Former Hypebot editor and writer Kyle Bylin shares an excerpt from his newest book, Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives. It's a collection of essays written by music professionals and indie artists about specific songs that have impacted their lives. The book showcases the powerful memories and emotions that arise when each individual hears a song from their past. This is the experience of music that we all have with music, but we rarely share with one another.
Songs become a part of the story of our lives. Their lyrics linger inside of us. We recall those words, but what we remember isn’t what they meant to the person who wrote them. It’s what they mean to us. We relate their lyrics back to the events that have happened in our lives. We interject our personal narrative into their songs, and it feels as though they mirror our own memories and emotions.
Some songs make us happy, while others bring sadness. Some songs connect with our present, and others bring us back to the past. They help us recall memories we’ve forgotten. Some songs are tied to our personal identities and to particular moments in our lives. Playing the song in later years helps us to recall an earlier event as well as the way we felt about it. This is what music does for us. It connects with the story of our lives. It creates meaning. It helps us understand ourselves.
We build a history of music throughout our lives that is unique to us, shaped by our tastes and life experiences. For many of us, it is the closest thing we have to the journal we never wrote or the diary that has long been packed away.
The soundtrack of our lives is an ongoing playlist that we add to with each new experience. Each song holds a different significance, one that evolves as we change and grow as individuals. Unlike old journals and diaries, this soundtrack does not collect dust on a nightstand or in the bottom of a box but is stored on a smartphone that we take everywhere and hold tightly in our hands.
The time had come to collect and share these stories to create a people’s history of music. What you’ll read in Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives are personal accounts of how people’s lives have been impacted by specific songs. Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” set Cortney Harding’s romantic notions of adulthood, The Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” played one night at a friend’s place and changed Marc Ruxin’s musical tastes, and Coldplay’s “Lovers in Japan” reminds Caitlin Teibloom of a college breakup and who she became through that experience.
This alternate history, composed of shared song stories, will deepen your understanding of music. It’ll extend your interpretation of a song beyond what it means to you to how the song has been experienced by another and the meaning it has created in his or her life. Reading each story and playing the song will allow you to hear what music sounds like through ears other than your own.
I hope reading this book will inspire you to share your own song story.
“Logan to Government Center”
By Sachi Kobayashi
High school was rough for me. Due to misguided choices, failed attempts at overachieving, spells of depression, and overwhelming restlessness, I ended up going to three different schools, all within the same county. I desperately wanted out of high school. I wanted out of my dysfunctional family. I wanted out of my blue-collar state. I was so miserable that I tried to graduate early, collapsed under the course load instead, and ended up at yet another school.
I don’t think I could have survived high school if I hadn’t found the local DIY music scene, a vibrant mess of kids from northern Delaware that spilled over into parts of Pennsylvania. It was one of the only spaces where it felt safe to be myself: loud, opinionated, strange, and pissed. During the week, we scene kids were spread out among dozens of different schools, separated in little pockets or alone, but Saturday night we’d converge by the hundreds upon a rented hall or basement for a DIY show. The following week, if you passed another kid from the show on the street, you’d give each other a little knowing nod. I went from feeling like a social pariah to being initiated into a secret club. While the anarchist in me resisted joining anything, another part of me secretly hoped that if I tried hard enough, I might be one of the cool kids.
Bands from Toronto to Tampa would play our shows, but the band that lived in hallowed legend was Brand New. If you could claim that you had been at the American Legion hall shows they played in 2000, you had true scene cred. By the time that Your Favorite Weapon came out in 2001, I was utterly obsessed with Brand New. I listened to the album on my Sony Discman for hours on end, analyzing the lyrics for new layers of meaning. It felt as if every listen uncovered a new lyrical gem, like a message in a bottle from singer Jesse Lacey, promising survival to kids like me.
My favorite song was “Logan to Government Center.” I had fallen in love on first listen (a friend who was close to the band had a demo tape in his car for months before the official release).
What spoke to me most in this song was its theme of being alone; though I was so involved in the scene that I was putting on shows, I still felt very isolated. As a half-Asian girl whose parents both had multiple college degrees, I was almost the polar opposite of the rest of the kids in the scene, which was ruled by white guys from families that saw college as superfluous. Despite the differences, these were my people. No song reflected this tension or emptiness for me like “Logan to Government Center.”
Unlike other kids, I wasn’t allowed out on school nights, and my parents often didn’t have time to drive me to friends’ houses. For years, I blamed them for my solitude. If I’m truly honest with myself though, part of me liked it. At heart, I’m an introvert, and as a latchkey kid, I had lovely, wide swathes of time to be alone with my thoughts, listen to music, write in my journal, or draw. Just like the lyrics of the song, I was alone, but not really lonely. When occasionally I wanted company, I had Brand New who clearly understood me, because they had written “Logan to Government Center.”
As an adult, I’ve tried to listen to the many pop punk bands I worshiped as a teen, but a lot of it only holds up with a thick veneer of nostalgia. Still, “Logan to Government Center” rocks me to my core. To this day, it’s impossible for me to listen to this song without feeling a tug on my heartstrings. That introvert misfit kid grew up to be a woman who often feels awkwardly different and secretly loves to be alone, notwithstanding the affections of beloved friends, co-workers, and boyfriends who have always seemed more socially savvy. Fifteen years later, I’m still me, still alone, and still somehow content.
. . .
Sachi Kobayashi is an amateur transcendentalist and part-time culture vulture who has worked in the music industry for over a decade. She has her master’s in Communication Management from USC Annenberg, where her research focused on American ethnomusicology, digital media, and public radio.
Ben Folds Five
By Thomas Quillfeldt
I’ve been a massive fan of Ben Folds Five since I stole my brother’s cassette of Whatever and Ever Amen circa 1999, but I was never that keen on a couple of Folds’ solo records. For years, my favourite songs were always the most poignant (some might say maudlin) like “Cigarette” and “Jesusland.” Being a Brit, liking Ben Folds’ music always felt like a guilty pleasure because it’s so very American — saccharine and sentimental.
Early in 2014, I booked a single ticket to see him play later that year in London with the Heritage Orchestra. I had largely forgotten about the show when it rolled around as it was a really stressful time: I was due to get married the same month, work wasn’t going well, and I was having some persistent health issues that were making me feel extremely worn out. Spending an evening in the city in your own company when you’re suffering from nervous exhaustion leads inexorably to rumination and morose introspection.
On that night at the Barbican — a comfortable, high-end, classical venue — Folds played some favourites, some deep cuts, and a peculiar classical/pops concerto that formed the centerpiece of the first set. The second set passed pleasantly enough and he went offstage to rapturous applause to prepare for the obligatory encore.
I glanced at the time and felt that pang of tiredness you often experience toward the end of gigs (even if you’re enjoying them).
As he began the encore, I realised that I didn’t know the tune. The first line of the lyrics spoke to me immediately: “I don’t get many things right the first time / In fact, I am told that a lot.” The next line pulled me in closer: “Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls / Brought me here.” This cut through me like a knife — feeling worn down and attending the show alone, I’d been increasingly feeling self-piteous about my general situation as the night wore on. This plaintive, direct song — new to my ears — resonated with me so strongly that it had me on the edge of my seat.
And then like the schmaltzy cheese ball he is, Folds (figuratively) reached right into my chest: “And where was I before the day / That I first saw your lovely face? / Now I see it every day.” This line about a long-term loved one gave me a gigantic lump in my throat. In 20 days’ time, I was to marry my childhood sweetheart.
The first chorus broke me:
“And I know / That I am…”
Feeling pretty choked up Ben, you bastard.
You don’t have to repeat yourself.
Yes, I know you are, but what am I?
And then the tears came — yes, reserved Brits can cry too.
The balladeer proceeded to tear me into little bits with the second and third verses, evoking the bittersweet romance of films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Cinema Paradiso : “What if I’d been born fifty years before you / In a house on a street where you lived? / Maybe I’d be outside as you passed on your bike / Would I know?” The thought of never having met my wife-to-be kept me blubbering.
At one point it felt as if Folds was pulling thoughts directly from my head: “I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.”
Then, accessing that emotion we all know from the famous opening montage to the film Up, he conjured the image of the old couple that feel lost without one another: “Next door there’s an old man who lived to his nineties / And one day passed away in his sleep / And his wife; she stayed for a couple of days / And passed away.”
For me, certain live music shows, particularly classical concerts, are extremely meditative. Your mind has time to wander and loop, to refresh and reflect. By the final chorus though, I was utterly drained, with my thoughts and emotions in a puddle on the floor. This song, this sentiment, at this moment, was exactly what I needed to hear — it struck me like a brick to the temple.
Then the final chorus:
“That I know…”
Crying in public is not very dignified of me.
“…that I am…”
Not holding it together very well.
A car crash, a train wreck…
. . .
Thomas Quillfeldt is a London-based writer and researcher who darts back and forth between PR and journalism. With a background in music and the music business, he also writes and manages projects about video games, technology, marketing, and ecommerce. If Twitter hasn’t imploded at the time of your reading this, he can likely be found tweeting complete nonsense at @tquillfeldt.
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