As Starbucks and department stores all over the country start to deck their halls with Christmas music, I have a different song stuck in my head: "Borges y Paraguay" by the South American band Bajofondo. You've probably never heard it before, and that's okay. Even if you had, you would not feel about it the same way I do. When I listen to that song, my mind transports me back to one time and one place in Madrid, where I first heard the song.
I can picture it clearly: I had just walked out of my late-afternoon literature class, El cuento español. We were learning about the 19th century naturalist period of Iberian literature, a far cry from the magical realism of the 20th century's Jorge Luis Borges. So it's all the more peculiar that, outside the Facultad de Filología, I heard for the first time that very simple song. It slinked along with a sense of mystery, and as it rose and came into its own, what sounded like an old recorded voice said, "Ya no sé," then... some word... then, "quién soy." Is that word "por?" Is it just a recording artifact? It matters, because depending on whether the word is there or not, the lyric could say, "I don't know who I am," or it could say, "I don't know for whom I am." I suppose all this epitomizes my study-abroad experience: I got the gist of things correct, but I'm still trying to figure out what everything truly means. Either way, every time it plays, I can see the title on my red 2007 iPod nano as the sun sets over the Universidad Complutense and I walk to the bus that will take me home.
Smell may be the most powerful sense tied to memory, but our sense of music comes in at a close second. One guitar riff, one soulful moan, one chord on the piano can bring us back to a time and place nearly forgotten.
You could argue as xkcd does that our suite of Christmas music is an attempt to recreate the childhood Christmases of the baby-boom generation. Whether that's right or not, there's a point there. Far from the feeling that it's simply "my jam," a song can bury itself into our psyche in mysterious ways. Some songs, like "We Are the Champions," may make everybody feel like they're at a football game and their team just won. Others, like "Borges y Paraguay," may mean the world to one person and mean nothing to someone else.
But their power doesn't last forever. A lyric or melody may create some of the most intense flights into past emotions and places, but these song associations break down very easily. As I talked about earlier, memories are fickle things. They change every time you pull them out of your mental filing cabinet because they go back into that cabinet corrupted by what you're feeling in the present. And just like any abstract concept that defies easy condensation into words, once you take a close look at a song-emotion association, it either disappears or becomes less intense.
But loss of intensity be damned. I'm hella intrigued by the way I form tight bonds between a song and an oddly specific point in my life. I always have been. Whether it's a memory of my brother and me singing Aretha Franklin loud and off-key or my recollection of walking past the Anglican cathedral in Dublin, I almost treat certain songs as time capsules. One bar of one song, and I'm immediately back in Morocco, the IDS newsroom, junior year of high school, a past relationship, or a train from Sudbury, England.
So, as a personal examination of where this crazy mind has taken me, I'll take a gander at a song every Friday to see why my brain takes such an immersive trip every time I hear it. There's a lot of science behind this (and you know how much I like science), but there are also more sublime things at work here, like the meaning of the self, the interpretation of experience, and music's uncanny ability to cut through all your rationality and manipulate (nay, create) your emotions. If this goes well, I'll eventually ask some other people where they go when they hear a certain song, 'cuz I know I'm not the only one who goes on these mental trips through time and space.
I haven't decided what song I'll start with next week, but given that it's Christmastime and my Facebook feed is full of friends saying, "Yay, Christmas music!", I think it's fair to expect something with jingle bells or reindeer.