John's World: The Soundtrack of Our Lives

August 26, 2011 08:53 PM

John PhippsI was a late adopter of MP3 players (iPods and the dozens of wannabes). In fact, my first experience was eerie enough that I’ve never really got into regularly using one.

I had just acquired an MP3 player and downloaded some music files. Actually, I downloaded them twice due to an operator malfunction, but that’s not unusual when you try to substitute random option selection for following instructions.

Suddenly I was prepared to join the plugged-in, tuned-out millions who have family photos taken with their earbuds in. I was in Chicago for a meeting and had a 10-block walk on a cool fall day. I crammed in the earpieces and started a playlist of my "faves."

The effect was galvanic. Instead of street noise, I was immersed in stereo orchestral music, John Denver and Sons of the Pioneers. To describe the difference this makes in your perception of the environment, I can only compare it to the opening of a movie, where the location and main character (in this case, me) are established with camera swoops and mood-setting music.

I could almost see myself from above, strolling the streets while the music provided appropriate emotions for an upcoming story. I walked faster when listening to the upbeat tunes and displayed signs of despair during the one Mahler piece.

I had a soundtrack for my life. To be sure, I have always preferred a laugh track, but this was still pretty cool. Until I was almost run over by a bus.

Today we have many citizens locked into their own performances, and even on the farm—since hearing protection is a very good idea—why not jazz it up with a little … jazz?

But, like so many new trends, the life soundtrack is not really so novel, just more technological. We used to have music playing in our heads all the time. In fact, most of us would sort of hum along with the imagined melody, which in our internal hearing sounded like a smooth blend with a mental replaying of a favorite tune.

To be sure, we looped the track often, using the same song or even partial remembrance of a song for hours on end. It became a habit we did not notice until we were no longer alone in a cab and our low drone began to chip away at the sanity of our companions.

These loops, like eight-track tapes, played in our idle minds as a comforting alternative to serious musing. Too often, however, they were not songs of our choosing, but freaks of random selection from particularly perverse sections of our brain.

Those "songs that won’t go away" were a fabled feature of life when imagination was all the technology we had. Thinking back, there were some remarkably "sticky" songs, which, once heard, or even when the title was mentioned, lodged firmly on our internal playback despite our best efforts to ignore them.

For example, there were songs we were embarrassed we knew, such as TV show theme songs. Undoubtedly, one of these will insert itself into your day once you read the name.


  • "Gilligan’s Island:" Already you have the tune in motion and are struggling with the murky lyrics: "No something, no something, no motor cars …"
  • "The Brady Bunch:" "Here’s the story of … uhhh, you know …"
  • "Cheers:" "…where everybody knows your name …"

While pre-cable TV hits (thanks to syndication) provide the repetitions needed for vigorous memory availability, hot singles at crucial life intervals often command instant access. These tunes are chronological markers first and musical accomplishments second. We just can’t clean them from our cerebral attic.

  • "Stand by Your Man"
  • "Woman, Woman"
  • "I Will Survive"

But worst of all are the remarkably long songs that, for reasons we cannot recapture, we committed to memory to either impress our friends or prove our hipness. Brace yourself.

  • "MacArthur Park"
  • "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (Yes, I did learn it.)
  • "Bohemian Rhapsody"

These are the worst soundtracks of all, in my opinion, as you can mumble/moan any one of them until your entire family is checking out a retirement home for you.

The upside is, you can deploy these accompaniments long after your batteries have crashed—instant background music for every living moment.

Makes you appreciate silence, doesn’t it?

Just be glad the "Star Trek" theme didn’t have words. And that I didn’t mention the Disney viral menace, "It’s a Small World." Galileo, Galileo!

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