Familiar Tunes

I’ve come to learn that music has some sort of mystical power. It carries memories with every sound. Something to do with the connection between lyrics and melody and the way we associate our own emotions with the songs themselves.

I tend to remember where I was, who I was with, even what I was thinking when I first heard a song I really like. I have reinforced this trend over the last eight months. Each of the songs that have been influential enough for me to play repeatedly have some sort of memory associated with them. There is the song “Straight Shot” by DeVotchKa that I heard as I gazed at the setting sun over Beit Sahour during our first week in Palestine. There is “Me and your Mama” by Childish Gambino that I first listened to while cooking a delicious curry dish with my best friends here in our apartment. Another song that comes to mind is “Space Song” by Beach House. This one I heard while I was walking through the city streets, all lit up at night, to my gym on the other end of town. These are just a few examples of the many tunes I heard for the first time since I’ve been here. They may have seemed like just any other song when they echoed through my headphones the first time, but I would soon find that they had much more of an effect on my psyche than I could have imagined.

Why is it that songs, especially the right ones, can have such a powerful emotional impact on us? Lyrics and chord progressions seem to be so repetitive these days after all. Yet they tend to draw out unique memories and emotions in all of us. Could it have something to do with the way we feel when we hear them? One consistent state I feel that I have been in for a lot of this year has been vulnerability. I have often thought about how little I know about this place. How difficult it can be to live here without behaving like a complete American idiot. This has made me turn away from my usual need to feel ordered and in control and to embrace discomfort and unawareness. Songs have helped with this. I find it therapeutic to simply put in my earbuds and clear my mind with a good song.

I had been a fair-weather fan of DeVotchKA for a while. Ever since I heard their grand opus “How it Ends” in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine.” So when I found that they had released a new album back in August, I jumped at the opportunity to sample its most popular song. “Straight Shot” opens as if already in the middle of a well-conducted string cacophony. The minute I hit play, I can hear a steady strum on an acoustic guitar and an up-beat picking on an electric guitar that rises and falls seamlessly in unison. As if mirroring that feeling I had, when I first arrived, that I was beginning a new stage of my life but in a place that was already in the middle of vast cacophony. I further connected with the song when I took the time to read the lyrics which seem to be about the phases of life that one man experiences. The good times and bad times. The things that are constant in our lives throughout all of the change as well as the things that seem to disappear and reappear with the passing of time.

I tend to believe that I’m like a lot of the other white, American fans of Childish Gambino. That I was in love with the talent and sense of humor of Donald Glover but because of shows like “Community” and “Saturday Night Live” and jumped on the wagon of his musical fandom late. Nevertheless, the opening anthem from the album “Awaken, My Love” hit me hard when it played in our kitchen as my friends and I engaged in what eventually became one of our favorite things to do together; cooking.

People told me about Beach House many times in the past. I was told that I would really like their alternatively-futuristic sound. But what I didn’t expect was that I would hear “Space Song” for the first time while a was walking along my common route to the gym. Guided by city lamps and headlights, I heard the synthy ballad about isolation and solitude on my lonely walk.

This is what I mean when I say that a song can engage with my mood and affect my emotions in such a memorable way. I heard all three of these songs at least seven months ago yet I remember them so vividly even now. I will take these little memories with me through the rest of my life, when I return home and beyond. There will be many new songs and important experiences, but these ones are going to stay with me from this most influential year of my life.