It’s one of those days* when I end the day laying on the couch idly, scrolling through Facebook with a scattered mind and no greater purpose, wondering what it all means. I like to think of the characters in To the Lighthouse when I do this, namely, I think (if I recall the story correctly) Mrs. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe, both of whom asked the question frequently as they were observing the interactions among the denizens of the Ramsey family summer home. The very general but very pressing question they raise makes sense to me. People are so interesting, and there are always so many weird coincidences and connections from one person to the next. If I look hard enough, I find myself reaching for some grand revelation that will never come. To invoke “To the Lighthouse” again, I find myself acting like Mr. Ramsey, when he laments that he’ll “never make it to z” – the end of the alphabet, which must signify, to him, some transcendental truth or revelation.
At the same time, Lindy West’s quote from Shrill is probably my favorite: “It’s hard being a person.” I love life very much, but this simple statement also rings incredibly true for me. Human beings are fascinating, but sometimes it’s so difficult being a member of humanity (not, I note, that I would have it any other way). Alas, since I seem intent on contemplating the simultaneous burden and gift of personhood, I decided I’d write another Friday Night Video post (and it actually is kind of, in a way, Friday night right now)**. Something about integrating music and memoir seems particularly apt on a night when I’m feeling contemplative. The truth at the bottom of this contemplation is that what I really want is a cheddar grilled cheese sandwich made with garlic herb butter, but for that to happen, I need to let the butter soften, and for that to happen, I need to let the butter sit out for awhile, and for that to happen, I need to find some means of entertainment***. So, while my butter softens, I might as well write.
It was one of the great Greek philosophers (I don’t know which one) that argued mundane daily practices like eating food were bulwarks that stood in the way of a life 100% full of intellectual endeavor. Humanity was, to him, inherently encumbered. Well, if indulgence is at odds with productivity, then I may well be fucked. Anyway, here’s my 81st to 90th favorite song of 2022, along with each song’s meaning, as heard only through my ears. The point of this series, after all, is not to intellectualize music, which I’m not informed enough to do anyway. It’s simply to share what my favorite songs mean to me.
90.) Just a Girl – No Doubt – (specifically, the Radio 1 Live Acoustic version, but that distinction doesn’t matter much for the purpose of my memoiring).
Tragic Kingdom was released in 1995, when I was eleven years old. This timing makes a lot of sense to me, because I have a few key childhood memories involving No Doubt, and the amazing album that I owned and listened to frequently throughout middle school and high school. First, my friend Rachelle and I used to make dances to No Doubt songs in my backyard, back when No Doubt was defined by Tragic Kingdom. We had taken a year or two of dance lessons, but we weren’t really dancers per se. I’d call our awkward amalgams just the right combination of poor interpretive dancing and level one jazz. Alas, we had fun doing it.
What I remember even more about this song is how it fueled me during swim team practice in middle school. As I was swimming laps, half-exhausted, half intent on going faster so that I could annoyingly touch the feet of the person in front of me (thus demonstrating my superior speed, of course), this song would play over and over again in my head.
89.) No Rain (Blind Melon): I don’t really like this song, and I wish it weren’t on my list. It doesn’t particularly stand out to me, and it’s always sounded a bit whiney and a bit boring. I know it well from my youth, but it’s only on my top 100 list because Spotify forces it on me by integrating it into otherwise well-made mixes.
Chuck Klosterman analyzes the group Nickelback and says they’re so annoying to so many people because they are just good enough but no better than that; there’s nothing that makes them special or makes them stand out. I think this is true of No Rain by Blind Melon, too. It’s like the Nickelback of 90s pop ditties. The singer sounds a little whiney, and I’ve often wanted to like the song, but it just doesn’t grab me.
88.) Hey Mama (Black Eyed Peas): Can I just say, I love the Black-Eyed Peas? I don’t know why, because they remind me of one of the most awful times in my life, but songs like Hey Mama remind me of the happy times within those awful times. Or, to be Dickensian about it, they were the best of times, they were the worst of times…
The image that comes to mind immediately when I hear this song is the Houston freeway – either 45 or the 610 loop, I don’t remember which one for sure because it’s been awhile since I cruised down those crowded, lonesome roads. I was tagging along with a few other Teach For America teachers shortly after our one-month institute ended, and I sat in the back seat of a car on the way to the movie we were going to see, listening to this song play on the radio as the car sped past the Houston aquarium, its glistening logo doused in electric blue light, and the matching giant ferris wheel that you can see from the highway. Each shining edifice stood out against the big, dark, Texas sky and the less vivid buildings in the backdrop. I’ve probably said it before, but it remains true; the sky always looked much bigger in Texas, so that when I came home to Erie for Christmas after I’d been down there a semester, the whole world just looked tinier in Northwest PA.
Teach for America was hard for me. I’d had a difficult senior year of college, but I nailed my TFA interview. The summer before I left for Houston, where I was going to teach high school students, I spent time at the local bars with my friends and drunk-cried about not being ready to go so far away from Erie, PA after just getting home (I was eight hours away in college, and at the time, that was hard, too. Coming home and seeing childhood friends was always a respite.) I did not really fit in among the Teach for America crowd (I have not a close friend to show for that group membership), so I was lonely until I got acclimated to the high school I worked at and made friends with some of the other English teachers. I couldn’t see it, then, but the few teachers who I got to know really well were tremendous blessings in my otherwise tumultuous existence. They were also – though time and distance has separated us since – true friends, friends who actively tried to help, in a variety of ways, when I started descending into madness.
87.) Fight Test (The Flaming Lips): The Flaming Lips were one of my favorite bands in college. To be honest, the only album of theirs that I’ve listened to in its entirety is Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but I’ve listened to that album a lot. My favorite three songs on the album are the one that shares the album’s title, Fight Test, and Do You Realize? All of the songs remind me of happy times with college friends, car rides on Greencastle’s backroads alongside cornfields and covered bridges, under pink and orange Indiana sunsets, and general frivolity. Listening to Flaming Lips music always made me so freakin’ happy.
Conversely, this song, in particular, I listened to at the height of my worst psychosis, when I was 25 or 26 and ultimately had to be whisked away from Houston by my parents because I thought, first, that the people at the school I worked at were conspiring against me, second, that I was basically the center of the universe, and, third, that I had died and been relegated to some awful afterlife that was a strange version of the city I once knew. I remember sitting in my room, experiencing psychosis in the form of strange delusions while writing about previous psychotic episodes, not really realizing that they had been psychotic episodes. Without going into detail, this song factored into my delusions in bizarre ways, ways that I wouldn’t begin to explain in a blog post, now. But, for that reason, it’s close to my heart.
86). Don’t Let Me Down (No Doubt): The reason this song made my top 100 list is because it’s on the Rock Steady album, and I started listening frequently to Rock Steady, especially before I went to sleep this summer, and especially on nights when I didn’t have to go to work the next day. It was my “night off, treat yourself” album.
Michael had been listening to the album at some point over the summer. He told me about dipping into the past with the No Doubt album that often receives less recognition than its predecessor, and I started listening to it, too. Sometimes (often, in fact) I prefer sleeping on my family room couch, as opposed to sleeping in my bedroom, in my bed, and this past summer I’d say, “Alexa, play the album ‘Rock Steady” before going to sleep. I have no one particular memory with this song, then, but the album in general reminds me of curling up on the couch in a heavily air-conditioned apartment on balmy summer nights, listening to Gwen Stefani croon as I fell asleep.
On the fourth of July, Michael called me before I was going to bed, spooked because he saw a strange crew of midnight workers and then a yard adorned with three tall skeletons as he was driving. It was a macabre, ghostly sequence of events, especially for the fourth of July, and with some enthusiasm I mulled them over—their meaning and possible stories I could make about them – as I drifted off to sleep on the couch, listening to Rock Steady.
85.) Runaway Train (Soul Asylum): I don’t listen to a lot of Soul Asylum, but this song was one of my first loves. It was released in 1993, so I would have been nine when it was popular, and I remember how often it played on the radio—probably on the now defunct Jet FM 102.3 or Mix 103.7 over the school bus loudspeaker. Who knows why, at the age of nine, a song hits one so deeply? I love when the song picks up tempo and the singer sings, “I can go where no one else can go, I know what no one else knows, here I am just drowning in the rain, with a ticket for the runaway train.” Kind of like Janet Jackson’s song, “Again” – another favorite song of my youth – I always found this song incredibly beautiful. Unlike “Again,” however, which I would listen to over and over again on tape before CDs were a thing, I never owned a copy of Runaway train by Soul Asylum. It’s a song I loved because it played a lot on the radio, and somehow, I always felt a connection to it. However, it’s not a song I listened to a lot after 1993 or 1994…until it ended up on a Spotify-made playlist. Sometimes Spotify’s algorithms come painfully close to knowing my heart, which is why this song ended up on a lot of mixes that Spotify made for me, and thus on my top 100.
84.) Down (Marian Hill): I can hardly decipher the words of this song (which is actually true of my experience of many songs), but I love the beat and the simple refrain, “are you down di-di down down down.” While I was still working at Torrid, this song would often play on the store’s mix of relatively contemporary, poppy songs. And when I was teaching at Mercyhurst, I had students choose a commercial and analyze its use of ethos, pathos, and logos for the class. One student chose a commercial comprised predominantly of this song and a dancer dancing rhythmically to it against a city backdrop, and she used it as an example of pathos. I quite understand her reasoning, because it’s definitely a song that provokes emotion, especially as it was displayed in the commercial. For that reason, when I’m in a self-pitying mood, this song can make me get a bit wheepy, because I loved teaching at Mercyhurst, and I very much miss it. Conversely, there’s something to be said for time away from the classroom and more free time outside of work, and I enjoy working retail full time while I finish my dissertation. So, I’m trying to go with the flow.
83.) Across the Universe (The Beatles): I made one playlist that had this song by the Beatles, then by Fiona Apple, then by Rufus Wainwright. Truthfully, I cannot pick a favorite version, though dogma would predict that I’d say the Beatles version is my favorite. I remember, toward the onset of a psychotic/manic episode, buying a Chai Latte at the Starbucks near my little Montrose apartment before going to teach, after a night of staying up late, reading, and hardly sleeping when I should have been doing more productive things and getting normal human amounts of sleep. It was not, of course, an idyllic time in my life, but sometimes mere moments had the power to deceive me greatly when it came to my perception of the bigger picture. As this song played throughout that Starbucks that morning while I was buying my chai latte, I was young and relatively successful, enthusiastic about life and my passions despite my psychosis and bad habits, and I was ordering Starbucks in a hip downtown Houston location before going to my teaching job. The lights inside Starbucks were bright and everything just seemed right, and the lines “nothing’s gonna change my world” reverberated through my mind. The words were not just deceptive; they were patently untrue. My world was about to be upended completely by the utter loss of my sanity and a move back to Erie, PA, but how nice, I suppose, that I believed in such illusory stability at the time.
82.) In My Head (No Doubt): This is another song that made my top 100 list because I started listening to Rock Steady on hot summer nights. While I do have a few memories associated with other songs on that album, I have none associated with this one, nor any attachment to it. It is one of many solid songs on Rock Steady, and if I stay awake long enough to get to it, I always enjoy listening to it.
81.) Big Pimpin’ (Jay Z, UGK): My enjoyment of Jay Z probably escalated my second or third year living in Houston, when I was 22 or 23. Another teacher (who, at the time, I had an enormous crush on) burned me a ton of music, and one of the collections he included was Jay Z’s acoustic album. This track isn’t the acoustic version of Big Pimpin’, but it’s made my list probably because I fell so hard for the Jay Z acoustic album when I heard it. I remember putting songs from the album on my IPOD playlist and taking long runs around memorial park in Houston while listening to Jay Z’s lyrics accompanied by unique mixtures of instrumentals.
I loved running at memorial park, because it was situated right outside of downtown and had a long winding path and a ton of patrons any given day, but you could see the big buildings of downtown Houston from the park as you ran. Conversely, memorial park was also a very sad place for me. Yes, I miss being slender and in shape, but I used to go there to run on weekends during periods in Houston when I didn’t have a lot of friends, in part because I had nowhere else to go. I remember a lot of fun and sociality during those five years, but there were also long, arid periods of insuperable loneliness that made life feel like a romp through an unrelenting desert. So, while I miss being able to hit the pavement and run four miles, I don’t miss that—the loneliness. Before she died Marina Keegan wrote an essay on the opposite of loneliness, and I think, often, that this amorphous concept defines my life now. Sobriety and quitting smoking and getting on a bunch of psych meds – all things necessary for stability – have resulted in an enormous weight gain that I’m always battling, and I hate it, but the trade off, I guess, for getting fat, is that I’m better at connecting with other human beings than I was in my twenties, before I was properly treated for my disorders, and my life really does, often, feel like the opposite of loneliness. That’s a change I can’t complain about. But, I’d still like to start running and swimming again.
*I started writing this blogpost over a week ago, but we can pretend I wrote it in a day.
**Okay, it’s been a week and two days, to be specific. It’s Christmas day now.
***Though over a week has passed, the concerned reader will note that the butter softened sufficiently and I did get that grilled cheese (cheddar) sandwich.