The anatomy of a breakup playlist

The end of a relationship is like inhabiting a balloon cut from its tethers.  In the months that followed my particularly tumultuous breakup, I wavered between feelings of unshackled freedom and utmost despair.  I was free, yes, able to float wherever life’s winds may carry me, but I was also no longer grounded, drifting up aimlessly further and further into the harrowing unknown of outer space.

When strong feelings for my bygone lover failed to disintegrate over some time, I began to wonder, could it be that he was thinking of me, too?

Directly asking him my burning question was not an option.  The erroneous logic of a brain suffering from grief was busily running its course, and the law of the brokenhearted called to resist contact with the heart-breaker.  So, paving a way to a workaround, I looked to one of my only remaining connections to him: his Spotify account.

A window to the soul, music is described as powerful, transcendent, and even perhaps the greatest form of expression.  We relate to those around us through song and can stimulate emotions through certain musical genres and melodic qualities.  Even a short jingle has the power to contain intense personal memories and conjure up old feelings and mental images decades later.

I wondered if the music one chose to listen could provide clues to their current emotional state, perhaps even tapping into thoughts and feelings that existed on a subconscious level.  I wondered conversely if I was giving too much credence to a mere pastime.  I ruminated over these questions for far too long, considering the various pieces of evidence.

From my personal life, I knew that the music I listened to carried immense amounts of weight in relation to my state of mind.  A certain song could become my anthem for an entire month, a band-aid for a wound, a security blanket in the dark.

I had long been attuned to my desire for melancholy, heartfelt melodies when life was difficult, and I found I would work noticeably harder and better amidst a background of heavy head-banging drums and electric guitar.  Apart from the composition itself, it was also true that the music I chose to listen to often lyrically validated everything that I wished I could say myself.

Spotify itself seemed aware of this hypothesis, pumping out various public playlists on its servers for any mood one could imagine: “Getting Happy on a Monday Morning,” “Sitting at Home Alone on a Friday Night,” “Eating Cold Pizza on the Floor of Your Bathroom Because Why Not?”

It seemed that music was the most intimate yet relatable expression for how we feel, and it served as a way to work through those emotions.  So, I transferred my assumptions, my working hypothesis, to my ex-boyfriend’s Spotify account in an attempt to dissect the private workings of his mind.  A busy man, he didn’t listen to much more than a couple songs each day, but day by day, I began to amass the data.

I saw that he listened to a catchy dance beat with lyrics that expressed a longing for the past summer with a past lover.  It was the previous summer that our romance had begun, a whirlwind romance, full throttle from the get-go, a cinematic summer courtship.

Later, he enjoyed a melancholy bluegrass anthem with a croony singer purporting he could never pretend he didn’t love his previous partner.

Then there was the pensive electro-pop track that lamented the singer’s excessive amount of emotions.

Further along, a dreamy synth-pop song admitted to the singer’s casualties in dating, regretting hurting his true love, the one he’d love forever.

Finally, he played a somewhat angsty yet honest tune about confronting the reality of missing the person you treated poorly.  The lyrics said again and again, “I am sorry.”

I became affixed to this new daily routine of dissecting his morning music selections as I sat on the other side a computer, hundreds of miles away, not having seen his face or heard his voice in months.  These songs seemed to connect me to this ghost of a person I once knew and seemed to affirm everything I wanted so desperately to believe.

While his song selections varied wildly, no one particular genre trumping the others in popularity, the lyrics all seemed to relay one cohesive message: he loved me, he missed me, he felt pain for inflicting it on me.

I was giddy and confused, suddenly filled with further, possibly endless questions.  If these lyrics hold weight in how he truly feels, why hasn’t he reached out to me?  Why are we not back together?  Why, as I’ve gone against my better judgment and attempted to call him, hasn’t he returned my call?

And then a memory occurred to me, abruptly and sharply, sweeping in to contradict my painstaking hours of dissection and delusion.

I recalled a time, a long time ago, when as long distance partners we stayed on the phone line until the wee hours of the morning.  Over the course of this conversation, one of those conversations in which the original topic derails, spills, and tumbles over into seemingly infinite others, other topics that have no logical relevance to the topics that proceeded it,  he said to me a random statement that I hardly paid no mind.  He said, “When I listen to music, I never pay attention to the lyrics.”

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