I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Things were really bad at home, i had no conversation with my parents except them telling me off, and I shut down and withdrew within myself. I used to feel like shit all the time and I’d stopped doing pretty much everything that used to keep me going. There’s a section in the song that goes
‘Rain down, rain down, come on rain down on me,
From a great height..’
And although it, quite literally, kept me alive my lowest point, I can’t listen to it today without getting transported back to the exact same time. The song is beautiful, I can’t deny that, but it’s not something I’d listen to willingly ever again. The last time I listened to it mindfully, without escaping into my head when it came on, I found myself feeling intensely helpless. I could see myself sitting alone in my room, crying my eyes out…and the worst part was that despite wanting to escape, I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was an endless cycle of pain, because I remembered the feeling of self loathing that was my constant companion all those years ago. But last time, despite the hurt, I wished I could go back in time, and not grow to blame myself for everything that went wrong.
I’ve definitely grown up. But I do wish I’d been kinder to myself in the past. I wish I could just go back, and ruffle that lost kid’s hair and tell him “it’s not your fault. You’ll be okay.”
“My ex boyfriend and I shared a love for music and a lot of the time we spent together involved listening to our favourite tracks and humming along, although he couldn’t sing to save his life. Some of the most intimate and passionate moments we shared always happened when the song Let Her Go, by Passenger played in the background. Whether, the song made us feel more connected to each other or it was just timing, I don’t know. But when we ended up parting ways, the song suddenly meant more than just a great tune with good vocals and memories. The lyrics spoke to me, like no other song had before. After a while, I couldn’t listen to it anymore. It became the voice in my head, telling me I made a mistake because he clearly loved me if he let me go – and left me a confused means of emotions I didn’t have the strength to untangle. I still haven’t quite figured it out, so I took the easiest way to skip the pain. I cut the song out of my life.”
“The very first incident that comes to my mind is the time I walked the streets of a strange city, at 2 am in the morning drunk out of my mind, with a friend from my university a couple of years ago. We were singing “bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” because we missed our ex girlfriends, and it was new year’s eve – the first day we had to ourselves after working 14hour days for a whole month. We travelled 220 kilometres just to get drunk. As to why it was special, all I can say is that it made us feel like the song. Badass, unbreakable.
Now what if I told you this is all made up? The singing in the streets drunk is true, but love is bullshit. I’m tired of all the love songs and break up songs and pain and anxiety songs that kids these days lap up. I just wanted to sing. So I sang. And it was one heck of a night, despite me not keeling over in pain or heartbreak. What is true is the fact that I haven’t been able to listen to the song since then. I didn’t break up with it I think – I let go of it because it was too good a memory to revisit and taint.”
“One of my favourite songs used to be one that I shared with my husband. It was in our native language, and held special significance to us not just because of the beautiful lyrics, but also because it was the song he used to serenade me. Since we got divorced, I’ve developed a mental block towards it – but the memories I have with it make me unable to delete it off my playlist. So it stays there, and I skip it each time it comes on. It’s the song I love the most, and also the song I hate the most. The translation of the lyrics will probably clue you in to the evocative power the song has, even out of context –
On the most sweltering day in the city,
When the tar on the streets
Are slick with sweat, and melting,
I give you the promise of rain —
What else can I offer?
Old revolutions, trams in a row
The balloon cart near the footpath
Those red and white ones
Those are the rhododendrons
Of my stunned city —
I give them to you…“
“I grew up with a girl who was just three years older than me. Since I was an only child, she was my first playmate. Closer than a sister, like family. Most of our younger years were spent bonding over dance and music, so it’s not surpise that the tradition stuck around even after we grew up. Our teenage years we brought in with a bang – the Backstreet Boys were the coolest new band on the block, and we quickly fell in love with them. My friend, especially, since she was old enough to have crushes and relate to the songs, was a fan. For me, it was the shared experience of feeling like a grown up with HER that made it special. Two years later, she came down with an illness that her family was extremely tight lipped about. But since our dance classes were on the same as usual, and there was nothing out of the ordinary to clue us in, we didn’t think about it too much.
The weight loss started soon after, until one day, she showed up with short hair and said she figured she might as well cut it off because the chemotherapy was going to affect her anyway.
I’ve shut out most of what happened that year – watching your friend get sicker by the day, knowing the end wasn’t just a probability but a distinct possibility now, waiting around with the Backstreet Boys to keep us company throughout was pretty traumatic for a thirteen year old to deal with. She died the next year, and I don’t listen to the songs anymore. It doesn’t hurt – I was perhaps too young to understand the finality of death, but old enough to know that grief wouldn’t change a thing. So I still do what I did all those years ago, if the songs come on. I shut them out, and carry on.”