For some people, they know that they’re in deep with another person when they want to give them a key to their apartment. Others know it when they’re ready to take home their significant other to their parents. For me, I know I’m falling for someone when I want to start sharing music. For me, the red flag is the melding of our music libraries.
I’m a big believer in the mixed tape/CD tradition as a medium of communication, even if it’s outdated. High Fidelity’s Rob had it right when he said, “To me, making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again.”
If I’m eager to spend time poring over your iTunes library, I’m definitely interested. If I start suggesting my favorite bands to you, you know I’m hooked. And if I ask you to one of those bands’ concerts? I am gone, gone, gone, baby. But now I’ve learned to be cagy about my music when it comes to romantic relationships. It rarely ends well.
The last time, I learned my lesson. We’d done the usual song and dance: nervous “like” had turned to vocalized “love,” with a few mushy “you’re perfect for me”s thrown in for good measure.
And it had all started with a song. Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” to be exact. The first time we’d ever spent time together, it had been on a hotel room bed with his iPod between us, sharing a pair of headphones as a dozen of our friends entertained themselves with a drinking game around us. Grizzly Bear had been the first band to jump out as I’d haphazardly scrolled through his artists, and from then on, it was a constant tradeoff of “Have you heard this song/band?” until we’d fallen asleep on each other’s shoulders. I’d learned that he had a penchant for metalcore like August Burns Red; he’d discovered that I had a nostalgic attachment to Franz Ferdinand’s first album. I’d found out that Cursive, a band I’d never even heard of, was his favorite; he learned why I had the silhouettes from the album artwork of Muse’s Absolution tattooed on my foot. Music had been our meet-cute.
As we got to know each other better, music laid our foundation. We discovered we both loved The Strokes (though agreed that they’d gone downhill with First Impressions Of Earth and Room On Fire) and Anberlin. Neither of us were fans of Brandon Flowers, Kings Of Leon, or Coldplay. Inevitably, musical recommendations had mingled with flirting. He’d followed up “Jane’s Addiction, yes or no?” with “What would you do if I showed up at your place at midnight?”
It hadn’t been long before I’d handed over a USB stick filled to the brim with my own favorites that I thought he’d like. Band Of Skulls, Stars, Metric, Biffy Clyro, Ghinzu, White Lies, and Menomena all went to him. I got Cursive, Tim Kasher, and At The Drive-In in return. It was like we were both saying, “Get to know this music, you’ll get to know me.”
In so many ways, music had been our bridge. He’d admitted at one point that on days when we didn’t talk, he’d listen to the music I’d given him, because it made him feel closer to me. More than one conversation had centered on what songs reminded us of our relationship.
It was not a healthy one. Not in the slightest. I knew it at the time, but in hindsight, it’s even more embarrassingly obvious. (Exhibit A: a few of those songs that reminded us of each other during the last few weeks? His was “White Blank Page” by Mumford & Sons. Mine was Stars’ “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.” Yeah, we were doomed.) As crazy as we’d been about each other, the ten months that we’d been in each other’s lives were tumultuous and downright damaging for the both of us. And when it ended, about fifteen months ago, it did not end well. I won’t claim that the end of our relationship was more painful than another’s…but when I say that it felt like he had ripped my heart out, fed it through a meat-grinder, lit it on fire, and then stuffed the ashes down my throat, it doesn’t seem all that hyperbolic.
In the days that followed, it became apparent that sharing our music had not been a good idea. The first evidence of us that I had deleted hadn’t been text messages or his phone number; it had been the music he’d given me and the playlist I’d made for our drive to a Biffy Clyro show in Columbus. Directly after that, I headed straight to iTunes to burn through gift cards I’d stockpiled. I needed music that hadn’t been the soundtrack to our time together.
And the bands I’d introduced him to seemed stained now. I’d loved White Lies’ “Farewell to the Fairground” for months before meeting him; now it only reminded me that he’d told me he’d love to take a trip to London together to see them in concert. Pendulum’s “Encoder” and Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” had played through my headphones at least once a day for months; now I just knew them as two of the songs that played the first time he’d slept over. I was just thankful that he hadn’t shown major affinity for my major players, like Sigur Rós, Muse, Kaizers Orchestra, and Elbow; those were still mine. I never heard hints of him in “Hoppipolla,” “Bliss,” “Resistansen,” or “Grounds For Divorce.” I’d kept those to myself.
Sharing our music is tricky. It opens a door of expression. When we share our music, we say to the other person, “This is the soundtrack of my content, joy, sadness, and anger. It says something about me. Maybe you’ll feel the same? Maybe you’ll understand me more?”
Tracks and artists that had once been “mine” or “yours” are now “ours.” Even if there’s no longer an “us” to share them. When we hear those songs, we remember how we felt together, where we were together, what we did together. Nothing brings a memory rushing back to you like the lyric that accompanied it. Because music can have such a visceral, physical effect on us and can be a shared experience, we can’t help but imprint the other person onto those tracks. And those imprints last. I couldn’t listen to “Two Weeks” or “Teardrop” for months afterwards.
When a relationship ends, it’s easy enough to split the concrete things. But there’s no infallible way to eradicate something intangible like music. It sneaks into the background of a commercial or the credits of a new movie. It can’t just simply be packed up into a cardboard box with the rest of the odds and ends and handed back to its original owner.
Music is like amber. Once something gets trapped within it, it’s damn hard to separate the two. It holds memories like frozen insects that are futile to ignore, unless you decide that the defect is no reason to abandon what you loved first. Over time, that imperfection becomes unremarkable and unnoticeable because of the good that encapsulates it.
For a while, I’d been angry. What was once mine was tainted. Something with which I’d associated only happy things was now just a reminder of pain. I didn’t know what was more masochistic: listening to the music and being reminded of memories with him or avoiding it completely and depriving myself of something I loved. I had to pick my auditory poison.
As it tends to do to even the worst wounds, time gave me the closure and healing that I needed. But even more importantly, it gave me my music back. That was my barometer; I knew I was well and truly past him the day that “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” shuffled into rotation on my iPod. I didn’t even register the song, and I had to backtrack to make sure that it had even actually played. For the first time in months, the lines “I’m not sorry I met you, I’m not sorry it’s over, I’m not sorry there’s nothing to save” were just lyrics I loved for their generic wistful sadness. But it wasn’t my wistful sadness anymore. And eventually Tim Kasher even made his way back into my iTunes library.
I’ve learned my lesson. No relationship can survive without sharing, without letting the lines between your separate lives blur…unless it comes to music. In this case, I’d rather keep my amber insect-free, my music unclouded. Unless I know it’s for real, I can’t share my music. I have to keep it mine.