I had not, so I went back in and found the link which took me to a late 70’s song. The minute I heard the opening notes, I cringed. Bad song. Really bad song. The genre itself was doomed to extinction: Country-Western Israeli.
I didn’t want to be a poor friend so I listened to the entire song. It was NOT a good experience.
I reported back to Israel who told me that whenever he hears this song he thinks of his friend’s smile; that of the fellow killed in the terror attack. There was a photo. The poor guy did have the proverbial million dollar smile.
It hit me then: the musical merits or demerits of the song didn’t matter. The fact that it was just a really bad song filled with repetitive hooks didn’t matter. The point was the association. When Israel hears that song, it evokes certain bittersweet memories of a time, place, and person.
‘Did I have a song like that?’ I wondered. Of course I did. The Bee Gees’ song, “How Deep is Your Love,” came to mind straight away. Whenever I hear that song, my mind flashes back to a place (Detroit), a time (my angst-filled 16th winter), and the people I hung out with back then.
That got me thinking about other songs I love that deep down, I know are egregious top 40 crapola. I get excited when they’re played on the radio and know all the lyrics by heart. My iPod is filled with those songs. Earphones make it possible to forego insults like, “Ew. How can you listen to that stuff?” and “Can you turn the sound down, PUHLEEZE?”
I know I’m not the only one to think about this seeming disparity between bad songs and good memories. Ruby Harris billed as “King of the Blues Violin,” recently asked his Facebook friends to share the names of songs they love which have no redeeming musical value whatsoever. Several songs immediately came to mind and I put them out there, knowing that what I was really putting out there was my own neck and rep on the *gulp* sacrificial altar.
Always one to make a spectacle of myself I typed, “Alone Again Naturally!” and then in a burst of creative energy, “Afternoon Delight!”
I was on a roll. Filled with glee I then virtually blurted, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me!” There followed this resounding (virtual) silence which somewhat resembled the sound of expelled gas during a brief quiet moment at a party.
The silence didn’t last long. Ruby wrote something along the lines of, “What’s WRONG with YOU?” and Dov (my DH) commented, “I don’t know her.”
But you see it’s not about the songs. When I hear, “Alone Again Naturally,” I am transported back to sixth grade and Marjie Rice’s living room on Wilkins Ave., in the time before her family moved to the bigger house on Beechwood Blvd. I remember Marjie putting this Gilbert O’Sullivan 45 on her turntable and hearing the tune for the first time. Sixth grade was really the age when it began to be cool to collect and listen to records.
I think of the line, “I remember I cried when my father died,” and I feel a powerful twinge remembering my tears when my own father died, not two years later.
And I can identify just as strong a memory as that for every bad song I love.
I realized that there must be some kind of cognitive science behind our affinity for specific songs that lack musical merit. Some scientist must have done a study, right? I turned to Google to see what I could find. I typed “music memories and associations” and waited to see what came up.
While the scope of the research I discovered is too broad to cover here in any detail, I found that Petr Janata, an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain had published a study on the subject in 2009. Janata’s aim was to discover what it is about music that evokes such vivid memories for so many people. Among other things, Janata’s findings help explain why music is able to elicit such a strong response in those with Alzheimer’s disease, long after many other cognitive faculties are gone.
It seems that the area of the brain in which past memories are held and retrieved serves also as a hub for linking memories, familiar songs, and emotions. This hub is located right behind the forehead in the medial prefrontal cortex region and is among the final areas of the brain to atrophy during the progression of Alzheimer’s.
"What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye," said Janata said. "Now we can see the association between those two things – the music and the memories."
I thought of the way couples will refer to a specific tune as “our song.” I can’t hear the song “Take Five” without remembering the first time Dov caught my eye. I was playing this song on the piano when he happened into the room. “Take Five, Dave Brubeck,” he said.
“Wanna go out?” said I.
“Take Five” (Paul Desmond) happens to be a terrific song.
But apparently the quality of the song doesn’t much matter. When I hear the song , “Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)”—a musically undistinguished pop song—memories every bit as strong flood my mind. I think of the sweating sides of a bright red waxed cup of iced coca cola and the underground walkway to Kennywood, an amusement park in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I think of summer, and Landlubber jeans, and men’s shirts tied at my midriff. I think of ponytails and Barbara Spiegel, my best friend in eighth grade.
I like hearing the song Brandy. It doesn’t make a whit of difference to me that it’s such a god-awful song. It’s all about the nostalgia.
What songs are linked in your mind with specific events from your life? Do you secretly like listening to a cringe-worthy song?
(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brraveheart/2792747305/sizes/m/in/photostream/)