This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.
In one week and a day, it’s my birthday. I was born on Tuesday 22 March 1994, two days into that year’s Aries season (which, if you believe in all that, goes some way to telling you why I’m writing an article which also functions as a reminder that it’s almost time to shower me with gifts and attention), at 5:29PM. My mom – who, really, is the most important player in this whole story, seeing as how all I did was get born – spent 37 hours in labour, at the ripe age of 24 years and two months old. In a week, I’ll be 24 too.
Becoming a parent – whatever age you do it at – marks a sort of ‘next round’ of adulthood: it’s like you complete the Hog Wild level in the Crash Bandicoot PlayStation1 game of life, and move onto duelling the boss. So it follows that turning the age my mom was when she bore me, lovingly, screamingly, from her body, feels significant. And while I’m nowhere near ready for that myself, it makes sense to me that over the last few weeks I’ve felt a hankering to relate to my pregnant mom.
Most of all, I’ve been interested to see where else she was at in her life while she was pregnant. So, because it’s my favourite and most fluent love language, I asked her what music she liked while she was With Child. I wanted to hear it for myself, and I also wondered whether any of its messages seeped through her rounded belly, her skin, and all the muscle membranes, to me. In her book Eat Up, the food writer Ruby Tandoh reminds us that “As babies, we also take mouthfuls of the amniotic fluid that our mum’s body has made to cushion our stay in the womb,” noting that the fluid bears the taste of what the person carrying us has eaten, and therefore forms our early preferences. From 18 weeks gestation, we’re able to hear, too, so while I don’t think there’s much scientific evidence for it, maybe my mom’s faves shaped my musical proclivities somehow in the same way. I like to think so.
When I requested her pregnancy playlist, my mom came through with a couple of specific tracks. The first was “The River of Dreams” by Billy Joel, and the second Whitney Houston’s version of “I’m Every Woman.” They’re both tracks I know and like, and they both come under the wide umbrella of ‘catchy pop.’ Perhaps my mom’s love of that got through to me – one of my most vital nutrients – because when I listen to pop music, I still feel good and warm and satisfied. I like the idea that my enjoyment of the form is in some way genetic, like I was programmed all along to get excited about the transcendent lift of a chorus or to linger on the breathy thrill of a singer’s enunciation, whatever path the rest of my life would take.
Both tracks are also sort of on the nose – almost hilariously so – in a way that reminds me of my own tastes too. I’m always preoccupied with finding meaning in everything, with creating a narrative out of the chaos of the everyday (this explains the predilection for astrology, probably). Often, like a lot of other people, I look to music to tell me something about the events I’m living or might live: Carly Rae Jepsen for fantasising, Katie Ellen for commiserating, Sheryl Crow for a little of both. The songs my mom named suggest to me that she was doing the same thing at my age: “The River of Dreams” is about being on a long journey (Do you get it? Because pregnancy.), and “I’m Every Woman” is the sort of fun empowerment anthem I can imagine my young, pregnant mom bopping around the house to, taking pleasure in her swollen new body when nobody else was home, an ever-expanding tummy poking out from under a t-shirt.
In terms of artists, my mom named Simply Red, Lisa Stansfield and Eternal as the ones she liked when she was pregnant. So far, so mid-90s adult contemporary. This group of musicians are, she won’t mind me saying, not particularly cool, but a more important feature that they share is that whatever else you think of them (whatever else you think of Mick Hucknall) they are all really, really good vocalists.
The beauty in some singers is that they actually can’t sing: you find the goodness and the humanity in the gaps in skill, and frequently, that’s even more special than technical accomplishment. But those aren’t the ones my mom passed down to me. Like her at 24, I have always enjoyed listening to the sorts of vocalists whose vibrato makes every hair on your body stand to attention, and whose sheer power and lung capacity is enough to shift saltwater into your eyes. Maybe that’s something I got from her, whether it really did make its way through fleshly layers, or whether it came later. I love the physical response that technically gorgeous singers produce; I love allowing myself to succumb to someone else’s talent entirely, when it is that large. And this inherited taste explains why, during trips to see musicals – another (potentially questionable) shared love – my mother and I have often found ourselves looking over at the other, misty-eyed during the interval, both totally overwhelmed by a human voice making a story sublime.
All of that said, however, mostly our musical tastes don’t converge. But after speaking to her, it feels like the way we approach music is very similar. At 24, it seems she wanted to find meaning and hear beautiful sounds, and put simply, that’s all I really want too (to be honest, it's probably what music is supposed to be for everyone.)
At the end of our short conversation, she mentioned one last thing:
“Funny thing: when I took you home from hospital, first song I heard on the car radio was "My Girl.""
And I couldn’t help imagining it. Me hours old, swaddled, held close; her exhausted, mature, flooded with a deep, new love; both of us linked in a way that neither of us will ever be linked to another human. And I think that probably, there, in the car, we had it: there was meaning, and there was a beautiful sound, and it was enough.
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