I’ve never had particularly unique music tastes. I spent years listening to The Fray, Coldplay, Green Day, and The Script. I drew power from “Gives You Hell.” I convinced myself that I was inspired by the anger and sadness and emptiness that permeated the tracks. And, for a while, I was. But then it became a miserable habit.
During the dark days of second-semester junior year and first-semester senior year of high school, tracks like “For the First Time” played on loop as I pulled all-nighters. I spiraled into a routine of putting my headphones in to block everything else out, just for a break. I was trying to escape tests and papers and college apps and stop myself from feeling the pressure of it all. I needed to allow myself to calm down and think.
Instead, music just aided me in emotionally shutting down.
Listening to this music was stressful. I pressed “shuffle” because I genuinely didn’t care which song was played; I couldn’t really tell the difference between them. I associated the playlist of 136 songs with those nights of work, and I couldn’t enjoy a second of it. Even the positive tracks, like Vampire Weekend hits, were tainted. So, in October, I purged my music collection.
I got recommendations from friends of happy, motivational songs and “Senior Year Survival Playlist” was born. I had 170 upbeat songs and, despite work and stress the likes of which I had never experienced before, I was feeling better. I had Imagine Dragons and Beyoncé and The Mowgli’s singing in my ear, motivating me and calming me. My mood was no longer instantly worsened by “my favorite songs” and real relief came from immersing myself in music.
This one change had a ripple effect. A month later, I stopped compulsively watching bad, overdramatic procedural shows that were just a mindless way of procrastinating. The elimination of “Bones” and “Vampire Diaries” and “Grey’s Anatomy” from my weekly routine gave me the freedom to play guitar and read and finish up my work and get to bed an hour earlier. Cutting out another mechanical habit further lessened my internalized pressure.
Now I’ve developed my own tastes in music. I listen to support my friends’ musical endeavors, I listen to expand my tastes, and I listen to what makes me happy. I can appreciate technically beautiful and beautifully technical tracks, but appreciation is entirely separate from enjoyment for me. I don’t care about a song’s popularity. I don’t care if it’s punk-pop, vocal jazz, folk, or electronic indie-pop. I just care that I like it.
I know that this probably sounds obvious to most readers. Of course you’re supposed to listen to things that you like to hear. But it took me 17 years to act on that very simple principle.
Now that I’m out of the horrible panicky swirl of last fall, I can choose to listen to Adele tracks and cry because I want to. For me, music can be a wonderful aid in emotional release. But there’s no more compulsion and no more suppression. I’m no longer a musical zombie and I go through life with melodic purpose.
Music can be in the background, it can be the main event, it can be anything you want. I don’t know if my experience of getting into a musical habit is common or incredibly strange or simply reflective of my deep-rooted instinct to form routine, but I do know that listening with intention has heightened my self-awareness. I’m not afraid of confronting my emotions and I’m conscious of the control that I have over my mood. My more positive outlook has led to a desire to reflect internally, which has made me much healthier emotionally.
So all I can say is, listen to whatever you want. Don’t let your musical tendencies of the past define your tastes now. Check out the Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify or get artist recommendations from friends. The bottom line is (as I’m sure a disgustingly healthy Instagram account would say) be aware of what you’re putting into your body. Cut down on carbs and beef up on good, fun vibes, because we all deserve some joy once in a while. Host a dance-party-for-one in your dorm room while your roommate’s out. Cry on your bed because that’s what your body needs today. Recognize the power you have over yourself and choose to plug into positivity.
Reale is a member of the class of 2020.