The other day we went to a gathering at the local super-swanky bowling alley. While we were there, they played “80’s Bingo” where the DJ plays a snippet of an 80’s song and you mark the matching song off on your bingo card. Standard bingo rules apply, so when you’ve recognized and marked off five songs in a row, you win. I greatly amused our group by becoming the Rain Man of 80’s Bingo. Not only did I know every song and win every game, I also entertained everyone by telling them exactly which memories I associated with each song. And, no, I wasn’t drunk.
For “fun,” some members of this group kept quizzing me over the coming days with music from just about every decade since the 50’s, even through I wasn’t alive back then. Soundtracks were fair game, too. They’d throw out a song and then make me tell them some memory or story that I associate with that song. There were very, very few songs that left me drawing a complete blank, even from the decades that I didn’t live through. I listen to music almost constantly and my tastes are eclectic. Pretty much every genre of music has a place in my life.
What was funny to me was how vivid many of these memories are. I can recall the weather, what I was wearing, who I was with, what they were wearing, where we were, and other details like furniture, wallpaper, and flooring in the room. It’s very strange. I know a lot of people experience this phenomenon with smells, but not me. Maybe a certain smell will trigger a memory, but not often and the memory is usually vague. With music, though, it’s literally like being in a place and time all over again. Time travel isn’t possible, but I swear sometimes it feels like that’s what’s happening. (Note: To a lesser extent this happens with books, too. Sometimes a book jacket or snippet of dialogue can drag me back to the place and time where I first read that book. I’m that strange, apparently.)
I’ve always known that music correlates to memories and there is science to back this up. It’s why you smile when you hear the song from your senior prom, or why you tear up when you hear the song that was playing the night your boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you. But in talking with this group of people (which is admittedly not statistically significant in any way) and seeing their surprise at my “talent,” my level of recall seems higher than normal. Does that make me weird? (Maybe it just makes me a candidate for the next season of “America’s Got Talent,” though I’m pretty sure that Simon Cowell would X me off. Scary Spice might vote to keep me, though.)
I’ve always listened to music and much of my early life revolved around it. As a product of the three-channel TV-era, there wasn’t much else to do if you wanted entertainment. I spent much of my free time haunting places like Camelot Music and Sam Goody, haranguing sales people, trying to track down albums that I’d heard only once on the radio. Back then, that was the only way to get music. There was no Internet where you could Google lyrics or listen to songs on YouTube until you found the right thing. You had to listen to the radio and hope that the DJ read off the artist and album. It was that or sing what you could remember to someone else and hope they knew it so you could buy it.
(Of course, this method also led to buying more than a few wrong albums, some of which turned out to be pleasant surprises. That was how I discovered Honeymoon Suite. I bought their “Racing After Midnight” album by accident when I was looking for what turned out to be a Clime Fisher album. Still not sure how that mistake was made, but it was a good mistake.)
It’s not just the song, but the effort that went into acquiring it that’s attached all of my memories to music.
I spent hours making mix tapes. If you’re old, like me, you might remember the feeling of hearing the song you wanted coming on the radio and the mad dash to hit “Record” on your boom box before too much of the song was over. Or you laid on the floor in front of the stereo all Sunday morning, waiting for Kasey Kasem to play the song on that week’s Top 40 Countdown. And you always kept a blank tape in your boom box for just that moment, right? And you probably tried three or four times before you got an acceptable cut.
Of course, the reason I was looking for much of this music in the first place was that it was already linked to some memory. I’d heard it in the car with my boyfriend, it was played at a dance, it was on the radio while my friends and I were all hanging out having fun, or it was on during some family event. Whatever the memory or feeling, I wanted to keep it and I knew the song would bring it back. Maybe it’s this process that has inextricably linked so much of my life to music. It’s not just the song, but the effort that went into acquiring it that’s attached all of my memories to music.
None of this explains why I still tie my memories to music so tightly, though. Today it’s much easier to track down music. Everything is available at the click of a mouse. Hear it on the radio and in seconds you can have it forever. Music is almost disposable now. There’s no effort involved, so you’d think that the simplicity of the process might weaken the tie. And yet my brain still ties my memories to music. Maybe it’s because I have it on all the time. I work to music, and it’s a big part of my leisure time, as well. Maybe just having music on so often makes in unavoidable that all of my life follows music. Maybe if I were a TV addict my memories would be tied to episodes of “The Simpsons” or “NCIS.” God, that would be depressing.
For lack of evidence to the contrary, I’ll accept that I’m just weird, some sort of freak whose mental filing cabinet is hardwired to file according to song rather than something normal like smells or voices. I wonder if, when I’m older and my memory really starts to fade, will someone be able to pull out some music and bring it all back? Or will my filing system fail me, leaving me with just the music.