Why can’t we remember the names of our favorite songs anymore? Nicholas Henderson considers memory loss through new music platforms.
I was 24 and living in my parent’s computer room. My hometown sits in a river valley between a ridge of sandstone bluffs and the Mississippi river. On a typical day, I drove around in my family’s Mazda hatchback, Bluetooth-equipped, with my iPhone synced to the stereo. My standard route went from a park next to the river to a lookout point atop the highest bluff and then back down to the river again. I did this for hours, every day, speaking to no one, compulsively sucking weed from my handheld vaporizer. I often listened Fredo Santana’s song “Stay Da Same” on level “63,” the highest volume setting.
Nothing ever stay the same
Nothing ever stay the same”
Today, Uber envisions their future fleet of self-driving taxis as an ‘endless ride,’ a phrase that aptly describes how I remember my drives. I cannot tell days from weeks, nor weeks from months. The cyclical gravity of the ride, aided by the blunted synergy of sedative hypnotics and loud bass frequencies, produced a kind of hole in memory that absorbs and implodes any attempts at chronology. When I linger too long in the memory, trying to parse something like a ‘day’ that ‘happened,’ I feel as though I am being pulled into the hole and if I let myself go, I might not return.
Whenever I visit home, my phone is still synced to the car and will begin to play music through the stereo without prompting.
I went to high school from 2005 to 2009. Before I got my first iPod in 2006, I carried a portable CD player around the halls with four or five discs to change out. I remember feeling secure with my over-ear headphones on during study hall or in between classes. It was like a signal to my peers that I was experiencing moments of emotional authenticity with the music.
Making playlists was an important ritual for me then. I made them by rearranging tracks from CDs I’d purchased, songs downloaded from iTunes, and MP3s I pirated or from uncompressed .ZIP files off sites like MediaFire or Megaupload.
In iTunes, it was simple to make playlists, and encouraged by the branding of the software: Apple products allowed for personal creativity and intimate emotion to flourish. I used to spend hours perfecting the sequencing, listening to various sutures that formed as I rearranged the tracks or changed the delay time between them. I’d burn the finished lists to CD-Rs and give them to friends as tokens to cultivate a new, unspoken layer of intimacy. Sometimes I would slip in my own nascent compositions, recorded and produced in Garageband. The transitions between songs became so familiar that I still bear the imprints of some of the sequences and will anticipate the beginning of songs I can no longer name when I hear the loose ends of others.
In 2013, my final year of college, I started a Tumblr about 160 bpm dance music. Specifically, I was inspired by footwork music, a fast and sampladelic style of house music originating from Chicago, because I’d come to perceive it as a kind of future vanguard. I had ceased to experience music relating specifically to the experience of myself and those I held close, I became convinced that more important than intimacy was correctly perceiving the shape of emerging aesthetic trends. Probably intuiting that I lacked the ability to perceive everything, I doubled down on my drive to specialize, to claim an authoritative perspective, and sought to calibrate my awareness perfectly with the frequency of what was about to happen.
But the rise of online platforms like SoundCloud spawned a seemingly endless wave of faceless artists and trying to witness everything that fell within that narrow parameter soon became overwhelming. I was constantly scrambling to publish analyses of tracks that had posted an hour ago. I failed utterly. The project made me crazy and obsessive, myopic and deluded in my sense of the direction that culture was moving.
It didn’t help that my MacBook died that spring. Being short on funds, I purchased my first Chromebook, which lacks a hard drive and the ability to run programs to easily manipulate large media files. However pathologically, I adapted: as I began to lose my libraries, I started relying on the Cloud. I streamed music from SoundCloud and wrote blurbs in Google Docs. No longer owning the space where my memories were stored, I sought to stake territory within the perpetually eroding artifice of ‘now.’
Someone at one of the AA meetings I now attend said to the group one night, “If you ride with the devil, sooner or later the devil is going to drive.” I don’t know if they meant that literally, but I couldn’t help but think of the endless ride my self-effacing attention to the present had culminated in: driving in circles at 24 around the hometown all my childhood friends had escaped, with my iPhone shuffling through a streaming cache via Bluetooth speakers.
When I went to buy car insurance earlier this year the first company I approached flat-out refused to insure me. I requested a copy of the incident record that had won their disapproval. It showed that I was in three accidents during the winter of 2014 and that two of them happened only a day apart. I only kind of remember one of them.
Even while I was tunneling that winter into the soft, weightless world of autopilot and autoplay, the sharp edges of the chronological, thing-filled world I’d tried to disavow was relentless. I remember waking up in the hospital, I think it was February, and telling the nurses that it hadn’t been an overdose, that I’d just been sleeping.
When my parents finally convinced me to go to rehab, I was immediately concerned with how I would listen to music for the 30-odd days I would spend there since cell phones were not allowed. I borrowed my father’s disused iPod shuffle, baby blue, and filled it to capacity with rap mixtapes and some random club music compilations. The rehab facility was in the middle of the woods. There was a trail you could walk looping around a small, man-made lake. It was spring and there were always deer moving through the trees. In the evenings after dinner or in between group therapy sessions, I would walk around the lake and listen to the iPod, looking at deer and thinking about life; how and why it had turned out this way. One of the mixtapes on the iPod was My Last Days by Johnny May Cash.
I have these crazy dreams that I’ma die
Don’t know what’s going on
It’s like I see the future in the past
How can I live life long?
If it’s my last days I don’t know if I’ma wake up
If it’s my last days I don’t know if I’ma wake up
I remember feeling some comfort in being sequestered away from all the streaming services and limited to a small library. The relationships I formed with the other patients there seemed less subject to the transactional character of interaction on the outside. I became less concerned with the question, ‘What type of person am I?’ and I began to feel at ease in my own skin again.
Just like you can’t stay in rehab forever, though, you can’t hope to live a social life in denial of the cloud. To move ‘off the grid,’ as a doomsday prepper might put it, would be to effectively disavow my biological need for social connection, which my counselors told me was something I had to begin paying attention to if I wanted to stay alive.
When I got out of rehab I moved into a kind of halfway house, with only a few possessions and no computer. I began to reforge my connection to the public reservoir of memory by accumulating music streaming apps on my iPhone. First, I used Apple Music, which was already built into the Music app on my iPhone. I accumulated songs in a cache over the course of a free nine-month trial period, but since I failed to come through with payment at the end of the nine months, I found myself barred from what I’d stored there.
I have no library, so I have no memory. One of my friends from high school who works for a company that manufactures flash memory drives told me once that hard drives are bad because they have “too many moving parts.” Maybe my memory is bad because it has too many moving parts.
I can’t remember the names of the bands or albums or songs I liked 4 or 5 years ago, especially the ones I found within some strange chamber of the Internet. Sometimes I search for a thing that isn’t there. Other times I intuit the sound of a thing that is there, but I don’t know the right name to call it forward.
There is just so much music – too much. Memory has to choose between important things and everything; it feels like mine just gave up and adopted a first come-first serve policy. Now I have a soft memory. I am trying not to go crazy again, so I don’t worry about forgetting mostly everything. I’ve got Google, and a trail of memory traces distributed across 11 distinct music streaming apps.
Because I have a long work commute, I now do most of my listening in the car, but it’s no longer an endless ride. The destination is always fixed on a place, where I’ll have to get out of the car and do one of those things that people are called upon to do. I stay very busy now, perpetually short on time between the various locations where I work to make money, attend support groups to stay sane and write, for god knows what reason. When I am doing a good job of taking care of myself, I enjoy listening to music in the car, but when I cross a certain stress threshold, the activity morphs into an anxious, late-capitalist form of multitasking: since transit time is an inevitable loss of ‘productive time,’ I should be at the very least attempting to passively ‘take in’ the contemporary while driving.
I can’t burn CDs anymore because my Chromebook has no CD drive, and even if I could, the 6-CD changer in my car skips when the temperature dips below 40° Fahrenheit or my tire pressure gets low and the bumps in the road become more pronounced.
So instead, I’ve got an aux cable-cum-cassette tape in my car to use with my iPhone. The rubber protecting the wires that convey the two stereo channels has frayed near the jack, so there is an infernal buzzing that compounds with the cyclical hum of the magnetic tape that sounds when I first turn the stereo on. My phone case is incompatible with the ⅛-inch jack on the aux cable, so I have to take my phone case off whenever I want to listen to music. Then I have to wiggle the jack around in the socket until the signals coalesce in a manner that stops the buzzing and the hum.
Then I’ve got to choose between one of 11 streaming apps, the music stored on my phone (which is all from Spring 2015 before I went to rehab), or something from YouTube. I usually settle on MyMixtapez, which offers a certain illusion of security: it delivers me directly to the altar of the contemporary, but within the safe parameters of a highly limited scope. Though there are no algorithmically-generated playlists, like those advertised for subscription services like Apple Music and Spotify, MyMixtapez has already considered on my behalf what the “contemporary” is with respect to hip-hop.
The app crashes frequently, though, and has no playlist function, so I’m forced to comply with its conditioned options. It also has a quirk where it plays the song immediately following whatever song I select, so I always have to compensate by selecting the song that sequentially precedes the one I actually want to hear. It’s also a free app, so there are pop-up advertisements that are incredibly difficult to close, with audio that layers over the music rather than merely interrupting it. Sometimes my cell service drops when I’m driving through an industrial park and the whole thing comes to a halt mid-song.
I always select the highest available streaming quality, but between the high level of compression on the app and the often unsubtle mastering of mixtapes, most songs end up sounding like 64 kbps MP3s downloaded from KaZaa circa 2001. Fed through the ailing aux cable, the sound comes through Bose speakers in my car, located next to the floor so that only the bass frequencies carry.
I have come to take a sort of vengeful delight in comically degraded sound quality, as it flies in the face of tech-driven solutionist ideology. They tend to argue for highly competitive digital service economies, that they produce seamless experiences in the service of a kind of borderless global creative community. Indeed, most free mixtape apps ask you to share your listening habits on Instagram, or through a Snap, but in doing so the user reveals the fact that they are alone on their phone, fixated on the altar of privately-owned public memory and co-constructing its artifice however passively, incidentally, like the mining of Bitcoin or contributions to Blockchain code.
When I was 16, I had a friend who owned and knew how to operate a four-track tape machine. As a ‘joke,’ we used to get friends together to record covers of songs that we thought were both awful and amazing: “Kokomo,” “Old Time Rock ’n Roll,” “In The Air Tonight,” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Recording on the old machine was a time-sucking ordeal that involved hours in a dark basement threading tape on a spool and praying that it functioned. We worked hard on the songs. The recordings had a warm and bright quality that jumped out even more after my friend bounced them to ProTools, and then into iTunes as Mp3s, which he emailed to me as downloadable MediaFire files.
The friend with whom I recorded those songs has also struggled with addiction, and as a consequence of conflicts arising out of our respective delinquencies, we have been out of touch since 2010. I recently tried to get a hold of him via Facebook, in search of reconciliation or perhaps just a mutual acknowledgment, but Messenger tells me he’s seen my message and elected not to respond. After a few weeks of radio silence, I decided to search for artifacts testifying to the memory of our one-time friendship.
I tried to sign into the old MediaFire account, attached to a Yahoo email I can no longer access, by guessing with some of my old passwords. I found out that I accessed the wrong era of my memory. I was able to get in, but all the files were from 2013 and 2014, years I barely remember because of my benzodiazepine dependence. It blotted out consciousness and my ability to form new memories almost completely.
Amongst MP3 bounces of Virtual DJ mixes and FL Studio experiments spawned in the murk of Xanax blackouts, there remains a file called “elena005.jpg,” which is not a saved nude from an ex-lover, but a scanned photo of a bank deposit receipt. The receipt shows the value $337.96, deposited into the draft shares account of someone named Elena, and my name is signed at the bottom.
At the top I’ve written “For Bitquick.co,” which is a website where you can purchase bitcoins from strangers by making cash deposits into their bank accounts, and Bitquick mediates the transaction, holding the digital currency in escrow until you upload a receipt of the transaction, at which point they release the bitcoin into a digital wallet destination that you’ve specified. You can then transfer the bitcoin to your profile within an online marketplace that facilitates, among other things, the private trading of bitcoins for raw pharmaceutical alprazolam powder.
Using a variety of encryption protocol and security measures that are all easily Googleable, you can have raw pharmaceutical Xanax shipped through the US Postal Service to your place of residence. There you might use it to escape the burden of a memory, to forge a reservoir of non-memory on the soft underside of consciousness. Later, when you return to the world of the living, you will recall the escape as a garbled cache of memories neither public nor private, never fully accessible even to yourself. To hide away in the lattice of a blockchain, you must sacrifice your lease on memory.
Nowadays, I am almost always alone when I listen to music. I’m on my phone, in between places, and in public but always curled into my own experience. Since I don’t take drugs or drink anymore, I rarely go out to clubs, and when I do, I merely dance for hours on end to music that would drown out any attempt at talking. Sometimes I make innocuous comments on YouTube music videos of rap songs that mean a lot to me, but I only do so as part of an inconsequential chorus.
Most of my closest friends don’t know what any of my current favorite songs are, nor do I know theirs. When I text my friends links to those same songs on YouTube that inspire me to comment, they usually reply something to the effect of, “cool, will check this out” and then we never address it again. When they send me things, I return the favor by opening the link in a separate browser tab and then promptly forgetting about it.
There is a tacit understanding here that we cannot truly expect each other to take on the burden of more memory. The desire for connection implied in sending the link is more significant than whether it is ever consumed.
Originally published in the “Conflict” issue on April 17, 2017