Monday, January 21, 2013

Do Memories Determine Our Favourite Songs?

This morning we were discussing comfort food, when a thought suddenly occurred to me: what classifies something as ‘comforting’? Where does one draw the line between liking a certain type of food, and just liking it for its comfort value? I have a striking memory from early childhood of always having a Marmite sandwich when I read a certain book, later it progressed to always eating instant pudding during Survivor. It wasn’t that I particularly liked instant pudding (in fact, it’s really pretty gross), but it was just what I did, so I continued to do it. I took comfort in the routine of always having that pudding at that time. If there was no pudding on a Survivor night, I’d know there was something hugely wrong – either we were bankrupt or I was dying. Good thing neither of those things ever happened, but I digress. The point is that I associated the pudding with a routine, and routines make me happy.

All of this got me thinking, can the same thing happen with music? Do we like certain songs and certain bands because they remind us of something, or because we have some kind of association with them, rather than because they’re any good? Maybe none of us have any taste in music at all, and what we like and dislike is almost entirely a psychological reaction to our memories and associations. It’s not as outrageous as it sounds…

Let’s take Westlife, for example. Why the hell do I like those four little Irish lads so much?! I mean, I almost shed an actual tear when they broke up, but they’re so not my scene! Now, most of you will nod your heads understandingly, “Yes, well, I loved the Spice Girls when I was ten, but then I realized the error of my ways, and now I’m into Skrillex.” Fair point, but I never did realize the error of my ways: I still melt at the first few beats of ‘My Love’, and dance my face off to ‘When You’re Looking Like That.” But when I examine my general reaction to any mention of Westlife, I start to figure it out. “Ah, I LOVE Westlife, they’re like my entire childhood!” AHA! That’s about the closest I’ll ever get to being sentimental. Westlife represent my childhood, and the thought of my childhood comforts me.

Another seminal example is the Bee Gees and Celine Dion’s ‘Immortality’. I don’t even like Celine Dion, yet I adore this song. Why? No, it’s not because it’s a great  piece of music, it’s because it reminds me of Saturday afternoons spent at my grandparents house listening  to music and existing in pure bliss. In fact, with the exception – of course – of newly discovered music, most of my favourite songs are only classified as such because they hold some kind of memory for me.

Now let’s take my theory a step further. If someone asked me what my favourite Coldplay album was, I would – without hesitation – say that it was Viva La Vida. But rephrase the question slightly and ask what I thought was Coldplay’s best album, and I’d answer just as easily: A Rush of Blood To The Head. Why, then, is my favourite album one that I admit is not their best? It’s because of the memories. Viva La Vida was the album that made me fall in love with Coldplay, and for that it will always be cemented as my very favourite. Let’s do the same with The Killers. My favourite album is Battle Born, but their best is unquestionably Sam’s Town. This is simply because their two concerts I attended in the UK were the beginning of the Battle Born tour.

Now we can talk a bit more about musical associations. How is it that a song triggers certain physical reactions in a person? I used to be quite partial to Gwen Stefani’s ‘The Sweet Escape’, until it was drilled into my head and I was forced to sing it on a balcony at 5am with a bunch of strangers in my first week at university. Now just hearing the tune makes my heartrate increase, I start to feel panicked and slightly ill. Just thinking about is now it making my palms sweat! I experienced the same kind of thing after my trip to England: I tried to listen to the Foo Fighters album on the plane back,  but I was almost in tears remembering the concert just two days before, and I had to turn it off. I also couldn’t listen to The Shins for several weeks after returning, for every time I did, I felt like I was being physically stabbed. It was downright weird. As soon as I decided to return to England this year, I could go back to my festival playlist with no problems. How strange. I also shy away from The Killers’ bassist Mark Stoermer’s solo album, as hearing any of the songs makes me feel physically sick after listening to it on repeat during my very depressing final week at university back in 2011.

Perhaps I have unwittingly discovered why I hate dance music so much! Maybe it’s got nothing to do with the fact that songs with lyrics such as “oh hey baby, let’s get on the dancefloor and dance with our clothes off baby, baby, baby, dance, baby” are so brainless that they make me want to pull my hair out! Maybe it’s that I don’t have much love for the drunken party culture in general. Could that be why club music gets on my nerves so much?

So what does all this mean? Does it mean that I can completely disregard all my rules about what makes good music good? Well, no, perhaps not, but it is an interesting thing to think about. Perhaps Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ would go down in history as the best song ever written, if we just associated it with the things that make us happiest in the world…