Soundtracking my life through playlists

I can pinpoint the moment when I really learned what music was, and realized where my taste fit within it. It is not that I did not grow up with music—rather, I did not feel particularly moved by any of it until I gained access to social media and a Spotify account. 

The catalyst for these events occurred when the Spotify app was approved on my school iPad, since I did not have my own phone yet. It was 2014 and I was 12 years old. These events coincided with a massive public relations push by the one and only Taylor Swift to hype up “1989,” her first pop album after four albums and seven years of country hits. Thus, media exposure and relatively unfettered access to the Internet precipitated a series of events that have affected me to this day.

I have cataloged every month of my life since 2014 in the form of a Spotify playlist. For those who do not want to do the calculations, that is 108 playlists, counting 11 so far this year and a singular playlist for 2014. Maybe this is not that special to most people; there are some prolific playlist makers out there. But I view my nine-year habit of playlist-making as something more than just a compulsive organizational habit: It is a musical soundscape of the events of my life. 

Whenever I feel moved—by the current events in my life, some remembered happenstance or the phase of the moon—I pull up the playlist from the point in my life that accurately matches with what I am currently feeling, and all of a sudden I am 16 again, driving for the first time, or 18, realizing I will not be finishing up my senior year of high school in any meaningful way. I associate points in my life with the songs that I listened to while they were happening, so going through my playlists is the easiest way for me to reflect on what I have lived through, kind of like a journal. I have to admit that when I look back at these playlists now, I am sometimes assaulted by songs I no longer listen to, and have no desire to. There is a skip button for a reason. And sometimes this reason is a passing obsession with, for example, Fall Out Boy. But I am here for the highs and the lows.

Looking back at 2023, a standout is “Dreamer” by Laufey. I have always wanted to be into jazz, but I do not think I know enough about the genre to call myself a real listener, despite enjoying the limited jazz I have been exposed to. My recent foray into Laufey’s discography has taken me on a new journey into jazz, one that I have thoroughly enjoyed. My friends and I made a road trip playlist for our drive back from Boston to Vassar after October Break. I put “Dreamer” on that playlist, and when it came on, I remarked to my friend that her a cappella group should do an arrangement of the track. Whether or not the Night Owls ever do the song is immaterial, but I will never forget the specific memory of driving down the Taconic, watching blurs of red, yellow and brown leaves whiz by on the way back from my last October Break ever.

For 2022, my mind immediately goes to “Instant Crush” by Daft Punk, featuring Julian Casablancas. I spent the summer of 2022 on campus doing research in the Biology Department. “Instant Crush” reminds me of a few things from that summer. First, running around Olmsted furiously trying to get my yeast cells to grow. Second, wandering around campus doing laps and soaking in the atmosphere at a time I never usually see it, green and beautiful. Third, crocheting a humongous green and white blanket as my first (and so far only) endeavor into the world of fiber arts.

The song that will forever remind me of 2021 is “Monster” by Exo. I am not the world’s biggest K-pop enthusiast, but I would be lying if I said I did not dabble in it now and again. This one, however, is embedded in my mind for a very unfortunate reason: I got into a car accident while listening to it. I was driving to my summer job as a florist’s assistant, and had to scoot my car out of the way of a giant truck, in the process scraping a gutter and dislodging one of the front panels of my car. Everyone and everything was completely fine, except perhaps my ego and my memory tied to that song. I cannot listen to it without thinking of my car accident.

The year 2020 is represented by an album more than just one specific song. “Future Nostalgia” by Dua Lipa is a fantastic album to dance around your room to. Unfortunately, I did a lot of staying in and dancing in my room in 2020. However, I now irreversibly associate that album with the end of high school, the six months I spent at home and my move to Vassar. 

I could pull out associative memories like these for dozens of songs each year. That is exactly why I continue every month, building up an auditory soundscape of my life. If I cannot remember things of my own accord, my ear will remember what I was listening to at the time, without fail. For this I am grateful.

During my journey with writing this piece, I listened to my “2014” playlist last. I was surprised and pleased to find not only the entirety of Swift’s first five studio albums on there, but also the song “Applause” by Lady Gaga. I am sure whatever I was doing when I first heard “Applause” was great, but now my memory of this song and this playlist has changed. When I finally saw Swift at the “Eras Tour” this year, “Applause” was one of the last songs played before she got on stage and dove into some of the hits that were on that same playlist, songs which have defined my life. Now I cannot think of anything else when I hear it. Even if music has stayed with me through the years, its meaning is always changing, and for this I am grateful, too.

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