I love pop music.
I understand that the genre lacks almost all of the elements of so-called music – decent vocals, interesting musicality, lyricism intersecting with poetry, tact. But, the best thing about pop music is its ubiquity.
You heard it on the car radio driving to school, or droning through the Macy’s speaker system while sifting through the discount prom dress rack, or blaring at the middle school dance when you gave up on gyration and settled for melodic swaying, or whirring from a laptop in the adjacent dorm room as you tried to fight through school work and homesickness.
My favorite musical experiences consist of playing an old song – particularly songs rife with associations from my childhood – while walking through an unexplored part of a city or en route to meet new people or occasions. There’s a temporal blending of old and new – old memories converging with newly created ones, melding into a single track. I don’t see pop songs as just songs. They’re layered experiences – the times and landscapes of my memory.
Lately, I’ve been tuning into a lot of nostalgic music as a scientifically-backed source of joy, especially in these politically contentious times. Here are two songs that have been especially potent in memory:
Love Fool by the Cardigans
(From the Original Sound Track of Romeo + Juliet)
It’s the summer of 1996 in Houston, Texas. If you’re poor and don’t possess a vehicle with a functioning air conditioner, there’s only a few things you can do in the city: Watch a Real World: San Francisco marathon for the fifth time; schlep through the near-impenetrable wall of heat between your house and the local library; or convince your parents to drop you off at the dollar movie theater, where all the movies are as old as the theater is derelict.
It’s 1996 and today’s PG-13 movie – brought to you by a sister who is 5 years older – is Romeo + Juliet. You’re expecting another boring romantic “comedy” starring Marisa Tomei, only to witness a movie that feels like a visual aneurism – as if the entire script composed solely of exclamation points. You leave the movie theater convinced that everyone in southern California drives around in unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts of neon color palettes and that white people only make out in exceeding weird situations, like behind fish tanks or underwater in a pool or as they’re dying of poorly timed poisoned suicide.
From its opening disco infused chords of this Cardigans song, you think of Romeo’s first appearance in the film. He’s perched atop a rock along a shoreline. Someone in the move theater let’s out a loud whistle because it’s young, unblemished Leonardo DiCaprio. This is pre-mauled-by-a-bear Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s got the most beautiful, side-swept lesbian hair you’ve ever seen. He inhales the last drags of a cigarette while an awkward, pubescent voiceover reveals his first lines:
“Why then, O bawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first create. Heavy lightness. Serious vanity. Misshapen chaos of well seeming form.”
Years and hundreds of miles later, it’s the perfect kind of song to play as you’re driving 75 miles per hour on the I-80, going east to west – Oakland to San Francisco – on the Bay Bridge. It’s the kind of song that mixes perfectly with a late night drive, crescendos with the first appearance of the San Francisco skyline. The buildings rise above the ocean like a vertical flip book, framed almost perfectly by the steel beams and rivets of the bridge.
It’s that kind of song.
Clocks by Coldplay
You can’t tell if you love or hate Coldplay, similar to how you can’t tell if Chris Martin is rugged attractive or scraggly ugly or if lyrics like “I discover that my castles stand/upon pillars of salt/pillars of sand” are illuminating or fucking stupid.
Perhaps the thing that hate most is that you never know the names of Coldplay songs, so you never know what to type into Napster or BearShare to steal whatever it is you’re looking for. A few of their early pop songs are lyrically chorus-less and named after the most obscure noun that appears once in the song (i.e. “Clocks”) or words that don’t even appear in the song at all (i.e. “The Scientist” or “Viva La Vida”). It’s conceivable that the moniker of the Coldplay hit you’re looking for is some preposition that appears in the song – “On,” “In,” “In Addition To,” “Regarding.”
But, you love Coldplay because every time that melodic piano rift from Clocks launches from your speaker system – those simple eighth notes saturating your surroundings until it explodes into a wall of synth 20 seconds in – it reminds you of a hopeful period of listening and driving. Driving to the Starbucks after school to indulge in conversations with friends about who you’ll be someday – a doctor for them, a journalist for you. Driving to postmark college applications, unsure if the precariously sealed packages will make it to Palo Alto, Providence, or Washington, DC in time. Driving to your high school graduation.
You also remember, in the Spring of 2009, a few weeks shy of your college graduation, taking a road trip with two friends to Hershey, Pennsylvania. The trip aligns with Coldplay’s Viva La Vida world tour and though you don’t have the money to attend, you and your two friends lie on a hill outside of HersheyPark Stadium. The grass is slightly damp, the air is fairly warm, everything sounds muffled, but it doesn’t matter because you’re about to graduate and you’re with your friends. The crowd noise and prelude music resonates like an undefined hum until Chris Martin – ugly, pretty Chris Martin – hits the first 8 notes of Clocks on his piano. The crowd noise and music rises to a fever pitch well above HersheyPark Stadium, escaping and dissolving into the night sky. For a moment, everything sounds clear and feels possible.