There’s a moment I really love in the movie Almost Famous, one of those beautiful painful perfect moments that makes me such a fan of Cameron Crowe’s films. The main character’s older sister is announcing to her mother that she is sick of her stifling, middle-class, suburban existence and is going to set off and see America for herself. Furthermore, she is going to play a song that lets her mother know exactly how she feels. She makes a great production of taking out the record and setting it on the turntable, creating suspense about what she’s going to play.

Except, the first time I saw the movie, I felt no suspense about what she was going to play. She’s going to play ‘America’ by Simon and Garfunkel, I thought. I knew this with absolute certainty because, when I was a teenager, if I had wanted to play a song to my parents to explain to them why I was abandoning my stifling suburban existence (which I never did — we didn’t live in the suburbs among other things — but if), it would have been “America” by Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t even have the movie character’s excuse of living in the early ’70s, when the song was actually popular.

Sure enough, in the movie, the girl drops the needle and we hear, .Let us be lovers/ we’ll marry our fortunes together . Et cetera, et cetera. I love that scene for what it says about popular music, an art form that at its height makes us feel — deeply, personally, and specifically — a feeling that millions people have felt in exactly the same way before.

I don’t mean this in a bad way. I genuinely liked Simon and Garfunkel when I was a teenager. I still genuinely like Simon and Garfunkel, and while I can’t take “America” as seriously as I did when I was fifteen — I own the kind of real estate that doesn’t fit in a bag, and it’s kind of nice, plus I’m way past thinking there’s anything sexy about bus travel — I still think it’s a good song. Plus, I think, it’s a song I needed when I was fifteen. It was important, at that point in my life, to believe that there was a big, mysterious, wide-open country to explore. No matter that I wasn’t actually going to do it right then.

I started thinking about this today, because my ipod was on random, and it pulled up the song “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service. That dropped me right back into the summer of 2007, when I was between jobs and doing some mind-numbing temp work. I’d never really used an ipod before taking that job. I hadn’t really even listened to music on headphones, outside of the gym, since my teenage Simon & Garfunkel-loving days. But here I was in a cubicle, with music as the only thing to keep me company, and I happened to have downloaded a solo concert by Ben Gibbard (the vocalist for the Postal Service) which had an acoustic version of “Such Great Heights”. I’d been vaguely aware of the song’s existence before; I’d heard the Postal Service album a few times, plus the Iron & Wine cover from the sountrack to the movie Garden State (a movie that I don’t love but certainly recall sitting through).

But for whatever reason, bored and despairing of my stupid job, that particular song hit my ears in just the right way. Looking back I’m not sure why. The opening lyrics are endearing enough: “I think that it’s a sign/that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images/and when we kiss they perfectly align; I have to speculate/that God himself did make us into corresponding shapes like puzzle pieces”. Those lines capture the earnest enthusiasm of discovering a connection with another person, of desperately wanting the smallest detail to mean something.

It’s a fun and quirky little riff. Still. It’s not like I thought that Ben was talking to me. It’s a mystery why that particular song was a lifeline to me at that particular point. But I’m quite sure that it was.

There are plenty of other examples I could talk about. The number of times I spun the Barenaked Ladies’ “What a Good Boy” during my first year of law school (“I go to school/I write exams/If I pass if I fail if I drop out, does anyone give a damn?” – all right, not such a mystery.) And several years’ later I’m reluctant to try and deconstruct what was going on during the semester I literally listened to nothing but Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska. I’ll just say that, even among Springsteen fans, there seems to be a divide on that record. Either “Ehh, I don’t really get it” or “I started listening to it one day and emerged from a cave six months later with ‘Highway Patrolman’-‘State Trooper’-‘Used Cars’-‘Open All Night’ permanently seared into my brain.”

In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s narrator asks, “Which came first, the music or the misery?” And certainly, letting depressing (or, at best, moody and self-indulgent) songs carve a groove into your mind isn’t an obvious perspcription for feeling better. Still, I can’t imagine those times in my life without the music. And maybe it’s good to walk around with Paul Simon lamenting the emptiness of life in your head, so you don’t have to.

I’m curious now about other people’s experiences. How does music match up with your moods? How does it affect your memories? What are the songs you’ve used to save your soul, or your life, or your sanity?

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