I’m in the car with my niece, and we’re listening to one of my playlists. It’s a song from the late 1970s, Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, and she sings along to the words, which edge from slow to fast, from somewhat reflective to belted out, all the way to the plaintive last line. She stops, suddenly, and says, “This is kind of pathetic, that I know all the words to songs from my parents’ generation!”
Our musical memory is inextricably associated with the context(s) of our lives, the people who come and go at different points, the places we are in when we listen to something or the mood that specific songs and tunes link us to. Even after the incidents that gave rise to those moods are long forgotten, the sense of feeling lingers, and comes alive each time we encounter the tune. If my young companion’s parents listened to Led Zeppelin when they were dropping her off to school every morning, the song gets imprinted in her mind in a way that is difficult to erase. It probably gets intertwined with other childhood tunes that she may have clamored for, even as she protested the confusing rhythms of “Stairway”, a song that lacks the repetitive sing-along quality to which very young children respond. It becomes a difficult-to-forget strand in the soundtrack of her kindergarten years.
So… if I were to pick a tune for every decade of my life…or maybe every half-decade of my life, would I be able to build a playlist that symbolizes my journey in some way, that captures the dominant mood of different periods? It could be a story, however partial and incomplete, or then it need not be one. We know that there is an impulse to narrativize our lives, to make sense of the randomness of birth, existence and death in some manner that imposes order, that draws a line, however wavy and discontinuous, from one event to the next. Music helps add a layer of spice, a tone, a sensation, a colour, that makes the ordinary somehow more bearable, putting it into a frame that lends memory a shade of specialness. And of course, we are coached into this mode of thinking as we move from movie theatre to television screen, our anticipation stoked by drum rolls and weeping violins, sadness, fear and happiness called into being by the background score.
Here goes. Not necessarily a reflection of my musical tastes, then or now, though I must confess to periodically drawing upon these songs when I wish to disappear from the present into the self-perpetuated fiction of an idyllic—or at the very least, meaningful--past.
Pre-memory: when images are born in the act of re-telling. Athai adi, methai adi
My father’s youngest sister was a college student, unmarried, still living at home when I was born; she often talks about how she played a major role in caring for me as an infant. This was a song that she says she sang to put me to sleep. I now suspect it played more to her fascination with Gemini Ganesan than anything else!
The Disney years, when you wish upon a star and the bare necessities! For no reason other than the fact that movie memories give us a timeline of our lives just as well as anything else. Even though Pinocchio was released more than two decades before I came of film-going age, it is very much a part of the ongoing Disney magic of the late 1960s, when television made the “Wonderful World of Disney” a part of the after-school milk and cookies routine of a large swathe of children growing up in North America. Maybe it irreparably damaged our aesthetic sensibility and our ideas about the world, something that took many years of a critical liberal arts education to undo, but there’s no doubt that those princesses (and the occasional lost-in-the-jungle waif) made winter afternoons in cold, cold Calgary a little bit warmer.
It wasn’t long before long-haired teen idols replaced Mowgli and the Monkees’ Daydream Believer introduced me (with those seriously inane lyrics) to the delicious unhappiness of adolescence. This, mixed in with the dreaminess of Shashi Kapoor in Likhe jo khat tujhe made one want to grow up quickly and join that romantic adult world.
The 1970s were dominated—and animated—by a growing unease with the world, the conviction that we could change things with our words and ideas, our moods reflected in (at different stages) the work of The Beatles (Across the Universe), Bob Dylan (Tambourine Man) and Joan Baez (Love is just a 4 letter word) , with a little bit of rising feminism thrown in with Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman”.
In the 1980s, subversiveness came in a variety of forms, from Michael Jackson who exploded on to the scene with Billie Jean, to Annie Lennox and Eurythmix, but I stuck with the old sounds of Al Stewart, and his Year of the Cat, and John Lennon’s new partnership with Yoko Ono (Watching the Wheels). But then how could I forget, a live concert with one of my all-time favourites, Simon & Garfunkel, whose Boxer never fails to move me.
By the 1990s I had entered my 30s, and was beginning to be consumed by a sense that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for… and listening to U2 did put me in the zone. This was also when Disney re-entered my life through my children’s listening preferences and thus began another cycle--of being introduced to sounds through other tastes.
This is what led to my discovery of Cold Play (Kingdom Come remains my favourite) in the early 2000s. And later in this second decade of the millennium, the discovery of a completely new sound, Sufi music and Farida Khanum, Coke Studio and fusion of all kinds, young people making music that crosses borders and mixes moods.
There are of course some songs that run through all decades, that calm me, centre me, and give me a sense of self. Here’s just a few of those:
Kurai Onrum Illai by M S Subbalakshmi
Amazing Grace by Il Divo
What a wonderful world by Louis Armstrong
I haven't included Abba here, even though they were a big part of our college sensibility in the late 1970s...but I have to say, Thank you for the music.