Essays

looping music


I deleted my Spotify account earlier this year. I cried afterwards.

The crying was mostly because of my brother Zach.

After he died in 2021 and we started going through his things, my sister Elisabeth found his private Spotify account logged in on his computer. She made it so his account was following both my and her accounts, to create a new link of connection between us, albeit posthumously.

It made me happy to have this new insight into his world. I scoured every inch of his playlists, looking for any songs or bands we had in common. I smiled when I saw his “ari” playlist, thinking back on all the times I overheard him singing along to Ariana Grande behind his closed bedroom door (he also loved Taylor Swift). I melted when I saw the Lord of the Rings audiobook playlist, because as a kid he would always fall asleep listening to that exact same audio series—except back then it was a wooden boxed set of CDs and a little CD player he kept by his bed.

That CD player and boxed set are still in his closet right now.

I wanted to lose myself in Zach’s playlists, to close my eyes and imagine he was here, but I didn’t really feel a connection to any of his music, even though some of the playlists brought me detached nostalgia. What I really wanted was something we had in common. But I didn’t even know most of his music.

The difference between my sister and me is that she took all this new information we discovered about him and saw it as an opportunity to get to know him better, while I wanted to find connections between us that had already been there before he died. Just different ways of grieving.

The only song I found in all of his playlists that I truly resonated with was “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals. Zach had it in a playlist called “loop.” I, too, used to loop that song.

I listened to it on repeat all of summer 2020, when I moved from California back in with my parents in Nevada. I was furious that my life in California had fallen apart, and the way that I processed anger at the time was to go on a run. But it was blazing hot in Nevada, so I would wait until at least midnight to start running, returning home at 2 or 3 in the morning.

And that song “Heat Waves” was constantly on loop while I ran, because that song felt like nostalgia and heartbreak and lost things and the inability to say goodbye. It felt the way I felt.

I was desperate for my life back in California, but utterly heartbroken by the way life there had chewed me up and spit me out during the first half of 2020. It was a weird mix of wanting to go back, but knowing I never could. I felt like such a failure.

Glass Animals said that “Heat Waves” was about realising it’s ok to be defeated by something.”

They continue: “we are often expected to ‘be strong’ and to swallow our sadness. failing to do that is seen as weakness. so we try to cover up our feelings and hide inside of TV shows or video games or drink or drugs. but being vulnerable should be a positive thing.”

I’ve felt defeated many times in my life, but 2020 was perhaps the first time where I felt truly powerless.

Alongside the excavation of life as we all knew it in 2020, I also lived through multiple implosions of my own life. I kept losing my footing. Instead of just being repeatedly knocked down, yet able to stand back up again, I felt like I was trapped in an avalanche.

Among other things, during lockdown in 2020, I also dealt with suicidal depression, being quarantined with my narcissistic roommate, and having literally no income which brought debt and food insecurity into my life.

Later in 2021, while holing up at my parents house and trying to recover, the avalanche was replaced with a painful volcanic explosion.

I learned I was autistic, which toppled the foundation of my existence. One of my best friends was run over by a semi truck and became a quadriplegic.

And my sweet brother lost his life.

I’m not in a constant state of “feeling defeated,” even after experiencing trauma and pain and loss. I get back up because I want to keep going and keep exploring life, because I feel like my life has a purpose for existing.

But within cycles of falling down and getting back up comes increased levels of vulnerability.

Layers of myself have sloughed off, masks and forcefields and naivety and blindness. All this shedding is good, because I’m becoming a better version of myself. But still. It all makes me feel more sensitive. Trauma is noisy and the world is noisy and it all makes my head feel noisy.

In summer 2020, in the middle of all this defeat, looping songs that talked about this pain felt necessary, because I felt too lonely to just stay inside my own head and my own feelings. I desperately needed to know that I wasn’t alone.

But three years later, I’m feeling emotionally stronger, yet weirdly more sensitive. I feel happier inside my head, but also craving more peace in the world. Which is making me feel like I just don’t have the bandwidth anymore for very much music consumption.


She tried to concentrate on the sound, but music had always unmoored her, and her thoughts drifted.

—Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven • (bookshop + amazon)


I know there are artists who like music in the background when they work; they use the music to block out everything else. They’re not listening to it; it’s there as a form of companionship. I don’t need a soundtrack to accompany my life. Music in the background nibbles away at your awareness. It’s comforting, perhaps, but who said tapping into your awareness was supposed to be comfortable? And who knows how much of your brainpower and intuition the music is draining?

—Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit • (bookshop + amazon)


I admitted to my boyfriend Ethan several months ago, slightly embarrassed, that I haven’t had the urge to go to any concerts since the world opened back up. Surprisingly, he actually reciprocated that confession.

I wonder if the only concert we’ll ever go to together is the one we went to years before we met. An alt-J concert here in Las Vegas, in 2018. What a wild moment it was to figure out that we had been in the same room together, though in profoundly different worlds.

Somehow four years later, the threads of resonance pulled us together. Somehow we ended up in the same climbing gym, on the same bouldering team, on the same frequency.

We’ve been together for ten months now, but I knew before our first date that he was my one.

I’m not actually planning to never go out to a concert again. I’m sure Ethan and I will go to a concert together one of these days. But as I get older and feel a little more stable in life, the way that I want to listen to music at home has changed.

I used Spotify pretty much exclusively as my way to listen to music over the past ten years. It started off just as an exciting way to have access to whatever I wanted to listen to. Then it began morphing into a way to collect memories, especially after I went to bible college in 2014.

Spotify was the absolute shit at bible college. All my friends followed each other’s accounts and discovered what each person was listening to. We would make playlists based on memories or vibes or the semester’s theme (#lighthasdawned) or our favorite locations (rock tree or the lookout or ofc). My college ex devoted lots of time to make “banger” playlists for him and his fellow campus servers to have good vibes as they set up the dining room for retreats or conferences. I worked in the AV department and compiled songs that would sound really epic on the speakers all over campus, on the days that I had to test the sound systems. We both loved Twenty One Pilots, and the summer of 2015 we unintentionally spread TØP love throughout the entire campus, thanks to our respective jobs and access to aux cords. Everyone was singing “Stressed Out” that summer.

Playlists were a way to capture a certain vibe, but also to pin down a memory or a feeling. A collection of songs that could accurately collage an experience. Like a musical scrapbook. Even after each semester or season in life came to an end, a playlist made during that time could bring me back, a rush of nostalgia and longing.

But this playlist building practice felt soured after 2020. I, of course, made massive playlists when I lived in California in 2019 and 2020. My music taste was completely overhauled thanks to my roommates, and I began listening primarily to old school rap, reggaetón, and my now favorite band, Khruangbin. It was total beach vibes there, marijuana plants, surfboards, hammocks, backyard chickens, lemon trees, film cameras, ukuleles, yoga mats, ping-pong table, modelos, shroom smoothies.

When that life ended, I listened to my California playlists endlessly, obsessively. Hiding in the past, hating the present, not at all hopeful about the future. Just truly embodying the concept of “the best days are behind me.” My intentionally built dream life was over and I was stuck living a life I didn’t want. What was there to look forward to?

Not surprisingly, there was plenty to look forward to. I started healing from my pain and grief and trauma, as self-help girlies are wont to do, and my life slowly opened up again. I began fulfilling long held dreams of mine like finally getting to rock climb whenever I fucking want and being in an amazing stable loving relationship for the first time.

The more my life opened up, the more stale these old playlists seemed. I felt tired whenever I listened to them. And I don’t think it was because I just overplayed them, but because of the state of mind I had been in when I obsessively listened to them. I had been so isolated in my head, so lonely, I thought there was nothing more to look forward to in life, and I only wanted to revisit feelings and memories of the past.

Now that I’m healthy again and starting to thrive, I just don’t want to devote as much time to looking back and being nostalgic. It feels suffocating.

I told a musician friend of mine that I deleted my Spotify account as a way to heal and move on with life, and he was kind of horrified. He said that he used his old Spotify playlists as a marker of how far he’s come in life. Listening to the music he loved at a certain time, lyrics and themes, he’s able to track his growth and feel proud of himself.

I actually think that’s really cool.

But for me, I find that a natural part of my healing progression is learning to let things go.

Which is fine and dandy when you’re healing from a breakup or bad living situation, but absolutely tragic when you’re trying to heal from the death of a loved one. It seems cruel that healing from grief of death eventually means that you stop feeling as much emotion from the memories as you used to.

In many ways, it feels like the honorable thing to do is to stay in the state of grief and remembrance.

Part of me doesn’t want to heal, because healing causes you to move on in tiny ways.

Part of me wants to stay traumatized forever, haunted by his ghost, worn down by heavy emotions. I felt so guilty the first time I laughed after he died, the first day I didn’t cry over him, the first day that I felt pretty again and didn’t look like death warmed over.

And part of me felt guilty for deleting my Spotify and no longer having access to his music.

But music nostalgia can quickly morph into just being stuck in the past, or even stuck in a traumatic feeling. And I felt sad when I realized that my music taste hadn’t really changed at all since living in California, how stuck in the past I became. And I felt sad when I saw Zach’s playlists and all this music I couldn’t relate to and thought about all the things I’ll never know about him and how he’ll never get to grow and evolve beyond the 21 year old version of himself. It all just felt so sad and I didn’t want to associate music with catalogued playlists of sadness anymore. 

So my Spotify is officially deleted.

Maybe that’s why I desperately want a record player now. Obviously I want one for the aesthetics of it. I love an old fashioned vintage vibe. I feel like it’s my final form as a surly millennial. I already have a tobacco pipe and John Lennon sunglasses, and my sister and I co-own our grandma’s typewriter. Besides aesthetics, I want music to be less of a curated collection of specific memories, and more like an art experience again. I want to listen to albums again, albums, damn it. (I’m saying this the same way that Bilbo says, “I want to see mountains again, mountains, Gandalf!”)

But I think I also want a record player because you can’t listen to music on repeat on it (unless there are some record player hacks to achieve this). The main intention of a record player is to listen to an album all the way through, and it stops when it’s done. No looping or hijacking of emotions.

Zach had a song playing on his computer when he died. Playing on a loop.

We kept his computer on for over a year, the song playing on infinite repeat that entire time. I would quietly slip into his room when no one else was around and sit in his desk chair and put on his headphones.

The song was always playing, a piano cover he had liked, a sweet solace, his final gift to us. I always cried when I listened to it.

We had to shut the computer off around Christmas last year. I lashed out at my older brother for turning it off, but he said the computer was crashing and he was trying to preserve as much as he could.

And the song finally came to an end.

It felt like unplugging a coma patient. It felt like his breath finally let out and his heart gave its last beat.

It hurts to heal. It hurts to let go. But we’re still here living, so we need to live.

The past was beautiful. And so is the future.

No more looping.

Time to start living.


“Elsa,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss her, moving to a song that wasn’t being played. “We are the music.”

—Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds (bookshop + amazon)


I am so tuned to being alive that if you touch me it makes music.

—Jenny Slate, Little Weirds • (bookshop + amazon)


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2 Comments

  • Elisabeth

    “I want to listen to albums again, albums, damn it.” I heard this in Bilbo’s voice before you said it was in Bilbo’s voice.

    Love this. Love you. We’ve talked about it before, but it’s nice to hear your thoughts fully expounded.

  • Ally Brennan

    I love that you heard it before I explained it. We’re definitely on the same brainwave sometimes. Was weirdly stoked that “mountains” and “albums” as well as “Gandalf” and “damn it” all had the same syllables hahaha.

    Also, getting blog comments from you makes me happier than you know.

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