Pop psychology with playlists

Some years ago, a friend came to visit. We were chatting about music, and he said, you have to listen to this song. And went on to play the song from Youtube. It was a malayalam song composed by music director Sharreth. It was a complex song; it went through many raagas, and some of the notes played at a breakneck pace. Technically it was what you would call a ‘hard’ song to sing; it would be easy to go off-key in certain transitions or falter with the pace. As a piece of music, it did not touch me in any way. It was like watching someone jump very high — you say, ah, that’s cool, how high they jump, and then go back to rummaging your fridge for pickle. If something affected you emotionally, it would be that much more difficult for your thoughts to trail to misplaced pickle bottles.

What the friend did next was what prompted me to think about playlists. He went on to say, ok, ok, miffed at the unenthusiastic reception of the song, and said, wait I’ll play you another. Now, I was worried. One song is a sampler, two is the promise of a meal and I wasn’t sure I was tempted to sit through. I realised then that we are all so attached to our playlists. The complete control of our mini aural universe, which is a certain form of power that we are unwilling to cede.

Some people are so particular about their playlists; it is snootiness garbed as musical taste: With Toumani Diabate in my ears, I asked the medical shop person for those tablets in my broken Malayalam, and I didn’t understand when he responded. I had forgotten that I had headphones on; I just don’t take them off, you know? Pause. You must listen to Toumani, he said. I said, yes, I have. He looked a little taken aback. That look was delicious.

Except in those rare Sharreth threat type situations, I am glad to let go of control of the playlist. Many years ago, there was a site, last.fm. I am not sure if it is around anymore, but it would recommend songs and make that a radio for you. Of course, now all music sites do this and have taken it to another level; Spotify makes playlists for Thursdays. The idea behind the radio — someone else takes over, you cede control. I sit back and listen, not having to worry about what comes next.

Of course, there are friends who are, ahem, not like that. The choice of every next song is the equivalent of an existential crisis; they would auto-tune every minute of their life if they could and set it to absolute perfection.

DJing is particularly hard given how fierce we have become in our aural arenas. I have DJed multiple times — new year parties, birthday parties, and what nots. There have been calls to kill me and the song. Once I was managing a hotel’s music system. It had more buttons than I knew what to do with. One tipsy woman who insisted I played songs her teenaged daughter liked, which I kept putting off, hissed, “It takes a particular kind of talent to bring the mood down completely.”

And then, I think of that new year eve.

The night thickened. Most had drifted off, to go to sleep, and the bonfire continued to crackle. A few huddled around and as the designated DJ, I, played Nina Simone. It seemed to me that her voice should rule that moment of the night, cradling the newborn year. Suddenly, there she was, tipsy and laughing. She loved Nina, and so she loved me, she declared, and it was all very clear. And she wanted me to play another one for that mood and moment had to linger on and stretch, the new year is forever. She breathed out her request, and promptly fell into my lap. It was as if that was the place she always intended to be, she straddled my legs with hers, her weight sunk into mine, and one arm curled around my shoulders for support. Her glasses askew, her cheek brushing mine, her dance-y, sweaty perfume circled as she peered into the computer, and then looked at me, her lips continuing to smile. This particular song, she spelled it out. Partly beseeching, partly sure – like the promise that this is the last peg. I surrendered.

That’s how this song got onto my playlist. It makes me want to dance every time I hear it.