The first thing I did when I re-entered New York City was cry.
It wasn’t necessarily my fault. In the passenger seat of a car where I’d spent most of my high school years, “(I’ve Had The) Time of My Life” from the classic film “Dirty Dancing” came on. Of course, that isn’t what got me so teary-eyed; it was how the song happened to do so the second I hit the Brooklyn Bridge. A song that made my mother roll her eyes for its “general schmaltziness” had me blubbering all the way back to my first apartment, the apartment I had left behind in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I had been, as we all were, displaced, but it hadn’t felt real until Bill Medley’s voice filled the small vehicle. The city I was entering, the city I’d wanted to feel like my city for so long, would never feel the same.
My emotional experience with such a peppy, pop-trash 80s song is not out of the ordinary. Music is strongly associated with memory and our ability to recall specific events. The power of music is its ability to personalize any experience; the second you’ve found a melody to attach to a person, place or thing, it’s done. That’s why there are songs we can’t listen to anymore because they remind us of pain. That’s why there are songs we listen to everytime we feel triumphant: because we associate it with happy victories. I bet you can think of a song right now that would make you cry if you were driving across the Brooklyn Bridge; a song that had once encapsulated you having the time of your life. This one wormed its way into mine when I stopped being the girl from my hometown. It was after my transition into the girl who lived in Brooklyn with her two best friends. We would listen to the song and dance together, barefoot on our hardwood floors. Screaming, laughing, singing, jumping. Something was ending to let something greater begin. I felt savvy and omnipotent.
Generally, that savvy omnipotence is an accessible feeling for all music listeners. A study conducted by Norman M. Weinberger in 2006 showed that music triggers dopamine hits in the frontal and temporal lobes, which are also associated with memory. Simply put, when we find a song we enjoy listening to, we tend to listen to it on repeat because of that dopamine trigger. This happens a lot during the teenage years. In a 2018 VICE Australia article, Katherine Gillipse wrote of how a person’s favorite song tends to be decided from ages 14 to 17. The dopamine triggered by music during our formative years tends to linger well into adulthood.
In a time that is so unprecedented, music seems to take up more space than ever. Artists are now releasing albums available on streaming platforms without an expectation of the tour and the fanbase it facilitates. Music, something that so many people depend on for a feeling of community, is now an isolated, intimate experience between artist and listener. Every album and song has become a listening experience you have by yourself in your bedroom. As a result, the memories that music draws you back to are yours and yours alone. The moments you share with a song and yourself feel as personal as a diary entry, rather than an artistic platform to build a community off of. Yet, with all this intimate contact between artist and listener, the most haunting part of quarantine was the moment I realized music had become an escape from reality rather than a way to cherish it.
This intimacy of rhythm now lost consumed me on that fateful bridge. I didn’t expect to ache so much through a song that reminded me of a “before;” another transition from girl in Brooklyn to girl displaced that I had yet to experience. There were losses I couldn’t even anticipate yet. A song that was supposed to evoke happiness and excitement became bittersweet, and I couldn’t help the emotions which had washed over me at its hand. I hadn’t been able to dance with my friends for so long, to twist and shout and shake to songs we found together. Music was, in so many ways, where my community lay. All those basement shows and concerts I made small-talk during and danced alongside sweaty strangers during are no longer a part of my life. Sitting in that feeling, in the childhood car where my mom hates the music that I play, I wondered what songs I would listen to during the After. What songs would define this newfound city for me? The only thing I can hope for is I will never find myself weeping in the car while simultaneously wanting to watch “Dirty Dancing” ever again.
Art by Pete Gibson