All the music I can’t replay, courtesy of my exes

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

There are some songs I choose not to listen to — through no fault of their own, really. At surface level, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re perfectly fine in terms of melodies and lyrics. Most of them are in possession of the catchiness factor that generates an earworm, sticking with you afterward, almost forcing you to hum along hours after the last notes have faded away. These songs have a power over me, one that I do my best not to trip and stumble beneath. It’s the power to summon up memories I really would rather not revisit, the ability to conjure up past emotions and feelings attached to those memories.

They are the songs that I listened to during certain points in my life; namely, stages of romantic attachment to certain persons. They were the soundtrack to courtship, to infatuation, to contentment, and then the sudden shift of happiness spiraling downward into heartbreak. In the midst of so much uncertainty, the music was a constant, an unchanging anchor I could cling to for just long enough until it too became too painful a reminder.

In college: The Decemberists was his favorite band. I borrowed one of his t-shirts once, threadbare-soft and worn, with one of their album covers printed on the front. I listened to every album they had ever put out and every track on those albums, and even though I didn’t really get the appeal of the music, I kept trying to understand it because it was a sound he liked, something he would choose to put on first during long drives or pick up a guitar and cover during open mic night.

When he broke up with me, the radio was silent as we sat in his car in the parking lot in the rain — every depressing cliché come to life. One week after that, we made the exchange of borrowed keepsakes. I gave the t-shirt back.

Two years ago: I’d already been a fan of Josh Ritter but grew to have more of an appreciation for his music over the course of another relationship. It was soothing, lyrical, and it always told a story. It quickly became one of the few things I could write to without becoming distracted, without the lyrics finding a way to filter in between my words. My ex played one of the songs for me, the first of many songs he would play for me — but it was this one, this one that had special meaning above all the rest. The last time we were at a Josh Ritter concert together was when I felt the distance between us even though we were standing side-by-side.

Recently: I’ve learned that it can be dangerous to fall into the habit of listening to songs on repeat during a new relationship. It’s almost impossible for my brain not to make associations between what I’ve got playing in my earbuds and everything I’m feeling. Such was the case when I found myself playing this Sia song over and over before I realized that was what I was doing. I was drawing connections between the lyrics and the excitement of something new, letting that giddiness wash over me, too engrossed in everything I was feeling to realize that it was too much all at once. Now, it’s difficult for me to listen to it without cynicism creeping in, the sourness of recent rejection, scowling inward at the girl who allowed herself to become that naive.

The pain of recent memory fades over time, as it usually does, allowing me to revisit certain songs. I can press shuffle on my music library without fear, for the most part. I don’t want to spend too long lingering on what I can’t control anyway, but sometimes it’s OK to wallow once in a while. When the first few notes of the song ring out and comprehension dawns, I sit there, allowing myself to experience the emotions again — or rather, the ghost of those emotions.

I let the song play, quietly absorbing, and before it can come to an end I decide to skip ahead this time. To move on, with the full intention of coming back to it someday . . . maybe.

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(Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)