Everybody has at least one song they can no longer listen to. That one familiar melody that makes your throat close up and tears prickle in the back of your eyes every time some oblivious twat cranks it up at a house party or it comes on shuffle. Maybe it reminds you of your first true love and subsequent heartbreak. Maybe your nan used to whistle it while gardening before she died. Or maybe it was the last song you heard before your parents sat you down and told you they were divorcing and your dad had to move into that grotty bedsit in Chigwell where he just cried and drank cider. Either way, we all have musical ghosts, and sometimes they're just destined to haunt us forever.
There's a reason songs can stick with us in an uncomfortable way. "From memory research, the vividness and strength of an experience amalgamates memories, and brain coding is more efficient if you go through a high intensity experience," says Tuomas Eerola, a professor of music cognition at Durham University. "The stronger the external association, the easier it is for your brain to retrieve the memories. It does that to survive the next time you experience something similar. If you get a shock or into a dangerous situation, for instance, those same cues can arise from then on." In other words, you ugly-crying to the candlelight version of "Heaven" by DJ Sammy is actually your brain trying to do you a favour.
With that in mind, I asked a few people to share the songs they can no longer listen to, because sometimes you have to face the music to make yourself feel better.
BELDINA – "WHAT CAN I SAY"
I was with this guy for about six months and I was madly in love with him. No one ever looked at me the way he did, and no one has since. He used to play "What Can I Say" all the time, more towards the end of our relationship. Then one day, he got up for work, left my apartment and never came back. He went missing. I couldn't find him for over two weeks, and none of our mutual friends would tell me where he was. It turns out he'd gone back to his ex-boyfriend. Now, if I hear those first few bars I get that same feeling of complete abandonment and heartbreak. I cried for weeks listening to that song. Listening to it and understanding the lyrics felt like he had been trying to tell me something but wasn't brave enough to put it into words.
— Benjamin, 25
BLACK KIDS – "I'M NOT GONNA TEACH YOUR BOYFRIEND HOW TO DANCE WITH YOU (THE TWELVES REMIX)"
When I was 15 my mate said she wanted to try some mephedrone for the first time, so I brought some bombs to her house for us to have one Sunday afternoon. The mephedrone was so strong, and we ended up vigorously dancing to this Twelves remix of a Black Kids song on repeat in her kitchen and gurning our faces off. Anyway, her dad came home early and she completely freaked out and screamed at me to hide in the cupboard. When he wasn't looking I had to sneak out the house, but I think he must have clocked she was high and it got her into trouble because she never spoke to me again after that. Now whenever I hear that song my palms get sweaty and I feel overwhelmingly anxious. It's really weird. I just try to avoid it, to be honest.
— Polly, 24
DAFT PUNK – "ONE MORE TIME"
When I was 13, my sister's best friend committed suicide. It was my first experience with death and funerals and everything. One of her favourite songs had always been "One More Time" and they played it as they lowered the coffin into the ground. Everyone really loves that song, and it's literally played in such moments for joy, but it's so, so painful for me. People always seem to play it on New Year's Eve at clubs for example, and it's like "URGH!" But I don't want to ruin it for other people so I just tell myself that in three minutes it will be over. Memory is such a cunt.
— Ashleigh, 28
EAGLES – "HOTEL CALIFORNIA"
When I was a student I spent my summer working the supermarket night shift at what used to be called Safeway. Ironically, I worked in the "chilled section", putting out yoghurt, cold meats, cheese etc (crazy days for sure). Anyway, some fucker (the manager) put "Hotel California" by The Eagles on repeat for the entire night, and I'm talking about 10.30 in the evening until 6.30 in the morning without gaps – that's eight hours. He actually locked the building with the stereo in it, and then hid the key. The guitar solo will haunt me for the rest of my days. I still refer to it as my "summer of discontent".
— Jez, 36
HOWARD SHORE – "CONCERNING HOBBITS"
I really love Lord of the Rings, and "Concerning Hobbits" by Howard Shore used to be my go-to "happy" song; the one I'd put on when I was in a great mood. But when I was with my ex-boyfriend of four years he used to play it to me if he'd done something wrong or I was in a mood with him, and he'd use it to get back in my good books. So for ages after we broke up, I couldn't listen to it because it was imbued with: a) me being sad or angry; and b) him. How annoying is that?
— Lily, 29
ABBA – "DANCING QUEEN"
As a child I always loved "Dancing Queen" by Abba. My parents would tell me how it was the first song they danced to on their first date, and my mum was 17 at the time (matches the lyrics, "young and sweet, only 17"). Then suddenly my mother passed away after a short battle with lung cancer. During her funeral they played "Dancing Queen" in the church to symbolise her dancing into heaven. That's when it really hit me that she had died and wasn't coming back. Ever since that day, I cannot listen to the song without remembering her funeral and the church. I can listen to the whole greatest hits album, but I have to skip that song. It just brings a memory that I am not ready to face and I probably will never be able to face. It was her birthday this past weekend and she would have been 48.
— Zoe, 25
JEAN GRAE – "KEEP LIVIN'"
Of all the songs in the world, there are a few I find difficult to listen to. When my parents divorced while I was ten, the task of winning my mother back came in the form of me presenting her with my father's newly purchased copy of Daniel Bedingfield's "If You're Not The One". On the day I went to visit my girlfriend's new house and found someone else in her bed, I went home and listened to the Mystery Jets "Behind the Bunhouse" and tormented myself, imagining her tongue running lovingly over someone else's better, more important body. 'Honey, why did you go behind the bunhouse?' I thought. 'Didn't you know how much I had to give?'
For me, though, the hardest song to listen to Jean Grae's "Keep Livin'". The first time I heard it I'd been living in London for six months, heartbroken once more, alone in the city with no friends except the half ounce of weed delivered to my door every Monday evening. Sometimes you hear a song and it connects with such serendipity, it's like it was developed inside your stomach and is now flowing out through your eyes. Grae's track speaks to the coldest, loneliest part of the soul. "I love nobody; alone in this world that's how I came in it"; "I don't love love; All the hurting is infinite"; "Been failing my health / I hardly even eat no more / My lunch is munchies from the corner store".
Of course, the emotions buried in the track run deeper than my own. It's a story couched in the hustle of the block, based on a sample of Scarface's "My Block". But there is no other track that speaks to me more: the broken family, the numbness and the addictions to escape them, the paranoia, even surrounding people you love, the loneliness. Ultimately though, there's a flipside. Just as there can be no pain without the happiness that once preceded it, there can be no salvation without despair. When I listen to this track again I know how it's once been, and I know how it can also be. "You gotta move on, I know I'm doing it right, I'm still living hustling life… let's keep livin'."
— Ryan, 24
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(Lead image by Infrogmation via Wikimedia)