How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Embarrassing Music

Life as a music lover who doesn’t fully appreciate the music part

Photo: Dalia Franco/EyeEm/Getty Images

I’I’m on my morning perambulations, listening to “all the good girls go to hell” by Billie Eilish on a music streaming service. Suddenly, a young man starts whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I’m too cheap to pay for premium, so I only have so much control over what I hear. That said, I like that my cheapness forces me to listen to new things. Otherwise, because I’m either a toddler or Buffalo Bill, I would listen to the same songs over and over for seasons on end.

The man’s voice is that of an up-and-coming artist named Miles Carter, and when I get home I stretch while listening to his album. He’s talking about love and vulnerability and he sounds like the perfect boyfriend. At 41, I’m too cynical not to think he must get more heinie than the proverbial toilet seat with his claims of sensitivity, and how he’s definitely going to fall in love first. So please be gentle! But the part of me that isn’t bitter as a Bernie Bro appreciates his sentiments.

For the first time in a long time, I wish I still had Facebook so I could post about “discovering” an example of young people’s music to assure everyone that I am Still Relevant. But I gave up Facebook, for a lot of reasons. There was that thing about it undermining a political system that has hitherto survived, albeit problematically, for over 200 years. But it was also killing my optimism, alongside democracy, and pouring sauce on the well-marbled steak of my cynicism. Flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, anti-immigration memes, and that Ubiquitous Racist-In-Law commenting seemingly everywhere with, “Actually…” had driven me into an unbearable funk. So I nuked my profile. Yes, I feel quite smug about that, if you’re wondering.

But I did enjoy sharing what music I was listening to. Which is weird, because a) I know no one actually cares, b) I’m fooling no one about my relevancy, and c) I have a tin ear. I like music in the same way everyone except retired ballerinas enjoys ballet: with zero understanding of what actually goes into getting one’s leg over one’s head while twirling one direction and then the other. How does one make music, I think, and why is that melody so pretty? I have no idea. I couldn’t pick out a tuba from a trombone, at least auditorily, and harmony is a mystery akin to that of the creation of life. Like, all life, not how babies are made. I got that part.

So, I’m a music lover who doesn’t fully appreciate the music part. I know Prince was a musical genius because I’ve been told so by reliable sources. But I mostly enjoy his sassy lyrics and the fact that he wrote my eponymous theme song. (Although I still don’t know exactly how one masturbates with a magazine without pretty egregious paper cuts.) I even love songs like “The Flame” by Cheap Trick that, when they come onto my playlist at a party, make everyone else look at each other like “WTF is this?” Only then do I realize the song is considered, by everyone else under the sun, to be utter rubbish. But I love the lines!

And I will continue to love them, maybe even doubling down on that love.

All of this explains why I’m instantly enraptured by this young whippersnapper, Miles Carter. He talks. Melodically, with a beautiful voice, of course — but all the man does is talk. To music, that I could, realistically, give or take.

I have songs or albums that soundtrack whole years, usually because I listened to them so many times that even other people associate that era in their lives with me and that goddamn sound.

My laser focus on lyrics does mean I see through some of my generation’s prettiest power ballads. I immediately knew that, despite what it sounded like, “More Than Words” was as romantic as being told “fuck me or fuck off.” This explains my utter confusion when someone wanted to make it our prom theme song. Sometimes I like to imagine what our prom might have been like with a song about pressuring someone into sex as its theme. We could have laced the punch with roofies. Made “no” officially mean “yes,” just for the night. Brought in a bunch of pinball machines, for the truly committed.

Then I realize I’m dreaming up some of the worst aspects of the most popular ‘80s movie, so it’s already been done.

Despite my tin ear and what’s probably an overemphasis on lyrics, which means some otherwise beautiful songs don’t speak to me the way they do to others, music still holds an incredibly important role in my life. Like everyone else, I have those songs that become my anthems. I’ve got songs that make me cry, on cue, every time I listen to them, as if conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I have songs or albums that soundtrack whole years, usually because I listened to them so many times that even other people associate that era in their lives with me and that goddamn sound. For example, there are people from about 15 different countries who will always associate their 2001 in Granada, Spain with David Gray’s album White Ladder and a tipsy American who wouldn’t take it off repeat.

I am unrepentant.

The downside of attaching oneself to music, of course, is that the songs I love are often freighted with memory. They become tainted with what I experienced while listening to them, both good and bad. They can make forgetting someone that much harder. Or they give me a way to easily torture myself, something the masochist in me loved doing until I started poking back with therapy.

This explains why I still have about 800 versions of Billy Ray Martin’s “Your Loving Arms,” burned to various CDs over the years. It is a song to which I have shed roughly 1,000,000 tears.

My first great love was obsessed with this song. I was 16 and incredibly dumb. He was 21, had a motorcycle, and spoke a language I’d never knew existed before I met him. This became the criteria for all of my boyfriends for the next 10 or so years of my life, but that’s another story. He wore silver rings on every finger — and before you judge, this was 1995. (You’re still judging, aren’t you?) But I loved those rings, and how they stood out against his golden skin, or his black hair when he raked his fingers through it. He would put them on my small fingers, and they’d fall off, and we’d laugh as if we’d invented flirtation.

I adored this man, and he was just that: a man. An inappropriately older man. But I’d lied about my age and I was away from home for the first time in my life, at a summer college program in which I was learning a lot more than the Celtic mythology and Shakespearean drama I’d signed up for. And this story ends utterly happily. He turned out to be an absolute gentleman, who was happy just to make out with this weird little virgin he’d collected from a café and show her around his city. Looking back, I recognize how lucky I was to have met this man, of all men, who cultivated the appearance of a bad boy to mask an honest and empathetic heart.

And this man I adored loved Billie Ray’s anthem about a guy letting his lil’ lady know she was safe, despite her insecurities. Meanwhile, I knew insecurity as only a teenage girl can. It felt like he was singing to me, especially when he sang along to it as we danced in the nightclubs he snuck me into.

After that summer, when I’d returned to the middle of America, states away from my silver-ringed beloved, I’d listen to that song on repeat, over and over and over, crying and remembering every single second we’d spent together as if I had filmed them.

Nowadays, I can’t remember where I went for dinner last week. My memories are hazy, even of events that should stand out.

For example, a while back I met someone I really enjoy spending time with (when I’m on his side of the country). Like my old beau Silver Rings, he looks like a bad boy and works security as a side hustle, because he’s enormous and tattooed and intimidating. But he’s really a social worker, who listens and asks, “How do you feel about that?” when I try to gloss over what he can sense bothers me. He’s the sort of paradox I adore. But unlike my 16-year-old memory, my 41-year-old memory can’t entirely recall what we did on our second date, let alone every second we spent together. I remember only the highlights. And some totally random moments, because they’re set to music.

This is music’s greatest gift: turning something that could have been fleeting into something fixed

Like when we cooked together in my friend’s lovely old kitchen, the first time we’d done so. I’d put on my “Top Songs of 2018” Spotify playlist and we were dancing. Not literally, as we still hadn’t figured out how. We both actually like dancing, but I’m 5’2” and he’s 6’6”, a height difference that makes even hugging pornographic unless carefully orchestrated. So our dance that night was still metaphorical — stepping around each other in the kitchen, learning how we worked, how we helped, and how we asked for help. And our conversation was still a dance, as we learned about each other. A dance that kept touching on the music.

We have very different cultural and geographical backgrounds, after all. And as each song came up I’d wonder if this was the song that would clue him into the fact that I am an enormous nerd. Or a hopeless romantic. Or someone who likes to switch from Lizzo to the Dropkick Murphys, the latter of which I honestly find faintly embarrassing. Instead, nearly every song precipitated some kind of conversation that helped us realize we had a shocking amount in common, despite our obvious differences.

I think about that dance we did in my friend’s kitchen every time I listen to that playlist. And this is music’s greatest gift: turning something that could have been fleeting into something fixed. It is connection; something we can share. It is memory, both made and lost. We talk over it, through it, under it. It sets our rhythm. It speaks to us and through us. It is both a catharsis and a keepsake. Music has the power to put us back in a single moment, weeks, months, or years after the memories around that song have been lost.

I imagine it’s even better, for those who can tell the tuba from the trombone, and I’m grateful for the musicians who’ve helped make some of my best memories. For even when the songs are a little bit terrible, lyrics and all, the memories are precious.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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