Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Love and Loss with iTunes Shuffle

Most of you know by now that I'm living without cable for the first time in my life since college. And unlike my experience at Dartmouth -- God knows what I spent my time doing there -- the fact of not having any television outlet whatsoever weighed heavily on me earlier this summer as I struggled to deal with the fact that I couldn't watch my Premiership football, my random, lazy-afternoon MTV eye candy, and C-SPAN's coverage of colorful characters like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV).

The truth of the matter, though, is that I got used to not having cable rather quickly because I learned to focus my media hunger on the Internet and on iTunes. This blog and its featured ramblings on sundry topics are proof positive of the former. As for the latter, I need only direct you to my user profile at the website I've advanced my music literacy by picking up on the tastes of friends, both "real" and virtual, and by borrowing CDs from two Durham institutions, my friends Sara and Samiha. Emily also was a huge help with her gran mixto of music which she sent to me via post from Seattle.

At any rate, my digital music archive has swelled to over 7,000 songs (thank you, external hard drive!) because of these efforts, and I've spent most of my time at home and in cafes listening to my iTunes... like, constantly. And when I'm not listening to my iTunes at home or in cafes? I'm working out at the gym, listening to my iPod Nano.

Having listened to so much music -- from so many different genres, and of varying quality, too -- over the past three months, and having tried my hand at creating playlists for others on my own, I've realized a deep, abiding truth about the human condition: modern music is invariably about love or loss or, quite frequently, an admixture of the two. That's it: love loss, loss love, the loss of love, the love one realizes in loss, and so on. Variations on these themes are infinite, of course, and I'd venture the claim that there's something about the modern human ear that demands a certain fidelity to love and loss.

A method of testing this hypothesis came upon me quite unexpectedly this afternoon as I sat in Durham's Broad Street Cafe working on a paper on my laptop. I had switched the "Shuffle" function on in my iTunes so that the program would select random songs from my archive to play. I listened to several songs in succession until I heard the unforgettable opening guitar riff to the Smashing Pumpkins' ballad "By Starlight." The song brought me back to my adolescence and conjured the ghost of my first love: an older girl named Elena who, among other things, introduced me to the Pumpkins and, not coincidentally, gave me my first kiss. The memories came flooding back into my consciousness, and I was so overwhelmed that I needed to find the lyrics to this song online so that I could not only hear but read the poetry of my feelings:

By starlight I'll kiss you
And promise to be your one and only
I'll make you feel happy
And leave you to be lost in mine

And where will we go, what will we do?
Soon, said I, we'll know

Dead eyes, are you just like me?
Cause her eyes were as vacant as the seas
Dead eyes, are you just like me?

And all along, we knew we'd carry on
Just to belong

By starlight I know you
As lovely as a wish granted true
My life has been empty, my life has been untrue
And does she really know who I really am?
Does she really know me at last

Dead eyes, are you just like me?
Cause her eyes were as vacant as the seas
Dead eyes, are you just like me?

I've been advancing the theory that the Pumpkins' masterful double-album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) constituted the (not unwelcome but properly mournful and in search of a "new" sound) death of grunge for years. "By Starlight," then, is the pitch-perfect, mid-'90s admixture of love and loss. Billy Corgan's haunting, nasally voice is a cagey foil to the lover's "speech" (his coos, his sweet nothings), and the chorus -- "Dead eyes, are you just like me?" -- serves up a deliciously morbid lament to/of love.

After hearing "By Starlight," I was in the mood for something a bit more uplifting -- after all, I was trying to work on a paper here and didn't need the image of Elena dancing around in my head. Well, wouldn't you know it? As if it had read my thoughts exactly, iTunes Shuffle somehow managed to select Marvin Gaye's 1964 hit "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" as the next song. I couldn't have chosen a more sugary-sweet and tonally uplifting song from my collection to follow up "By Starlight." Here's a reminder; we've all heard this before:

How sweet it is to be loved by you
How sweet it is to be loved by you

I needed the shelter of someone's arms and there you were
I needed someone to understand my ups and downs
and there you were
With sweet love and devotion
deeply touching my emotion
I want to stop and thank you baby
I just want to stop and thank you baby

How sweet it is to be loved by you
How sweet it is to be loved by you

I close my eyes at night,
wondering where would I be without you in my life
Everything I did was just a bore,
everywhere I went it seems I'd been there before
But you brightened up for me all of my days
With a love so sweet in so many ways
I want to stop and thank you baby
I want to stop and thank you baby

How sweet it is to be loved by you
How sweet it is to be loved by you

You were better to me than I've been to myself
For me, there's you and there ain't nobody else
I want to stop and thank you baby
I just want to stop and thank you baby

Was there ever a case when this song didn't bring a smile to somebody's face? It's irresistible! How'd my iTunes know?

Well, I'm not sure it "knew" anything except in following some randomizing algorithmic pattern. Still, the experience was touching, not only because both songs were about love but also because the first, about a certain lovelornness, had been tonally tempered by the second, about joyful, ecstatic love, seemingly by chance. And more: the first reminded me of Elena while the second (I haven't mentioned this yet) reminded me of happier moments with someone I had spent time with at the end of the summer here in Durham. But -- the final, fatal twist -- but I instantly realized that this second "love" was something that in fact didn't exist anymore -- I had come to experience it as a loss only recently. And so the randomized movement goes: while I was tonally sailing along from starlight to sweetness, I was affectively drawn from fond memory to a sunken heart.

I'm left, then, now, and leave you, with this:

sickly sweet
a heart in the wrong
a longing for better times

1 comment:

lex said...

This is beautiful. It brought up some tears that haven't fallen yet and some summer camp memories (all the more strong since the scene of my "summercamp" was Duke's East Campus :)
Thanks for writing this. I think its a rich example of how our relationships to technology invoke but cannot replace a much deeper longing.