Over the past several months, I’ve caught myself—multiple times—on the verge of tweeting song lyrics like I’m a seventeen-year-old writing on MySpace. I think it’s probably because the last time I had my heart broken like I did a year or so ago, I was seventeen, and it was easier to wear your heart on your sleeve then. Rather, it was easier to wear your heart on your away message, so you could be both in the shower and assuring your love interest who might or might not come online while you’re gone that you are “standing on the bridge, waiting in the dark.”
I miss that.
Some part of me still believes, childish as it is, that music was written just for me. I listen to music like I’m building the soundtrack to my biopic. I keep my ears open for songs that speak to me, that I listen to obsessively on loop because I can’t believe that somebody, somewhere, has peered into the recesses of my brain to write down what I couldn’t explain myself. (Carly Simon was right.)
There was a moment in my early twenties when my emotions became easier to handle but too complex to name. As a teenager, I felt emotions singularly, as points on the spectrum of disdain to despair, interrupted by spikes of joy and rage. And as a teenager in the early 2000s, it was easy to take whatever I’d just heard on 101.9 KISS FM or downloaded on KaZaA, distill it to a single line, and share it with the universe as my new mantra.
When I was sixteen or so, I fell unsalvageably in love with a diehard Queen fan. And so I, too, became a Queen fan, digging in my dad’s record collection and listening to A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. (This after many years of yelling at my dad to “turn it OFF” every time he tried to play classic rock on family road trips. I regret that I now associate Queen not with my dad, but with a teenage boy who wrote on the front cover of my yearbook that “Finland is the home of turds and ugly prostitutes.” In my defense, my taste in men has improved marginally in the years since.)
He rejected me in favor of a girl who was basically my doppelganger, except funnier and with better fashion sense. I logged onto MySpace and renamed myself “So you think you can love me and leave me to DIE??!!” Therapy was cheaper back then. (Identities were also more fluid. You can’t even use your drag name on Facebook, let alone rename yourself with a Freddie Mercury lyric.)
It’s not so easy anymore. Ask me what I feel about my most recent breakup, some three weeks ago, and I would need a whole mood chart so I could point at all the little faces that say GUILTY and SAD and REGRETFUL and RESIGNED. I might ask for a special mood chart where the little face has hidden itself under a blanket with a flashlight, a novel, and a bag of white cheddar popcorn.
As I grow older, I feel more and more that I’m observing myself from afar. I think part of it is that I am, in many ways, what I dreamed I would be: click-clacking down a hallway at work with a sheaf of papers in hand, pushing my way onto a commuter train, holding gloved hands with a boyfriend in the winter. And so present me considers myself the way past me used to imagine future me, only past me wasn’t accounting for all of these unfamiliar emotions, which makes present me want to dissociate a little bit.
Anyway, a good soundtrack does wonders for reattaching my head to my body. (Like Bulgakov’s Woland.)
I think that since that traumatizing breakup last year, I’ve listened to Joan Baez’s cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” probably hundreds of times. I have also serenaded my neighbors with my version, which I hope they appreciate as the artistic and vocal masterpiece that it is. I listened to “Habits” (Tove Lo: “Spend my days locked in a haze trying to forget you, babe, I come back down”) on loop, then I listened to Rumours for a few weeks, then I accidentally listened to the Hedwig and the Angry Inch soundtrack in public and started crying in front of everyone riding the Silver Line back to D.C. (“And I swear by your expression that the pain down in your soul was the same as the one down in mine…”)
I like music because you can project yourself onto it. I read to escape, and I listen to feel.
It’s as satisfying now to feel that a song speaks to me as it was when I was seventeen. It’s less satisfying that I can’t, say, print it on a T-shirt so that everyone around me understands that, in the words of Delta Rae, “if I loved you, life would be easy.” Also, to not stop thinking about tomorrow. (If I’ve learned anything about my adult self, it’s how to apply Rumours to any breakup. It’s a useful skill.)
When I was a teenager, I wanted to plaster song lyrics all over my digital presence so that everybody would know what I was feeling, especially the boys would would always be my Konstantine and the girls who were… well, Jolene. (They never listened. They ALWAYS took my man.) Nowadays, I think I’m just so excited that somebody has crystallized what I’m feeling into verse that I want to share that with the world. There is so much to choose from at any given moment—regret and exhaustion and optimism and frisson and malaise—that to focus for a few minutes on one feeling is the equivalent of my therapist looking at me and telling me what I’m feeling.
It’s enough, now, just to sit back and feel comforted by the fact that somebody else has been there and survived. And it makes me want to live a life like my favorite songwriters lived—to get off my computer and go down to the Village and find some sad-eyed guitarist who will write a song about how they know that I’m half crazy so I can know, definitively, that a song was written for me.