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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.

From dreams to reality: waking up, making up

in Campus Journal/Columns/To Serve by

Stereotypically, creative acts take place in the depths of the night, when the world is asleep and a single soul’s inspiration, like a lightning bolt sent down specially by God, strikes! But there is a different, quotidien process of delicate creation that takes place in billions of bedrooms in the early, light hours:

Every morning, we wake up and we make ourselves anew. We pound the surface of our faces into smooth, uniform planes and we paint them, many of us. If we don’t, we look at ourselves, we see the dust on the mirror, redraw our patterns of freckles and pimples into something grotesque or, perhaps, beautiful. We become, as we arise from bed and as we slowly move towards the door, the person we will be that day.

This is a creative process. Sometimes, it occurs spontaneously, intuitively, and we feel alive as we open our eyes and we feel like ourselves. But sometimes, it’s a struggle. We don’t want to make anything, not even our own personalities, certainly not those staunchly visible, socially readable clothed bodies.

It’s on those harder days, those days when “Nora” has disappeared somewhere between my blankets and the black pit of my dreams, that I get ready slowly, and consequently arrive at class with a glistening rim of sweat around my forehead.

There is an easy way to dispatch this act of creation, perhaps a way that we might not even perceive as “creative,” and yet it allows a waking body to move from sleep to the world’s demands. It involves drawing on the default selves that live in the closet and across the tops of shelves, in little bottles of perfume and pots of colored eyeshadow. I might, perhaps, try on several of the selves that haunt these spaces — I try on the one in jeans and a sweater and the one in the black mini skirt and I feel a slight desperation that none of these is a self I want to wear today. And yet, even when I run to class in literally the exact outfit I wore yesterday because I feel so distant from inspiration or commitment to any idea of myself, I am still made, I have still created, even through a process of giving up to the “easy.”

Perhaps the most conspicuous act, for me, of remaking the waking self, is the one in which I “put on my face.” I’m not sure how common a phrase this is; I know many of the makeup users I personally know say it. It refers, quite simply, to the process of putting on makeup. But it makes literal the point I started with here and have been circling around ever since: in the daily, ritual process of preparation of the self, we don’t only shield our bodies from the cold, and we don’t just make ourselves look pretty, even. We make ourselves, from a generic sleeping body into a visualized, recognizable identity. The face we wake up with is not our face as it is and must be in the world we move through; we put on that face, we remake it every day. Whether or not we put on makeup, we draw material things about ourselves until our vulnerable naked flesh takes on the protection of identity.

Perhaps this reads like a silly dream. In a way, it is. The deep optimism implicit in deciding that each day we make ourselves anew ignores the complex, sometimes painful realities we wake up into; and some things don’t leave us at night. They haunt our dreams, and in the morning, they dictate the lines we draw across our faces, with pencil and with expression. But it also holds at least some truth, I think, this dream of the body as a canvas for identity. The canvas does not exist in absence of the rest of the facets of life, the visual and creation of our visual selves do not exist in a void; but they nevertheless are a locus of creative potential. I am, I admit, extremely optimistic about the ways we can remake not just our appearances but the ways we feel and the ways we conceptualize ourselves by consciously creating ourselves, a little at a time, perhaps, differently each day. Probably, most people would argue that the changes we make to our identity are what dictate the changes that become apparent in our appearances; this is certainly true much of the time. But I think the change can happen the other way around, as well; the origin of the desire for change comes from somewhere, certainly, but I think the change itself can be enacted through changes in style. This might be the way you “put on your face” or the way you dress, it might be the pictures you leave tagged on your Facebook profile. Tentatively, I stick out my hand to this dream of daily quotidian creation, and I ask it if it can work for me, if it can change me into something better than I was yesterday.

Painter, animator, Leich leads artistic postgrad life

in Campus Journal by

For students at an institution that boasts the title “Liberal Arts College,” Swatties seem to most frequently pursue majors in the sciences, with biology, computer science, and political science topping the list of most popular majors. The art departments, including art history, studio art, music, and others, while perhaps less prominent than other departments, have graduated many successful artists, including animator and painter Meredith Leich ‘08.


Leich spent her time at Swarthmore focusing on different artistic mediums and art-related academic disciplines, including art history and music. Leich said she didn’t decide to pursue a career as an artist until after graduating from Swarthmore, which she attributes in part to her participation in different creative activities at the college. “Participating in the senior art studio class and playing in orchestra and chamber groups, as well as writing a comic for the Phoenix, were important experiences in guiding me toward a life centered on creativity and artistic craft,” Leich said.


Even though she did not major in studio art or film, Leich has been deeply interested in art since her childhood. She works mostly in painting and animation, both of which she say stem from her lifelong interest in drawing. She describes animation as a way to incorporate her other artistic interests, writing and music, into her paintings in order to convey more complex ideas. “[My art] is an attempt to describe aspects of the world around me that I find compelling or significant,” Leich said.


Through her studies in art history and music, Leich explored the ways that art changes over time and reacts to cultural contexts. “[These studies] demonstrated how art’s value and focus shifts from generation to generation, as it reflects the concerns and interests of our ever-evolving societies.” She said this phenomenon sparked a curiosity about different worldwide cultures and histories, which led to an overwhelming desire to travel and experience the rest of the world. “I doubt I would have had the courage to live in other countries and expose myself to so many other ways of living if Swarthmore hadn’t emphasized the necessity of understanding multiple perspectives,” Leich said.


In other ways, however, Leich said that Swarthmore somewhat hindered her ability to think creatively, because upon leaving the school, it took some time to change from an academic mindset — which she considers to be the dominant mode of thought at Swarthmore — to a more creative one. She describes her artistic process as being much more focused on intuition, emotion and sensation than on strictly intellectual thinking. “[The artistic process] requires an embrace of uncertainty and nonverbal methods of communication and expression that aren’t found as frequently, and are sometimes dismissed, in the academic environment,” Leich said.


Leich said that her art does not necessarily have a style, but rather takes inspiration from changing moods, images, and concepts. “I am continually interested in weather, cities, history, climate change and technology, and I find myself making work about or featuring those forces frequently,” Leich said.


While she does not stick to one consistent theme in her art, she said she feels that her work is informed by historical artistic movements and traditions, in particular representational painting and surrealism.


Leich said her work in video and painting differs slightly, since when working in video, she has to pay attention to time and fluidity, whereas in painting she only needs to focus on one instantaneous image. “When working in painting or video, I try to be sensitive to what the medium offers; am I trying to create a single visually impactful scene?  Or do I want a narrative to unfold? Do I want to include sound or music?” Leich asks herself.  She said some of her ideas work better as paintings, and others better as videos, so working with both allows for better execution of these concepts.


Since her graduation from Swarthmore, Leich has lived in cities across the United States and fulfilled her desire to travel the world. She has worked three different jobs in New York City at several different arts organization, lived in Jaffa, Israel on a Dorot Fellowship, attended the San Francisco Art Institute for a post-baccalaureate degree in painting and stayed in the city to teach art in various institutions and communities. She is currently studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a MFA in Film, Video, New Media and Animation.


Leich’s work is currently on display in Swarthmore’s own List Gallery, along with the work of two other artists, including Eberhard Froelich ‘86. The exhibition features some of Leich’s watercolor paintings and animations, which draw inspiration from her time spent in San Francisco, a city she describes as “very beautiful, zeitgesty, with dystopic undertones.”


“[The animation, entitled Bedtime Story No. 2] uses the format of the childhood bedtime story to meditate on one of the unfinished narratives of our age — the looming potential of climate change.” These pieces will be on view in the List Gallery until December 13.


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