You don’t really know your favorite album until you’ve screamed it. Until you’ve driven down a back road late at night, alone, keeping a keen eye for deer, with your speakers as loud as they can go without permanently damaging your eardrums. Until you’ve listened in order from track one through track thirteen without skipping any songs—your emotions shifting every four minutes, realizing the amount of thought that goes into the order of a track list. Until you’ve taken the long way home just to finish the last song. Until you’ve pulled into the driveway, sung the last few lines, turned off the radio, felt your ears ringing, and just sat in silence for a few moments because you feel like you’ve just been baptized.
You don’t know an album until you’ve unpacked everything that makes you who you are into your college dorm for the first time while listening to it. Until it has played on a small speaker—as advertised in the Bed Bath & Beyond Back to School 2013 Catalogue as the perfect speaker for college dorms!—as background music with your door half open because you’re desperate to make friends. Until you’ve unpacked it all: your shoes, clothes, makeup, toilet paper, DVDs, photos of your dog and the friends you won’t speak to in three months, your dreams, your worries, all four majors that you’ll declare during this semester alone, Ramen, Easy Mac—you’ve got to lay all that crap out on the floor. Empty the suitcases and find new homes. That long shelf on the top of your shared closet, a giant Tupperware under your lofted bed, the bottom drawer of your desk—it takes time to unpack everything that you are. The album plays on its fourth loop and you still haven’t made any friends.
You don’t know an album until you’ve sung its best song in a subway terminal with your best friend. (Commuters at the Fulton Street station, I apologize.) Until you’ve danced to it at a sweet sixteen and your sister’s wedding, where her best friend looks you in the eye and says, “I love seeing how much you love this!” Until you’ve forced your mom to listen to it with you, each line giving you chills as you put yourself in the vulnerable position of telling someone this is what I love; these are the words I believe in; please love this with me. Until you've sent the songs to your other sister over and over again, and won't stop until the next time you're in the car together and you can force her to finally listen to them. She falls in love with them instantly, and all you can say as you drive around is I told you so! Until you’ve cried to it, maybe upon first listen, maybe after a breakup, or maybe on a typical Tuesday night when you’re driving home from Applebee’s and just feeling particularly emotional.
You don’t know an album until you’ve rushed to Target during your lunch break to buy it on release day. Until you’ve Tweeted the artist saying how you much you love it, with such a slim, slim chance of a response. (You do it anyway.) Until you’ve gone out to buy an album ASAP, even if you weren’t planning to leave the house this Monday, even if going to get it means you have to put a bra on in the middle of a snowstorm, even if you only have your Junior license until next week when you turn seventeen but it’s okay because you were technically on your way home from a school-related function and you hide your keys in your purse and you walk so fast that you’re actually bringing more attention to yourself and a part of you really, truly thinks there’s a chance that the Official President of Junior Licenses of The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (that’s not a thing) is going to find you in the electronics section of the Riverhead Target while you look for the Edens Edge CD that you’d otherwise have to wait a few days to buy and you’re seeing them in concert on your birthday at the end of the week and you have to know ALL of the words before you go!
Until you’ve become too stubborn to save yourself all this trouble and just buy an album on iTunes like a normal person because you need the physical album booklet to add to your collection.
You don't know an album until you've tried to play its songs on instruments you don't know how to play. Piano, guitar, ukulele—whatever you can get your hands on. This never goes well, but it feels right in the moment, and I’ve never forgotten the four simple chords that make up “You’re Not Sorry” on piano. Until you’ve spent a Saturday night sitting in your bed on YouTube, searching for live performances of each track. Or until you’ve heard the tracks live in concert, if you’re lucky. Until you’ve looked into how much it’d cost for it on vinyl—whether or not you own a record player.
You don’t know an album until you’ve used it to overcome unrequited love. Until you’ve been convinced that Romeo would’ve been better equipped to get over Rosaline with this particular collection of songs, instead of heading down that rabbit’s hole with Juliet. Until you’ve been seventeen years old and dreaming about some boy you hardly know, gotten into your car after ninth period Latin, and felt like you couldn’t possibly begin the 7-minute drive home from your high school without playing this album through your cheap FM transmitter that only works half the time. Or, until you’ve made the album your “car CD,” because you’ve got your priorities straight and ain’t nobody got time for FM transmitters.
You don’t know an album until you’ve had sunny afternoons when you want to tattoo its verses and hooks and choruses and bridges on your forehead. Until you’ve wanted a public sign of this is what matters to me. Until you’ve wanted someone to drag a needle with thick black ink across your body because these words are so important at this time and you never want to forget that. Until you’ve wanted a physical representation of the fact that these words are so deep under your skin. Until you’ve wanted a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling. Until you’ve felt like you just can’t get enough of it; your insides become caverns that keep draining and need to be replenished with these melodies. Until you’ve Googled the distance to Tattoo Lou’s in Smithtown. Until you’ve stayed up too late writing out its words on construction paper and taping them all over your bedroom walls, paint chips be damned, because you can’t figure out any other way to express yourself sufficiently.
You don’t know an album until you’ve listened to it on a cross-country road trip to move your big sister into grad school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Until you’ve listened to it from JFK to ORY, on a 737 to Paris. Until you’ve used it to comfort you your first time flying alone at barely eighteen, just dabbling in adulthood, when you’re so nauseous you clench your pillowcase open in front of you just in case you vomit and the French guy sleeping next to you doesn’t move in time for you to make it to the tiny toilette. (You don’t puke, for the record.)
You don’t know an album until you’ve sat on your bedroom floor late at night, listening to it from start to finish, reading every liner note and thank you and lyric and hidden message and caption and name and acknowledgment you can find. Until you’ve done that a second time. Until you’ve learned its cowriters and producers and label and did you know that Martina McBride’s kids happened to be in the studio that day and they just recorded the sound of her kids snapping to put on that track? Until you’ve checked for its Grammy nominations as if they were your own. Until you’ve read its entire Wikipedia page. More than once.
You don't know an album until you've played it in your headphones all night long because going away to college has correlated with an onset of insomnia that is direct and debilitating and disappointing enough to be studied for the Princeton Review. Until you’ve studied for finals in the library knowing that everyone around you can hear it spilling out of your headphones, but you’re hyper-focused at the time and it’s working as a less risky (and probably less effective) Adderall. Until—whether she’s singing, snoring, on the phone, or hooking up with some guy—you’ve used it to block out the sounds of an annoying roommate. Until you’ve danced to it in the middle of the night with the best roommates of your life. Ones you’d be willing to travel halfway across the world to live with again.
I know that these are all very specific, impractical, and personal experiences. I am not qualified to set these terms for others. Can every one of these time periods apply to every album? No, of course not. I even thought about and mentioned a few different albums when writing this. But I’ve been lucky enough in recent years to find friends who love music the same way I do, and I hope that they and others like them can relate to this impractical, illogical, arrogant, vulnerable, insane, silly, revealing, irrational, and presumptuous blog post. This post is all of those things and yet here I am, feeling it all, believing it all, and writing it all down. And maybe I’m just crazy. But my thoughts must not be completely insane and dismissible, because here you are, reading it all along with me.
Perhaps I ought to say, you don't know an album like I do.
A few months ago I wrote an essay for my English 201 class about John Lennon.
The assignment was to observe a literacy site and analyze its discourse. In other words, go to a public place, sit there for a couple hours and keep quiet, then write down all the crazy things you hear people say and embellish on your notes for six pages to prove to Dr. Brewer that you've been paying attention all semester. For my literacy site, I chose the Imagine memorial in Central Park West.
I spent a lot of time on this essay. It was my final grade for the course and I was determined to get an A. (Mostly in an attempt to raise my GPA, which had lowered quite a bit during my brief stint as a business major earlier in the academic year—but let's not talk about The Dark Age.) In the process of researching for the essay, I found myself watching an hour-long documentary on YouTube with a name like The Day John Lennon Died or The Man Who Shot John Lennon or something like that. Or maybe I watched two in one night. Who are you to judge?
Anyway, while watching the video(s?), I was overcome with a very distinct sense of grief. I began to miss someone I had never met. It was a strange concept, hard to describe, yet very real and very poignant. I was sincerely bitter for about a week that I missed the chance to live at the same time as John Lennon, and angry that this incredibly important artist passed away decades before he should have. I grew up listening to the Beatles, thanks to my parents, so I asked them what it was like when the news of Lennon’s death spread. I watched more YouTube videos. I read articles about Mark David Chapman. I tried to piece together feelings and emotions and facts in an attempt to tie myself to a decade I didn't live through. It was messy, emotional, and ultimately in vain.
Recently I've been feeling just as cheated as I did in May. I saw the documentary Amy—a retelling of Amy Winehouse's life and death by friends, family members, and a production team, of course—in a Manhattan movie theater a few weeks ago. Since then I've had her Back to Black album on repeat.
I haven't been blogging about any new releases lately, and you can blame that entirely on Amy Winehouse. I'm playing tracks 2 and 5 of Back to Black over and over again as I drive around my hometown in my high school car for the summer. Everyone knows her voice was incredible, but lately I keep stopping to think about just how incredible it was. I was only sixteen when Amy joined the 27 Club, and I was far too young at eleven years old to have appreciated her during the reign of Back to Black. She was a true model, an icon—and I am angry, in an admittedly self-absorbed way, that I was just a kid when she was around. And I’m angry that she left too soon, just like Lennon. I'm mad that I didn't have the chance to send her a wistful tweet with only the slightest hope of her responding, or to rush to Target during my lunch break to buy her album on release day, or take an LIRR train into the city to see her live on tour. I am learning to adjust to a different type of artist-fan relationship because all of these essential elements, all of these moments that I have had with other artists and albums that form the foundation of my imbalanced, ambiguous relationships with them, do not happen in situations like these.
So Amy's music has found me now, thanks to an okay documentary that sparked my admiration. I can't seem to get the hook of "You Know I'm No Good" or the first verse of "Back to Black" out of my head, hence my lack of up-to-date reviews on this blog that all (three of) you read regularly. (Hey, Kel!)
I am not a family member or close friend or even a first-generation fan of either of these artists, I am simply a millennial who—like all millennials, right?—feels entitled to something she didn’t earn.
I can't help but have the morbid curiosity of who the generation of my grandchildren will be bitter about missing out on. Will the legacy of Hannah Montana live on? Probably not. Will I live to tell the tale? I hope so. Will they ask me one day what it was like when Miley did that dance at the VMAs in 2013? I hope not.
Or perhaps it's more likely that this John Lennon phenomenon will end with me. Maybe I just have too many feelings about music. Is there such a thing?
Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
words by the month