What Is a Family Home Without Music?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

I listen to music pretty much all the time, and when I stop listening to music, I know I’m going through something. I’m not a musician, but tunes have always connected me to feelings of possibility and joy. I’ve come to recognize that when I stop listening to my little playlists and albums, a part of me is shutting down. The stoppage usually follows a period of weeks, or sometimes months, when I haven’t listened to anything new. My usual old standbys sound tinny and hollow and elicit none of the reliable rushes of feeling that they used to. The drug stops working.

And then a mysterious wind blows into my life with a new song in it, and I come back to myself a little bit. I’ll listen to the new music over and over again on my headphones while working, and then slightly less often, but still definitely a lot, while I’m cleaning up the kitchen and driving around in our stupid ugly car. The new music will resuscitate all my old reliable music and make it sound fresh again. The new music will gradually frame some of the undefined or frustrated feelings I had been having during the no-music drought period. It will bring these dull feelings into focus and I’ll come to realize that during the time when I wasn’t listening to music, I was gestating a new feeling, that these new tunes had enabled me to finally experience. This emotional peristalsis, made possible by a sympathetic nervous system made up of songs, is kind of … the story of my life.

The whole thing is a trip and it happens again and again. A couple weeks ago, a painful drought period was mercifully brought to an end by Harry Styles’s latest album. I had heard the single on the radio, but it hadn’t made any sense to me. But whatever it was that changed for me — safe to assume it was consuming lots of speculative content about the Don’t Worry Darling press tour — it suddenly made “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” very interesting, and ultimately essential to my daily life.

The Harry’s House album has now entered the historical record as a part of the emotional terrain of my fall 2022. I don’t keep a diary, but I do make a playlist for every season, and these playlists are my archive of emotions. What was I doing in the spring of 2017? Easy: Riding the metro to my new teaching job feeling very underqualified while listening to “Portobello Belle” by Dire Straits. Spring 2018? Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour came out and I was feeling younger than my years at that time. Fall 2019? Bought a house, was worried about money, listened to a lot of Abdullah Ibrahim and Ali Farka Toure to try to calm myself down while applying for jobs.

Unlike a diary, my playlists have an audience: my family. I’m working through my shit in the kitchen every evening with the help of the little Bose speaker I carry with me from room to room. Every family has a self-appointed DJ and I am ours. My husband, Gray, loves music as much as I do but he usually cedes control of the aux when I’m around. So when I’m in the throes of an emotional reawakening through music, my whole family can feel it.

Which brings me to the question: What do we want our kids to know about us? I know most of it is out of our hands. Our kids keep the ledgers of our shortcomings and bad habits, just from being around us so much with their relentlessly big ears and eyes. But we can shoehorn in a few deliberate bits, can’t we?

I feel like when people are interviewed and they’re asked about their biggest inspiration, they always answer, “My mother, because she was kind to every living being.” I’m like, shit. I can’t imagine my kids saying that about me. “Dear old ma,” they’ll reminisce when I’m dead. “She really loved that one song by the Band. We listened to it for the entire COVID-19 pandemic. She said she liked the Band version better than the original by Springsteen. What a lady.”

Lately — or maybe permanently, I’m not sure yet — I have been struggling with the absence of my parents. (They are both deceased, which is something I might get up the guts to write about sometime — being an “adult orphan,” as the great Samantha Irby, a fellow adult orphan — has called it.) One of the ways that I am able to connect with them across time and space is by listening to the albums that they loved, because these sounds do manage to conjure the feeling of being inside their houses with them.

I’ve learned many things I never knew about my parents since they’ve died, from other people’s stories, their diaries, and letters they kept. Music was one way I had of knowing what was going on with them while they were alive. My dad had a big record collection of mostly jazz. His favorite albums were Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Count Basie’s April in Paris. My dad was a writer too, and all through high school my bedroom and his office shared its own side entrance to the house. He had a weekly column for the local paper and he loved the pressure of writing on deadline, so he’d write the whole piece the night before, with music playing until midnight. I could hear his contentment through the walls. I don’t think my dad ever wore a pair of headphones in his life — everything he listened to, we all listened to.

My dad was the house DJ when my parents were together, but I got to know my mom’s taste better after they broke up. The year they separated, she listened to Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time so much that 30 years on, the middle section of that album is still rough going for me. A few years later, she seemed to me to be happier (although her diaries tell a different story) and she went through a Cesaria Evora phase that I enjoyed. When she got together with the guy who would end up becoming my stepdad, she listened to Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road on repeat. After her mother died she went hard into Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball.

All of this music is very PG, and maybe some people are hesitant to listen to their beloved explicit music around their kids. Maybe it doesn’t matter too much. I listen to Rage Against the Machine and Dr. Dre with my kids and I’d rather have them associate that music with me than with like, half-baked attempts at committing petty crimes in my neighborhood.

A scene we’re all familiar with is first-time parents insisting that their baby will grow up listening to only the coolest music. No “Baby Shark” for us, they’ll declare. By God, this child will love Arthur Russell, MF Doom, and Björk. And once the toddler years hit, much to their chagrin and to the uncharitable glee of their friends with older kids, these same parents submit to a soundscape of Frozen and “We Are the Dinosaurs Marching.”

This phase doesn’t last very long, so don’t sweat it. There will come a time that your kids will know the names of your favorite podcast hosts — but only if you listen to your podcasts on speakers, which you should, because they’re very educational.

The soundscape of a house is a shared space where we can expand into our feeling of belonging. A house without music has always felt sad to me. You’re telling me you just … do the dishes? With nothing playing? Not even a little something quiet in the background? Are you undergoing some form of penance? The advent of the AirPod is ideal for many dimensions of media consumption, but don’t neglect your speakers.

I don’t think I can really control what my kids know about me, because no matter how hard I try to seem virtuous in some ways, I know they see me being a loser in others. I just have to hope that the good stuff is more memorable than the bad, but again — it’s out of my hands. The only shade of their perception I can really control is what’s on the stereo, and even that is subject to astral-plane tremblings that I barely understand. Such is the erratic inner meteorology of a middle-aged woman, and my kids could probably tell you all about it, better than I could, if you ask them what we’ve been listening to lately.

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