Every morning as I’m walking to my new desk at my new job, I glance down at the row of placards leaned up against the window of one of the offices. Usually when I pass by, the occupant of the office has yet to arrive so it’s dim inside. The placards beckon, reminiscent of museum objects but mostly like sale items behind glass.
The one closest to the door is the one that my eyes linger on. The words are arranged like in those ‘Keep calm and drink tea’ posters. Only this placard reads, Pain is a privilege of the living.
The sentiment has been resonant with me this week. I returned from the US on Saturday, and despite having thrown myself into the deep end of real life, I’ve felt less like a swimmer fighting to break the surface than lady Woolf with rocks in her pockets, willingly letting the current take her where it will.
I know that I’m lucky to have been able to get away, to have been able to afford to have taken the short trip that I did. I know, intellectually, that if I were to have somehow turned that trip from being just a holiday into my existence, it would not be a case of pleasures multiplied but pleasures divided. Reality always takes over. And I was but parachuting into other people’s normal lives.
Still, I am convinced that the time that it takes me to tire of the songs on the mix CD I made the day after coming back is how long it will take me to get over Los Angeles. A mix CD, of course, that embodies the week I spent there.
When you’re on holiday, you do what you wouldn’t usually do. Try new foods, jump off cliffs, talk to strangers. Or it could be something as mundane as listening to commercial radio.
If I were to mount some sort of defence, it would be that I couldn’t possibly engage with a rigorous discussion about Chinese-American relations or properly appreciate the beauty of a good episode of This American Life while I was adjusting to driving on the right side of the road on the other side of the car, trying make sure I got off at the right exit and do everything my unfamiliar GPS told me to do. And so it was that an audio accompaniment that was pleasant and undemanding made for the perfect soundtrack for my driving experience. For the first four days anyway, until I got into the swing of things.
By the end of the second day, having racked up some six hours behind the wheel, I came to a realisation about the station I was listening to. It wasn’t a Big Truth I’d tapped into – I’m sure regular listeners of commercial radio are well aware of it. I realised that the station was playing something like 30 songs on rotation, with an older hit or two thrown in for variation. On one occasion, the song that I finished one day’s journey with was the same song that played when I fired up the ignition the next day.
That song, by the way, was Neon Trees’ “Everybody Talks”. Which I grew to love. And that’s the thing, isn’t it. These pop songs are calibrated to meld into the grooves of your brain after a sufficient period of exposure to them.
They were a chemical rush, a high octane, all sugar hit. I remember reading about a study which said that if you engage enthusiastically and often with music that purely drives your emotions, it either dulls your intellect or is the sign of a dull intellect. So for a while there I tried to resist. But eventually I fell back into old habits of, like, bonding with Taylor Swift over heartbreak or the thrill of being young and privileged.
These were songs by artists I knew but whose music I did not. Artists like Maroon 5, Rachel Platten, One Direction. Emotion-laden, all formula, beat and driving melody – they complemented with precision the heat, possibility, and freedom of my nights and days.
Wildest Dreams/104.3 MyFM – a tracklisting.
1. Neon Trees – “Everybody talks”
2. A Great Big World – “Hold each other”
3. Walk the Moon – “Shut up and dance”
4. Elle King – “Ex’s and Oh’s”
5. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – “Cecilia and the Satellite”
6. “Ellie Goulding – “Love Me Like You Do”
7. Katy Perry – “Dark Horse ft. Juicy J”
8. Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud”
9. Mark Ronson – “Uptown Funk ft. Bruno Mars”
10. Maroon 5 – “Sugar”
11. P!nk – “Try”
12. Rachel Platten – “Fight Song”
13. Maroon 5 – “Maps”
14. One Direction – “What Makes You Beautiful”
15. R. City – “Locked Away ft. Adam Levine”
16. Taylor Swift – “Wildest Dreams”
17. See You Again – “Wiz Khalifa”