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Plotting Life’s Key Moments Through Songs

“Songs like Frank Ocean’s ‘Super Rich Kids’ and ScHoolboy Q’s ‘Man of The Year’ made highlight reels out of otherwise banal moments.”
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Every time I fly, I listen to Childish Gambino’s “Crawl” from his 2013 album Because the Internet. If I’m able, I queue the song to start just as the plane thrusts forward on the tarmac. Its dissonant beat and steady build ground me at that moment, a perfect complement to the g-force of the plane fusing me to my seat. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started doing this, but no trip through the skies is the same if “Crawl” isn’t involved in my initial ascent.

I’m unsure if Donald Glover and producer Ludwig Göransson created “Crawl” with airplane liftoffs in mind. Likely not. Because The Internet has its internal logic and story to tell, yet this particular song has imprinted itself on a moment in my life and never let go. The power of music stems from its ability to embed itself in the fabric of our lives. It dissolves the line between background noise and earworm and can turn a well-chosen sonic cue into a cinematic moment. The ease with which music can become the soundtrack to our lives is life-affirming.

When I first started dating my girlfriend during my senior year of college, I burned a lot of CDs for her. The year was 2013, when the tide was slowly turning from MP3s to DSPs. Her green Honda sedan only had a CD player, so I consistently put my laptop’s disc drive to the test. We’d drive around campus, her glove box stacked to the brim with enough CD-Rs to supply a bodega’s bootleg rack for months. ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, and Big Sean’s Hall of Fame were among her favorites.

As is the case for many fans, those albums will always hold a special place in my heart. Not necessarily because of the music, or even because they constituted my first bonding experience with my partner. By slipping so seamlessly into the background of that specific point in time, songs like Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” and ScHoolboy Q’s “Man of The Year” made highlight reels out of otherwise banal moments.

“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” –God Entity, Futurama

My favorite part of this process is how the randomness of it all marinates memories in ways we can’t foresee. I noticed this phenomenon elsewhere recently while watching Michaela Coel’s new HBO series I May Destroy You. In the show’s third episode, protagonist Arabella—portrayed by Coel—sings part of the Daft Punk song “Something About Us” as an icebreaker with new lover Biagio: “I might not be the right one / It might not be the right time / But there’s something about us I’ve got to do / Some kind of secret I will share with you.”

As I watched their relationship bloom and then sour on-screen throughout the next four episodes, the song gradually morphed into an anchor to the peace and serenity Arabella desperately clings to as her life grows more hectic following an unrelated sexual assault. Even as Biagio becomes colder and more judgemental toward Arabella, her use of Daft Punk’s “Something About Us” as an olive branch stands out. It’s proof that music can sear itself into our memories, beautiful sounds binding to the wonderful and traumatic moments of our lives.

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Almost immediately after watching this episode, I felt compelled to go for a walk in the park. COVID-19 has given me anxiety about the idea of being around people, but I needed to get out of the house. Once I drove myself to Brookdale Park, I took time to explore and revisit some old haunts. Once I’d walked across every nook and cranny, there was only one section left: the sun-drenched open field. At that moment, I remembered that I had yet to press play on Amine’s newly-released sophomore album LIMBO.

Pressing play, I let the beats rush over me as I walked with my head high, soaking up the sun the world denied me most of the summer. Once I reached track four on LIMBO, “Roots,” produced by Parker Corey, its lurching sample and Charlie Wilson’s faint vocals complemented the gleaming sunshine. Whatever anxiety I was dealing with before I left my house faded, and I felt at peace.

A week later, I thought about my moment in the sun with LIMBO while reading a passage from late cultural critic Mark Fisher’s 2014 book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures:

“It is an art of collective enjoyment, in which a world beyond work can—however briefly—be glimpsed and grasped. Fugitive time, lost afternoons, conversations that dilate and drift like smoke, walks that have no particular direction and go on for hours, free parties in old industrial spaces, still reverberating days later.” –Mark Fisher

For a brief minute, I had permeated the space Fisher wrote about. The global pandemic hasn’t eased the stresses that come with working within the gig economy. Simply existing without contributing can feel like a sin. But I often remind myself, for however big the world is, I’m still a part of it—my well-being matters. And my well-being is split into moments, moments defined by music.

This past Saturday, on the recommendation of a friend, I decided to drive to Fat House, a sandwich spot I’d never been to before in Belleville, New Jersey. As I sped down Route 21 to Fat House, I pressed play on Chief Keef and Zaytoven’s 2018 album GloToven—in honor of the Chicago rapper celebrating his 25th birthday. I ordered a Fat Jaxon—chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, french fries, and onion rings with honey mustard and nacho cheese jam-packed into a hero—and a black cherry soda. On the way home, I played the new Smino/J.I.D single “Baguetti” obnoxiously loud while my bagged prizes slid up and down my passenger seat. 

The sandwich was delicious but the soundtrack to my journey made it tastier. Chief Keef and Zaytoven's "Ain't Gonna Happen" will always play in my head whenever I visit Fat House's storefront next. 

Only time will tell whether I’ll play any of these songs again in the future. But however my tastes change, their attachment to moments in my life—from the foundational to the banal—will always remain. Even if none of the songs I’ve mentioned seep out of my speakers ever again, they’ve imprinted themselves and become key moments I’ll always cherish.

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