September 23rd, 2005

Take Me Back

I don’t understand music, and I mean that on a couple of levels.

1) I have a hard time hearing lyrics. Until my friend Dave straightened me out, I thought the Beach Boys were singing “And Benny took and he ate a ball of my corn” in the song “Sloop John B.” Turns out they were singing “And then he took and he ate up all of my corn.” Even though I know better now, I still sing it my way when I have occasion to do so.

But what I’m particularly talking about is

2) I don’t understand how music locks itself away in a particular spot in your brain and stays there waiting to come back out. I can hear a song I haven’t heard in years and sing along with it, word for word. Even stranger to me is the fact that if pressed, I couldn’t recite or sing the lyrics on my own without the song playing in the background. But play it for me and I’m instantly there. Memorizing speeches, facts, or Bible verses never came easily, but music puts it straight into my brain, apparently. This might have something to do with why I liked to set Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

Music also tends to bring to fore certain memories or feelings. Most of the time it isn’t a specific memory, for me anyway. It’s more a memory of a how I felt at the time, a non-specific subtle mental nudging.

I’ve bought two CDs in the last two weeks that reminded me of this. One was The Statler Brothers – The Definitive Collection and the other was Paul McCartney’s Chaos And Creation In The Back Yard.

The McCartney CD took me immediately back a few years ago. I had just started a new job and his Driving Rain and Flaming Pie albums were the soundtrack to my summer. The songs on the new album are unfamiliar, of course, but the style and sound immediately bring back the mixture of fear and excitement from that summer. It’s actually kind of difficult to listen to for those exact reasons.

The Statler Brothers CD, on the other hand, takes me back to when I was a kid. Specifically, Saturdays helping mom around the house. She’d generally have one of their albums playing while I was making cookies or washing dishes or something. It’s funny, the Statlers are kind of “nostalgia country” music (they’ve got a lot of “do you remember when?” kinds of songs), and most of the stuff they were singing about was before my time, but I love the music. It fills me with feeling-memories of comfort, warmth, and safety. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt those for real, so I’ll take the memories where I can get them.

(You, by the way, know The Statler Brothers from Pulp Fiction. The song used in that movie was their biggest hit, “Flowers on the Wall,” when Bruce Willis is driving his car right before hitting Ving Rhames. That’s a pretty long way from safety and comfort, frankly.)

I get tired of whiny “artsy” songwriters that mean to reveal the secrets of self-examination with confusing, pseudo-deep lyrics. It must be a function of getting older, but I roll my eyes at their “I feel everything so deeply” lyrics and their meaningfully cracking voices. I try to imagine twenty years from now when people hear those songs again. What kind of feeling-memories will they evoke? Personally, I’m thinking it will be like my generations memories of shows like The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard: we remember them being TOTALLY AWESOME!!!!1!! but when we actually sit down to watch an episode, we can’t believe how incredibly ridiculous and lame it is and how did we ever think this was cool?

Anyway, rants aside, I’ve listened to the Statlers CD more than the McCartney CD by an almost 2:1 ratio. It’s no surprise to me that the familiar wins out. I just wish I knew what they were saying.

4 Comments on “Take Me Back”

  1. Dave says:

    A song remembers when . . .

  2. Brian Arnold says:

    I am so totally with you there, in regards to how music brings back the memories. It's great. Some songs bring up really weird memories though, like of where I was in a video game at a certain point or something like that.

    "For Once in my Life" by Stevie Wonder is really hard to listen to due to memory. "Falling" by Jamiroquai is similar, but I can listen to it completely and remember it fondly, whereas Mr. Wonder's song makes me want to hit someone now, but that's just the associated anger/sadness.

  3. Angie says:

    I remember writing about this exact topic once. Except for me, it was Nelly Furtado/Playing Neopets all summer long and The Postal Service/Bowling practice.

    Music is powerful.

  4. That Aussie One says:

    Unless I make the effort, I can't sing a whole song without it playing.

    I also find the but of my brain dedicated to playing a song on loop is influenced by things I see. For example, returning magazines I may see a copy of "Time", which will get Bowie in my head.

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