At a coffee shop, standing on line (because I’m a New Yorker, and for some reason that’s where we stand with lines—on them, never in them), I began to cry. This in itself was not so extraordinary—the mascara has not yet been invented that’s proof against my tears—but this jag happened to be music related. The José Gonzalez cover of “Heartbeats” had come on the sound system, and the time-machine jolt to 2006 was so sudden that my body didn’t know how to respond except with tears, although it wasn’t grief I felt.
There is a particular quality to music you were once forced to listen to for long periods—the songs you remember from, say, jobs at which you had no control over the sound system. I don’t mean to say I dislike that particular cover of “Heartbeats”; left to my own devices, I probably would have thought it was pretty enough. But I’d listened to it for months on end, and my relationship with it, at this point, had moved beyond simple like or dislike into a special realm familiar to anyone who’s worked retail or in the hospitality business. It’s not like a song you cleave to of your own volition; it’s the abdication of all such power.
There is the summer program I attended during high school where a girl down the hall blasted Real McCoy’s “Another Night” on a loop for weeks—she was learning a dance routine—and my initial scorn and irritation gave way to acceptance, and then a grudging familiarity, and finally a sort of emptiness when it exited my life. There was the restaurant where I waitressed that forced a single Diana Krall standards album on us for four months straight, until we’d been brainwashed into a kind of neutral submission and the music was so tied up with feuds and crushes and bad tippers and big spenders and being young that we’d lost an ability to hear it objectively.
In my experience, at least, you don’t want to listen to these songs on your own time. Any song, even those you liked previously, becomes too tied up with the smells and people and feelings of a specific place—and with the particular reluctant freedom of obedience. Diana Krall, Real McCoy, Cat Power’s “New York, New York”: they’re all blessedly free of the pressure to form a judgment. You have your own songs, probably. And what you feel at the end of these experiences is like what one feels for a family member: at the end of the day, it simply is. In that way, at least, it’s very much like love.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.