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Jukebox: the power of the playlist

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

I have a playlist for just about every genre and every mood. There’s “Air Karaoke.” “Lazy.” “Jitters.” “Covers.” “Classic Rock.” “If You Don’t Know the Song, Ask Your Parents.”

I could keep going. “Boy Bands.” “Candy Kids.” “Jukebox.” “Dance Around.” There are a few titles that are less coherent, less dignified: tucked into my “Curated” folder, there are playlists with names like “wave feeling,” “that’s a bop,” and “why.” One of my favorites is just, simply, “echo, from a distance.” It only has two songs. “Acoustic” has three hundred and twenty-three.

Most people — so I’ve been told — don’t organize music the way I do. I have folders within folders, separating playlists dedicated to genres from playlists of songs good for dancing from playlists of instrumental pieces. Good singalong songs have their own subfolder.  To boot, they’re subdivided: one playlist for those great singalong songs you only know the chorus to (“Who Are You” by The Who), one for dorky/nerdy songs (“Dragostei Din Tei” by Ozone, most often referred to as the “Numa Numa Song”), one for the songs I’ve sung with my friends (“Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood, which we belted at the top of our lungs as we raced down I-70, the windows cracked open and the wind rattling our bones), and more.

The thing is that this — this organization, this collection — began here at Swat. I grew up around music, but never spent much time engaging with it beyond passively listening. I’m a mediocre piano player; I never practiced between lessons. I can pick out a few chords on a guitar. My music collection was organized more or less exclusively by the function that lets you sort alphabetically by artist — or else it was organized into playlists my dad gave me. He’s been a music lover as long as I can remember. Long before ZZ Ward or alt-j or Glass Animals were on the radio, I’d heard their discographies while in the car with him, and now, when they get airtime, he lights up. “What a cool band,” he says each time. There’s this knowing smile he has, this sort of bright-eyed humor I hope I’ve inherited in addition to his eyebrows, his height, his chin. “Wonder where you heard it first.”

I heard a lot of music with him, first. The first iPod I ever had — and most of the ones since — was a gift from him, and it came pre-loaded with songs. Far from being sorted by mood, or genre, or whether or not they’re good for Lindy Hop or West Coast Swing, it was a collection of music he thought I should know, for one reason or another. The only song I can remember off that first playlist is U2’s “Vertigo,” but now and then a song comes on that feels intensely familiar, as though I have known it a long, long time.

For the most part, then, I listened to the radio on the way to school and back. At home, I read, or wrote, or watched TV. I did my homework in study hall in silence and came back home to occupy myself one way or another. If I listened to music, it was the same song on repeat, over, and over, until it was done. Over the course of years, I played “Who Am I” from Les Misérables so often the play count was listed as 24601. After that, I didn’t touch it again.

I think I believed my habits wouldn’t change when I came to college. If anything, I envisioned having more free time. I’d heard the phrase “academically rigorous” thrown around, but, well, my high school was “academically rigorous,” and I had found that for the most part, I had no trouble carving leisure time out of my days.

But Swarthmore isn’t making an idle boast re: academics.

And it wasn’t making an idle boast about student involvement on campus, either. Even with only a few clubs — comparatively — I manage to fill up my days rapidly with meetings, dance classes, and meals. Spring last year, I would run from one class to the next to a meeting to a meal where I would shovel pasta into my mouth for fifteen minutes and haul myself up the hill again to do homework in McCabe. And while that was enjoyable in many ways, it kept me on the go. To boot, I don’t focus well around other people. Work time was sacred, silent. Solitary, and necessarily productive. With a busy Swarthmore life, the time I had to myself was time reserved for staring at the ceiling of my bedroom and just doing — nothing. Not the video games I’ve been wanting to play for years. Not the writing I wanted to do. Not the leisure reading I was sure I would accomplish. Not even Netflix. For me, watching movies takes something out of me — and all that energy had been spent on other things.

Swatties deal with being here in different ways. Some do okay. They don’t stress too much; they seem to glide. Some schedule their self-care. Some go to CAPS.

I started making playlists.

They were just themed, to start. “Lazy” was the playlist for daydreaming and staring at the sky (“All we do is lie and wait,” sings Oh Wonder. “All we do is feel the fade.”). Or I was walking to class, and needed some energy; it had been a long night. A long, long night. So I made “Pump Up:” “Supermassive Black Hole” by Muse, and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, and “Champion” by Fall Out Boy. I started partner dancing and I made playlists for that, too. It spiraled from there.

The thing about music — the thing about this kind of self-care because for me, that’s what it is — is that it can exist, superimposed, on my life here at Swarthmore. When I’m working, I have headphones in. When I’m walking to class, I have headphones in. While baking cookies with friends, I have a playlist on, and it’s nothing but Wicked and “Shia LaBeouf Live” by Rob Cantor and songs from Steven Universe for hours. Soon I had twenty playlists, and then fifty, and then a hundred. In the five minutes before a meeting, or while waiting for the 12:30 lunch rush to die away, I’d add songs to playlists (at least three per song, even if I have to make new ones for it) so that when I wanted a certain sound, I’d have it right there. “Middle School Angst?” Now and then, that’s the mood. “Rather Odd?” Trust me: it comes up. And, more seriously, sometimes “We Built This City” by Starship and my “Bright” playlist is the one thing that gets me up and out of bed.

I think of it like an investment: a few moments here and there in order to make something perfect for a moment in the future. I don’t know whether it will be tomorrow, or in two years, but one day I’ll want nothing more than that playlist I titled “Placeholder 2” in a pique of annoyance at not having the words to describe just what Lykke Li and K. Flay have in common. And when that moment comes, I’ll have it. I’ll have given myself that gift. On bad nights, on great nights, on the nights when it’s all just distinctly okay, I have a wealth of gifts I have given myself over the years.

At home, where my collection of music first began, I don’t talk much about my playlists. It doesn’t come up. When I do, it is often just in reference to how many of them there are. I don’t talk about blasting “The Hounds” from Protomen until my leg aches from how fast I’m bouncing it, until everything around me is drowned out except the panicked, hectic drums. But I hear from my dad about how he would sit out on the ledges in the back of his law school and put his headphones on and play “Stop Making Sense” by the Talking Heads as loud as he could stand it. When it was time, he’d stand up, take the headphones off, and walk into the building to compete with other students — and, with luck, to take home a prize.

Maybe that’s why we listened to “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen so often when I was growing up. To pass this on, consciously or not. Either way, I am grateful for it. While I won’t say I’d be lost without my music, I am so much happier for it. And that is worth so much to me.

And by the way: at the moment, my playlist count is two hundred and fifty-three.

By the time this is published, I’m sure I’ll have more.

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