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The Playlist Listens to You

You notice the girl beside you, her brown hair streaked with lines of pink pulled back into a ponytail. She has her music on, and you try to imagine how her playlist might look. Her feet go tap-tap-tap quicker than you blink; it makes you wonder the kind of music she leans on for support. You imagine her sifting her way carefully through her punk rock anthems, deciding what goes next in her playlist. Maybe she finds her comfort in old-age rock with its poetry or the more contemporary, more crass tunes. Or perhaps she just lets her luck determine for her, takes her chance with whatever the app throws at her, and goes along with it.

audio playing

Today is noisier than others, the metro rush crueler than most other Tuesdays. But you’re in a world on your own, and it doesn’t matter anymore. Yesterday’s sleep clinging to the corners of your eyelids, you streamline your way to the university, the daily grind: just you and your playlist.

A soft-slow tapping on the handrail against your shoulder beating a steady rhythm with your fingertips like a heartbeat. You cling to its shiny silver surface like a lifeline, your playlist is on loop, and you let it take over your senses.

Crafting a playlist is an art; you create something to later surrender to it. It takes a trained ear to curate the perfect list. It took you several weeks to make this one, and it has only ten pieces in it. Random finds, strays that walked into your heart and overshot their stay. It’s your morning routine, a daily ritual, a series of symphonies that is just quick enough to keep you on your edge and warm enough to envelop your half-awake self in a tight cocoon.

For you, every song has its place in the roster. Your playlists aren’t made for random shuffles; each piece is placed where it belongs; they narrate your entire emotional makeup. Each playlist is a story on its own, each song connecting to the next with an invisible thread, making a web that readily ensnares you whole. Your day playlist, for example, starts with the liveliness of the morning, then eases its way into the lazy afternoon tunes. When you craft a playlist for another person, you correspond it to your relationship with them: the initial anxiety of the first days melting into the comfort of a good friendship, then gradually transmuting into the emotional whirlpool that colors any strong relationship.

The metro carriage is several universes in one; wires of blue and red and orange connect each pair of ears around you to a singing box in their pockets. So many worlds, so many stories whispered in the secrecy of one’s mind.

Music to you is almost like tea- no two people taste it the same way, and you’ll always prefer your way of taking to that of others’. You’ve always marveled at your sister’s habit of letting the AI choose the music for her. She likes the surprise of it, of tripping on alien sensations and adopting them as a part of her life. She’s like the old-school radio crowd, so keen on exploring, on letting her music take her to new places. You prefer the calculated decisiveness of knowing what comes next, of allowing the familiar to take over your senses. Only seldom do you let the random shuffle take over your premeditated playlist; the surprise element just doesn’t cut it for you.

Your mother takes after you. It has been a few years since she’s handled a smartphone on her own, and her music makes a world out of her tiny kitchen. Her morning routine is a set of spiritual mantras; she has been singing these same songs since she got classically trained as a teenager and now prefers recorded versions to her voice. You’ve never been one for religious anthems; you wonder at the magical hold they have over her. Maybe they whisk her away to her childhood; perhaps they give her the strength she needs to get through the stale regime of her everyday life. She’ll start the morning with tea and raga for breakfast, let the vibrato revive her senses. It’s her special treat, one that she does share with the family. You imagine them pumping her spirit with a renewed creative energy, a raft she’ll hold on to until she retires to sleep at night.

The soft hum of the metro fills in the little gaps between each song. A continuous track of shutting doors and scuffling feet becomes the perfect background score to your playlist. It is an effortless blend. It doesn’t even bother you anymore. You close your eyes and let the music take you to places, those secret nooks in your mind that only you know.

It will be centuries, you think, for scientists to harness the uniquely transportive power of music. Our playlists become vessels into which we pour our ambivalence and contradictions of thought afloat on the currents of time. They change shape and color with the turn of the day, the mellow jazzy blues of work time, the pacey rhythm for your walk to college, the instrumental medley before your afternoon siesta.

The playlist is listening to your story; it is reflecting you. An overtly indie-pop shade dominates your playlist- you wonder what that says about you. You like the way the lyrical mysticism of new-age independent artists reverberates seamlessly over the otherwise soft background. Your friend’s playlist, the violin aficionado, is littered with Bach and what’s-his-names, and you remember being intimidated by its classicism. You often find yourself turning to music as a distraction, as a reverberating background score as you make your way through life. You have a playlist ready for when you’re especially exhausted: a series of old, fast-paced tunes that drone over your senses and erase your tiredness. You let the music wash over you, uncaring of what it says, letting your mind wander with its fast pace.

Your friends don’t understand your habit of dissociative listening. They’ll cherish each song word by word, use the lyrics to lift themselves. Each word’s arrangement is significant for them; how the voice rises and falls with altering emotions becomes a crucial tool for them to appreciate their music, a habit of reading a song that cannot ever be dismissed, not even in their most worn-out state.

Sometimes, you’ll put on a playlist and pretend you’re someone else. Someone caught in a different timeline or another place. A grown-up version of the dress-up show you’d put on for your parents as a child, only of a different kind, only done within the privacy of your thought. Maybe in a parallel world, you could be a rock enthusiast with punk purple hair or a lover of oldschool Jazz with a penchant for the Blues-age appassionato.

Some people move through their lives without music. They have no playlists to fall back on, no one song that they can find comforting. You wonder where they seek their solace, which art can rise to the task of bewitchment that music can achieve. Maybe the idea of an ongoing background of music bewilders some; perhaps they cannot stand the idea of a continuous stream of sound in their heads.

For you, day and night carry with it emotions of differing tenors. Nights are darker, more wistful, a quiet pensiveness that comes with the dying of the light—your playlist shifts like a continental plate, replacing the morning vibe with more tranquil tunes. A cocktail of familiar old medleys takes the place of the new finds that you keep reserved for this morning rush.

Your station arrives like an old friend waiting to pick you up. It is a slow ascent up to the main road, occasionally bumping against shoulders that move together in perfect synchrony. The last song is coming to a quiet end. Outside, the soft January rain washes streets and crowds alike. You keep away your playlist; you’ll go back to it another day.

Some days, the world is your only music.

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Author: Meghna Chatterjee

Gender Studies, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, English Literature

Illustration/Photography: TDLM Design Team


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