The Undefined: On music

i.

My best friend and I are hosting a radio show. We have headphones on and speak into large microphones and I have never felt more like the protagonist of a young adult novel. The other day my friend said that too many people at Stanford have “main character syndrome.” There’s a playlist on Spotify called “my life is a movie” and every time I see it I think about “Lady Bird.” 

We play good music. We play Big Thief and Beach House and Chappell Roan and shoutout our friends who probably aren’t listening because our show came on at midnight, after a seven-hour-long broadcast of the Palo Alto City Council meeting. We talk about why we chose our songs. I talk about “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and we debate the validity of East Coast beaches. We talk about songs with melodies that match their lyrics and songs that don’t. We crank the music up and sing along unabashedly to “Sex on Fire” and “Masterpiece.”

On the walk back from the radio station, shivering in the spring night, we talk about being perceived. We talk about how nice it was to have such a candid conversation, to talk about things that could be secrets, that we hold close to our chest, and not know who exactly was listening.

It’s like Schrodinger’s cat, I say. They could be listening. They could be listening, absorbing, contemplating, or we could just be talking to long-haul truck drivers tuning us out, their eyes fixed solely on the California highway, the tall trees that frame the road for miles and miles to come. 

ii.

Some of my friends say I have a terrible memory, but I can always recall the first time I heard a song. “Love Story” is standing in front of my television at seven, belting out the lyrics as I watch Taylor Swift twirl in a yellow-green field. “Cute Thing” is texting my high school boyfriend who wasn’t my boyfriend yet, wondering if he liked me, wondering if he knew that I liked him too. 

There are songs I can’t listen to anymore because of this. “Square” will always bring me back to sophomore year, sobbing on my friend’s floor as I waited for a text back from a boy who I knew was going to break up with me soon. But then there are others that I’ll put on repeat over and over again — songs sent to me by friends, “I’m in Love” or “Pumpkin.” I walk to class with my headphones on, close my eyes, and remember. 

iii.

Not to fail the Bechdel Test, but before my high school boyfriend, I had no real music taste. Or not cool music taste, at least. I listened mostly to Broadway musical soundtracks, forced my parents to sit through “Aaron Burr, Sir” on repeat in the car and wished my high school had a glee club. 

He sent me Car Seat Headrest, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Smiths. I developed the music taste of Tom in “500 Days of Summer.” But somewhere along the line, I started finding new artists too, making playlists he wasn’t a collaborator on. He approved, I think. I’d grown.

Well — maybe we don’t put it that way. I still know the words to every single song in “Les Mis.” I first heard about Neutral Milk Hotel from a John Green book. Let’s give myself some credit.

iv.

I think there’s something beautiful about making a playlist, in and of itself. I would have rocked in the eighties, kept a whole box of mixtapes in a box under my bed. I’m on a themed playlist kick right now — naming them after movies I’ve watched or books I liked, “Before Sunrise” or “Giovanni’s Room,” and adding songs, covers and quotes that remind me of them. 

I think you can categorize almost every Spotify playlist into three boxes: the themed playlist, the manifestation playlist, and the “notice me” playlist. 

A playlist called “serena van der woodsen at the club lindsay lohan low rise miniskirts?” That’s a themed playlist. I’ll bet you anything that Britney Spears is on it.

A spring playlist with the description “friends, sun, and healing” and a picture of the sunset as the cover image? That’s manifestation. That’s a playlist you started brainstorming in the winter, when it was pouring rain and you couldn’t stop listening to “Me and My Dog.”

A public breakup playlist with a pointed caption, a cover that’s a photograph you took on your first date? Notice me. That’s a playlist you make when you and your ex follow each other on Spotify, in the first raw days and weeks after the breakup, when you hope they look at the Friend’s Activity bar and see you playing “Waiting Room” over and over again — I know it’s for the better, know it’s for the better, know it’s for the better — and think, huh, maybe I should reach out. 

It’s okay. I have all three. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be noticed, especially by someone you loved. 

v.

In the radio station I remember my incomplete problem set due the next morning and my best friend and I decide to call it a night. Before we do, though, I dedicate my last song of the night to my friends. I dedicate it to a night out in Oxford, dancing in a grimy club, aglow with the anticipation of new friendships. 

We dedicate it to the way music can make you feel, the way it can make you dance, free of expectations, free, free, free. It’s two in the morning now and I know they aren’t listening. I sing and dance along anyway.