Sometime toward the end of the first month of quarantine, I decided it was time to make a Covid playlist. I had a lot of playlists on Spotify already, for rainy days, for running. I’d also made a few playlists for periods of time—I had one for the second semester of ninth grade, and for the summer of 2019. I made these “era playlists” in anticipation of a time when the era had passed.
You know that feeling, when a song comes on that you loved years ago and in the opening bar—the first chord, the particular shiver in the synth—the air around you shifts. You might get goosebumps, or have the urge to smash something. For a minute or two, your emotional palette is scrubbed clean and replaced with an old one that you thought you’d forgotten. It’s a nostalgia so intense that it’s closer to a form of transport.
I called my Covid playlist “coronatime!!”, an already dated name with an ironic cheer. I added a gloomy song by Neko Case, the Gilmore Girls theme, and a couple of folk songs I’d picked out on the guitar in my abundant free time. It felt comforting, a small attempt to capture the essence of this moment.
My dad looked over my shoulder. “That might be a long playlist.”
coronatime, part 2 (summer)
Call it Gen-Z vanity, call it a reasonable response to the chaos of the pandemic/post-factual/pre-apocalyptic age—but I want my life to feel like a movie. My peers and I are helped in this project by the existence of actual movies. Booksmart. Superbad. Lady Bird. Grease. In all of these movies, the characters go to high school. They struggle in different ways and to different degrees. And then they graduate, and they go to prom, and confetti is thrown, and sentimental me gets a little choked up.
The appeal is not so much the movie as it is the narrative structure as a whole, which leads you to believe that there will be a happy ending. When there isn’t, at least you get to know that all the hurt was for something. Maybe the story only helps the reader, the viewer, or the listener, and not the characters themselves. But it teaches a lesson, or it gives a person something to identify with.
I was in my bedroom, learning Creedence Clearwater Festival songs on my acoustic guitar. I couldn’t pretend to be in Booksmart anymore: There was no prom, no confetti. I’d have to work hard to reconstruct a narrative framework, to organize and control and valorize an era that I couldn’t measure or predict.
In July, when Covid still was not over, I made a new playlist: “part 2!”
There was an immense solace in clicking those three little dots next to each new song: “Promises,” “Postcard,” “Friday I’m in Love.” The tracks fell into sequence like lines of dialogue, and the playlists stacked up in my profile, a neat drop-down menu of movie scenes. Here it was, a new validating framework, a movie of my own creation.
One night that August, a friend and I sprinted down the promenade that runs by the Hudson River. The asphalt glistened under the yellow glow of the streetlamps and we were sharing a pair of AirPods and the song hit its climax just as we reached the bend—my friend turned to me and said, “It’s like we’re at the end of a movie right now!”
Then we trudged half a mile uphill in the late-night quiet. The next morning I put two slices of cinnamon bread in the toaster and ruminated over my personal statement.
A hundred times I’ve had that conviction that the credits have rolled, but life goes on: There’s always a post-credits scene, a sequel, or four. Later, at the end of high school, I’d make a playlist called “Last quarter!!” and a few months later, after move-in, “1st quarter” would follow. My senior year was filled with the sense that the closing of high school was the end of everything I knew. But pieces of my old life remain, big pieces. Songs from my old playlists turn up on my Daily Mixes. The next era playlist begins.
in between times
When I was packing for college, I decided to listen to all of my era playlists from beginning to end. It was maybe 15 hours of music in all, an eclectic bunch: Some songs made the cut because they were popular at the time, and others are associated with each era purely by virtue of my personal experience. My playlist for the spring of 2021 has “good 4 u” by Olivia Rodrigo, “Solar Power” by Lorde, and “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals. It also has “Today” by The Smashing Pumpkins, “Nice and Quiet” by Beduoine, and an indie cover of the eighties song “Handle With Care” by the Traveling Wilburys.
I folded my jeans and listened closely. Maybe after all of this I’d be able to ascertain an arc that would hold the last few years of my life together, a throughline neat enough to let me tie everything up and stuff it in my college trunk.
A playlist at a time, two, I could handle: tracing anxieties and their resolutions, moments of joy and disappointment, connecting the lyrics and textures to tangible memory. But as the playlists added up, they started to sound like they were just snapshots, individual stars in a constellation. As I’d accumulated more and more experiences, their quantity and their contradictions made them harder to wrangle into something that made sense.
Maybe a constellation is okay. Maybe a constellation is better.
The odd thing about era playlists is that the music never stays confined to that era. Maybe I listened to fun.’s “Carry On” on repeat back in July 2020, but I still listen to it. All the time! The experience of listening to an old era playlist is one of superimposition: my present relationship to a song projected onto the memories of the past.
Remembering itself is full of superimposition, and especially the kind of remembering that tries to mold the past into narrative form. I’ve always liked to think that my evolution has followed an unwaveringly upward trajectory, and so that younger versions of myself must have been “worse.” I make my era playlists in part to distance myself from the past, to track my growth: “Ah, I don’t listen to that music anymore! Look how I’ve changed!”
But packing up my trunk, I couldn’t muster the anticipated disdain. My teeth were chattering. The air around me had shifted.
Music lets you access the emotional reality and acuity of any single moment, all alone. It needs no other context or justification, no title page, no rolling credits. Just a few shivering chords and the rush of memory as it settles into your ears.