a word of recommendation: cringy old tunes

Every now and then, when I’m cruising through Spotify, I spot a song that takes me back. It’ll be totally unexpected; I may not have ever remembered liking this or that song independent of Spotify’s prompting. It will likely make me cringe, especially because throughout my life I have been convinced of the superiority of my own music taste. Yet the impetus to make a childhood music playlist grew with each nostalgic encounter. Finally, the urge proved too much to sit with. So, this month, I made it.

It is by no means a complete (play)list. In fact, the more music I’ve added, the more the inevitably-missing songs frustrate me. Nonetheless, I currently have 503 songs saved on a playlist named “sarah cavar childhood hits” (no caps, we’re keeping it casual). The rules regarding which songs I could add to this list are relatively simple. One, the songs in question had to have been listened to at or before age thirteen. I designate my graduation from eighth grade and beginning of high school as the arbitrary upper limit of my childhood for these purposes. Two, the songs could not simply be from a childhood artist that I liked, but rather, they must be individual songs I can remember listening to.

I have this playlist on shuffle right now and I’m going to write about whichever five songs that pop up as I’m writing this post. I leave behind “Layers” by Asobi Seksu, which provided background to my introduction. Incidentally, this group was the one that introduced me to “shoegaze” as a genre. It is also a group that scandalized my young ears when I learned its name meant “play sex” in Japanese.  Their music is as dreamy as one might hope play sex to be.

1. Onto the childhood song-shuffle. I’m now listening now to “Hero / Heroine” by Boys Like Girls. This is one of those whiny sad boy songs I rarely let myself listen to both back then and today. I didn’t yet understand the mass appeal of whiny sad boy songs, all I knew was that the particular tone of this song made me unbearably melancholic. I listened to this song on the way to my grandmother’s house lived. I stared out the window sadly, as one does in these situations. I finished the song as I am currently doing. I found myself caught up in whatever deeply emotional memories, even nostalgia, I may have had a decade ago. My stomach had dropped into sadness and wouldn’t rise. Sad boy songs suck. It should be noted that, as I finish working on this blog post almost twelve hours after beginning it, this song is still stuck in my head and continues to make the backs of my eyes feel like I’m about to cry. Well done, Boys Like Girls!

2. The song ended and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel began. I still remember most of the lyrics/historical events from this song –– I had them all memorized years ago, back before I knew what half of them meant. When Joel sings about “children of thalidomide,” I’m reminded of a particular event in fourth grade I’m still unsure of how to look at from a disability studies perspective. Ah yes, “children of thalidomide.” He just sang that as I wrote the other sentence. Anyway, I was in art class in fourth grade and (as was popular in 2009?) watching several boys in the class tuck most of their arms into their short-sleeved shirts and wave their hands around, pretending as though their arms didn’t exist. Our then-teacher scolded them harshly for making fun of children of thalidomide by stuffing their arms into their shirtsleeves. I was proud to have context for what she said. Most of my peers were confused. Had I known the infamous term “special snowflake” back then, I surely would have called her one. Present me cringes at the memory. My problematic self took home a set of her scented markers that year.

3. A middle school song is on now. “Everest” by Ra Ra Riot. I discovered Ra Ra Riot while sitting on a pink beanbag with my iPod touch, hungrily scouring iTunes for good music on which I could spend a new gift card. I was smugly satisfied that I had discovered such indie bands such as Arcade Fire, of whom I was convinced no one else had ever heard. I was devastated when “The Suburbs” received critical acclaim, convinced that my beloved “indie band” had lost all its rarity and thus all its value. Ra Ra Riot was a recommended band beneath the option to purchase an Arcade Fire album on iTunes. It had received significantly less notice; fewer reviews. Well done, Sarah! I thought to myself. One of your indie bands may have been discovered, but there will always be another for you to dig up and hoard for yourself!

4. I’m listening to “Chocolate Chips” by Zoe Boekbinder now. I discovered the Boekbinder sisters via their act Vermillion Lies. I downloaded several of their albums from Bandcamp. I was very confused as to why people liked these quirky woman singer-songwriters who half sang/half spoke along with some strange instruments which likely weren’t instruments at all. This confusion grew as I discovered both CocoRosie and Regina Spektor, both of whom I shunted into this (admittedly too-broad) category. When I was trying to add music by the Boekbinder sisters to this playlist, I was struck by 1) how little of their work had made its way from Bandcamp to Spotify and 2) how deeply I now adored their music. I’ve been listening to the Boekbinders as often, now, as I listen to their half-siblings: Tune-Yards, Superorganism, etc. If anything, to me, this quirky girl music is antithetical to the sad boy music I bemoaned in item (1). It constantly makes you wonder, “Is this music? Is she just banging pots and pans together and speak-singing along with the sound? Either way, why do I like it so much?” I just do.

5. Lastly, the song “Noise” by Tokio Hotel comes on. I had a next-door neighbor I’ll call V. V introduced me to all kinds of things; among them were Invader Zim, Tokio Hotel, and the idea of “bandom” in general. She had a cardboard cut-out of Robert Pattinson in the corner of her room. Robert stood watch as we listened to the Hot Topic hits she had downloaded on LimeWire (RIP) and I forced myself to like them. Tokio Hotel’s music often strayed into sad boy territory, but this was one of the few songs that didn’t make me feel like I was melting on the inside. “Noise” was my go-to favorite Tokio Hotel song, the one I’d bring up when making conversation with V’s friends as I stared longingly at their scene apparel and prayed for the wherewithal to someday enter my mall’s Hot Topic all by myself.

Music has an uncanny way of possessing us; at least, possessing our memories. From this Spotify adventure I find myself learning, if nothing else, that the songs from my childhood I consider to be “cringey” weren’t so in and of themselves, but rather became that way through the memories and experiences I associate with them. Each time I turn on my playlist (and a “private” listening session) I’m struck by the way the public presence of these songs, charged with memory, force me to relive what I might prefer to keep hidden.

As I conclude this piece, “Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars comes on. It’s a good song, from the first movie in The Hunger Games series. I (age thirteen) went to the premiere with my friends. I wore a black pinstriped fedora with a white ribbon, and my prescription glasses were thick-rimmed and tortoiseshell (“geek chic”?). Although I have destroyed all photographic evidence of that time, the song remains and forces me to encounter its redeeming qualities; perhaps even the redeeming qualities of my cringey, young self (though I’m still not sure there are any). 

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