One side effect of obsessing over music for a living is the ability to compartmentalize your own tastes into pre-measured doses of sonic mood modifiers. Saying “music is my drug” is irrevocably corny and should be left to the bumper sticker manufacturers of the world, but it’s not an erroneous statement. I’ve written about music and mood before, and it is a subject I find endlessly fascinating. There have been numerous studies analyzing music’s influence on brain chemistry – studies that will teach you far more than I can by relaying personal, uncontrolled experiences. I am no neuroscientist, but I’ll do my best to discuss the subject in my own, pop-culturally referential way.
But this is more a gander at the inverse; not how music dictates your mood, but how your mood dictates what you decide to listen to. Mood doesn’t always consciously affect my listening choices. Sometimes when I select a specific record to put on, it is purely because that’s the album I’ve been spinning relentlessly. Last Thursday I listened to Smog’s Red Apple Falls four times in a row, and that would have been five or six if I didn’t have to run errands.
Sometimes the decision to listen to Prefab Sprout is rooted in a logic no more complex than: I’m just in a Prefab Sprout phase right now. A phase can last weeks, sometimes months. I think I listened near exclusively to The Smiths for about a year. I binge eat artists, albums, and songs, but unlike food, the repetition of great pop music never makes me nauseous.
But there are of course moments when I Spotify playlist myself, trying like an algorithm to switch or indulge my mood. I typically indulge, which I do not suggest as a method of catharsis. Unless you like crying alone while watching Joanna Newsom artfully play harp.
If I am depressed, angry, despondent, vengeful…oh DO I have a playlist for those moments. I have entire records for those moments, box sets and anthologies. When it comes to finding the soundtrack to a bad day I’m practically Ariel from The Little fucking Mermaid showing off her endless archive of sad knickknacks. You want Joni Mitchell? I’ve got plenty. You want anguish in B Flat? I got whosits and whatists galore, ok?
So what does one listen to when suddenly inundated with…nice feelings? One might want perhaps, to not ruin it with the entirety of 69 Love Songs? What if your reference library is stocked with Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Roy Orbison, and artists of similar ilk? And furthermore, how do you write a column about it? I’ve run into countless occasions where I happen to be happy, and therefore want to maximize that feeling with some aural reinforcement – but I come up blank. Nick Drake, anyone?
“Happy songs, happy songs…” I mutter to myself, remembering only the bummed-out Aldous Harding track I’ve been listening to incessantly. A friend once asked me to make a playlist for her birthday party. I laughed and wondered how well this person knew me or my morose musical tastes. Everyone else in my circle has crowned me the worst party DJ ever, mocking my interest in listening to records in full and my affinity for seemingly anti-party music (what do you mean The Birthday Party isn’t a great thing to play at a birthday party?!). More than once have I spent hours carefully constructing playlists to my own birthday parties, only to have them intercepted by guests and supplanted with Top 40 jamz before the clock strikes 12. But I get where they’re coming from. No one shakes their ass to The Jesus and Mary Chain.
“Feel-good music” has never been a tag that excites me. Songs shaped into balloon animals to distract you from good-old-fashioned suffering. Pop trickery that manipulates your mind with chimes and pitch correction. But in the event of spontaneous elation, if you or anyone you know is at risk of having a good, even lovely day, I want you to know: it is going to be all right.
Whether we want anyone to know or not, joy does occasionally break through, and we just have to deal with it. I could far more easily fashion a playlist of breakup songs, funeral anthems, and frightening German noise bands. But setting aside my eternally teenage heart for the purposes of letting myself be happy (for now) is a tall but necessary order.
I’m getting better at admitting to shortcomings such as this. I’ve even found a way to label it (a writer’s favorite thing to do). Since the band’s inception, critics have often described The Smiths as “miserablists,” and while I won’t stand behind that point entirely – they were far too self-aware and satirical to be reduced to such a limiting word – I kind of love the term. “Miserablist.” It’s an absurd word, as if misery were a political party, its spokesperson being the lugubrious Moz, of course.
Involuntarily or not, I may be a card-carrying miserablist myself. To the extent that when a desire for more beatific, up-tempo, major scale pop music bubbles through all of my petty brooding, I have a slight identity crisis. But I am working on it.
In the same way it is ok to let yourself be happy (I hear), it is also ok to let yourself listen to happy music. Shiny happy music. But who am I really telling this to? You probably already know that.
I have appointed myself with the task of making a playlist of songs I enjoy for their sheer mood-erecting abilities, which was harder than you might think. They can’t just be any peppy pop songs. I have to love of course. I may be in a good mood, but I’m still a snob.
In situations like these, I first look to ABBA. They are perhaps the only group in my collection whose “sad,” or “grave” ballads hold no interest for me. I turn (or twirl) to them for disco bangers alone, songs written for the purposes of merriment and cutting fat checks, not enriching the poetic canon. I wouldn’t call theirs particularly substantive music – though it was made with a depth of technical talent – but it sure as shit makes you wanna dance.
“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” is perhaps one of the most asinine and catchy cuts out there. Even Madonna couldn’t resist that ridiculous synth…pan flute? riff when she sampled it in 2005’s “Hung Up.” And neither can I.
The rest of my playlist follows a similar rule. As I construct it I realize that every song is void of guilty associations – those autobiographical kernels of nostalgia embedded into every song an ex showed you, or your mother used to sing in the kitchen. These songs have somehow become mine, no matter how they came into my life.
From what I can see of the end result, what makes me happy musically is pretty in step with real life. Absurdity (“Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”), idealism (“Tenderness”), love (“Funny Little Frog”), and funk.
I guess a little positivity won’t kill me. Yet.