A few days ago, I took a seat at an outdoor table at a coffee shop I go to fairly often, and as I had done so many other times, I put my headphones in, turned on my music, and began working on my computer between sips of coffee. As sometimes happens at such times, I noticed another patron on the patio. This person appeared to be playing with an Ipod of some sort (I think it was a nano) and writing in a journal. Other than this casual observation, I didn’t think much about this person’s presence until they began to wave their hand in a way that seemed to be seeking my attention.
Removing one of my ear buds and pausing my music, I looked over, and the stranger asked me, “What are you listening to, if you don’t mind me asking.” I responded that I was listening to a playlist I keep on my phone of the songs I have listened to the most (a smart playlist as they’re called, which keeps a running and updated list of what songs in my digital collection have gotten the most plays – I have it limited to 200 songs). Smiling though also somehow appearing sad, the stranger asked me, “Does that playlist mean anything special to you.” Chuckling, I told the stranger that it did. It was basically a collection of my favorite songs to listen to, sing along to, write to, and basically live to. Not real sure what I meant at the moment, I told the stranger that the songs on the list probably speak to who I think I am in some way.
As the stranger sat there smiling while their eyes suggested sadness, I asked, “Why did you want to know?” Smiling, though speaking in a voice that cracked occasionally, the stranger held up the Ipod, and explained that the “little player,” as they called it, had belonged to their spouse who passed away a few weeks ago. The stranger then explained that they had never noticed the “little player” until a few days after the funeral when they found it among other little knick knacks and things in their home office. The stranger then told me that they turned the “little player” on, and found that their spouse had all these playlists – happy songs, work songs, old songs, swamp music, stuff for jamming, etc. – saved on it. The stranger then explained that in the weeks since that day they spent time each day listening to the playlists, thinking about what the songs on each list might have meant to their spouse, and remembering – especially when songs they recognized started playing – times the two of them had spent together over the years. After a few moments of silence where I pondered the words I had just heard, the stranger began to gather their things, wiped a few tears away, told me it was a pleasure talking to me, and wished me a good day before heading to their car and out of the area.
After the stranger left, I sat there thinking about the three playlists I keep on my computers, phone, and Ipad at all times – one is the aforementioned collection of my favorite songs, one is composed of recently added (limited to within two weeks) songs, and the final one (called jbird, a nickname my life partner gave me that I adore) is whatever I’m into at the moment (currently it has selected tracks from two records I picked up last week). While I often add other playlists for this or that reason, these three have remained constant for as long as I can remember (though jbird was just called j before I received that nickname a couple years ago). I wondered if my half-thought-out statement to the stranger might be correct – that these creations or lists likely say something about me. I wondered what that statement might be, and I wondered how it might be interpreted by others.
As I began listening to songs on my most played list again (some of the ones that played that day are inserted between paragraphs throughout this post so maybe readers can figure out what, if anything, they suggest about me), I also thought about the possibility of someone – my life partner maybe or my best friend seem the most likely – listening to these playlists after I’m gone in search of meaning, closure, memories, or something else to fill the space I once took up amidst these musical selections. What would that be like for them? What parts of me or moments of my life would they find or recall as they listened? Would my life partner recognize the live version of “Sullivan Street,” and think about the concert we saw together when it was initially recorded – would they remember that said concert is one of my happiest memories? Would my best friend hear the Neko Case songs play, and be transported to when ze first heard that voice – would ze listen to the most played Case song and realize why it reminds me of our friendship? Would my life partner hear “Return of the Grievous Angel” (the Counting Crows version) and remember laughing in the car as we sung along in the midst of any of a million late night trips to the diner – would they feel the joy of those carefree nights? What would these lists say to them, what would it feel like, and how might I feel doing the same with their left behind musical collections if they left this world ahead of me?
I also began to think about the meaning and content of playlists. I remembered holding the tape recorder up to the radio to make mix tapes from the countdown shows. I remembered years later (and even now on rare occasions) when I would obsessively organize mixed compact discs for people that mattered to me. I thought about my (ongoing) tendency to create specific playlists and / or mixes for every road trip, plane ride, and long walk I take. I wondered, not for the first time, if anyone has ever found joy a mix tape or compact disc I left on this or that counter, gas pump, or rest stop table when I was finished with it (I always leave them out instead of throwing them away just in case someone might find them and give them a new home). I kept asking myself what our playlists and mix tapes say about who we are, who we were, who we want to be, and what matters to us. I kept wondering how the answers to these questions vary for us and for others we come in contact with throughout the course of our lives.
I thought about the stranger listening to playlists to say goodbye or maybe so they would never have to say goodbye or maybe a combination of the two, and I wondered what do the self-created albums we construct mean to us, to others, and to our lives. What do the songs I chose to insert into this post say about me, my life, and how I see the world? How many people would pick out my favorite song at this moment in the midst of the list (or out of the songs inserted in this post since there was no way I was leaving it out of this discussion) and how would they know that was the one and will that still be the one years from now and will it mean the same thing to me then that it does now? What might we find if we asked ourselves and others in our lives these questions? I’m not sure, but that only tells me that it is likely an interesting question to consider.