I remember my father going through an unfortunate period of time where he would no longer listen to music, and it made my sister and myself worry that something was terribly wrong with him: he was a drummer who used the gas pedal as though it were attached to a drum kit, and beat the steering wheel even in silence, to some rhythm only he was privy to. He put us to sleep as children to classical and new age music blaring from the speakers in the living room so that the sound reached our bedrooms. My father introduced us to Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple, Bjork, and Ani DiFranco, and classics like Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks. He and my mother took us to the first Lilith Fair, introduced me to most of what I listened to throughout college, treated my friend Dianne and I to an out-of-town Ani DiFranco concert in our senior year of high school, getting us our own hotel room and writing us excuses for missing school. Music was within him like the hand inside a puppet. And then, silence.
Something similar has happened to me in recent years. It began when I spilled an entire cup of steaming coffee on my laptop some six or seven years ago in Philadelphia, at some obscene hour prior to my 4 a.m. Whole Foods shift. It was destroyed beyond repair, and so was my library. No professional could extract it.
Since then, I have listened piecemeal, mostly while doing housework or home improvement, through Spotify, riddled with obnoxious ads at triple the volume of the songs. Nostalgic tunes, often upbeat (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Tom Petty) or more contemporary songs I consider perfect messes (Pussycat Dolls, Fifth Harmony), or hip hop because it gets me moving. But I used to listen to music like my father did: all the time. In the car, doing work, walking to work, around the house, and, perhaps most significantly, lying in bed, on my back, staring at the ceiling, thinking and — forgive me — feeling.
I recently subscribed to Apple Music to gain access to my favorites again, and have been slowly digging back into the past, particularly into my high school and college past, though I suspect I will continue to move toward the present day when I feel ready. It is not going well. I feel distracted and stressed by the higher registers, the more rapid beats. I feel saddened and desperate at the growl of disappointed women and their pianos. I feel hyper beyond reason attempting to revisit the Ska of the 90s. Outkast, Eminem, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Missy Elliott — all bring me to a place of panic, a feeling of absolute sensory overload.
The other day, I was sitting on the sofa, distracting myself with crime television while working on a lesson plan, and I wondered why it is that this distraction is not only palatable but desired. I remembered those high school days, my sister and I in opposite rooms across the hall from one another, her listening to NIN or Tool while she did who knows what, and me on my back on my bed, staring at the ceiling, or listening while writing terrible short stories about things like the Oklahoma City Bombing and the ghosts of children.
I thought of Tori Amos, mostly, of Under the Pink, an album that absolutely changed my life as I felt myself becoming a woman and not a girl. A feminist amidst people who found that to be a dirty word. Just then, I got a text from my sister, in Oakland, saying simply, “I’ve been listening to ‘Cloud on My Tongue’ for 25 years and it still makes me tear up.” That song, one of the more heart-wrenching, is on Under the Pink, and the synchronicity of our very different lives has made the song even more powerful in my estimation.
I have been listening to it nonstop since, and, yes, crying. From “I don’t need much to keep me warm” to “I’ll be wearing your tattoo” to “Thought I was over the bridge now,” I can’t stop feeling the same way I felt as a teenager, introducing myself inadvertently to the adult world of true heartbreak because people have always been too beautiful no matter how duplicitous. And remembering that no matter how quiet I go from time to time, there is always that connection between my sister and me: the ability to spit lyrics back and forth to one another via text, to recall a time we neither despised nor want to revisit, a bond between us that has always transcended our own vocabulary. A vague, vicarious understanding of womanhood before we were woman. A vague, vicarious understanding of loving women before we were quite certain we did.
It’s just that sometimes, it’s too much. My mother refused to watch sad movies while we were growing up and, being the precocious art kids we were, we felt she was a disappointment. Now that I am closer to her age then, I understand, with all media, how much encounters with art can change you, and how, sometimes, you just aren’t ready for it. Once, our homes were filled with noise called music. Mine is near-silent now except for the television, the occasional meow of the cats, and sometimes, a running toilet that is easily fixable if I can just make myself do it. Thought I was over the bridge now.