When bad things happen to good music

December 14, 2006 | 30 comments
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You purists can scoff, but I think Christmas with the Cambridge Singers is a great Christmas album. “What sweeter music” never fails to bring me back to the first time I heard it: December, fifteen years ago, when I was broke and desperately unhappy as a missionary in a bad companionship and as a district leader trying to guide the proselytizing efforts of five missionaries and three pathological nihilists. “What sweeter music can we bring, / Than a carol, for to sing / The birth of this our heavenly King?” You might think of buying a Volvo, but I smell the mildew of a missionary apartment that was never aired out properly, my throat gets sore in memory of that winter when I lost my voice and could not speak for days, and I recall feeling overwhelmed by inadequacy and isolation.

There are other examples. Sandra Boynton’s Dog Train is a work of absurd genius, a picture book with an accompanying CD where serious pop musicians sing pitch-perfect songs about the world as seen and distorted through the eyes of pre-schoolers. We borrowed it from the library this last summer, and our kids seemed to play it non-stop for weeks. Those were the same weeks when the physical exertion of packing boxes into storage and sleeping on an air mattress was turning into psychic exhaustion as we prepared for our most recent move. Then there’s a whole list of German and English pop music that I first listened to during the soul-crushing year when I was finishing my dissertation and failing to attract any attention whatsoever from potential employers. Songs that should be ideal specimens of creampuff superficiality from the 80s and 90s instead remind me of frustration and failure.

What do you do when beautiful, evocative music comes to evoke bad memories? When a catchy melody you just can’t stop humming becomes permanently associated with a name you can hardly stand to hear?

Replacement therapy sometimes works. Before we were engaged, before we even admitted to each other that we were dating, I bought Christmas with the Cambridge Singers for Rose, and now that music has some good memories attached to it. This year, we’re giving our kids Dog Train, so maybe in the future we can think of it not as the dirge that helped fill the empty carcass of our house but as the soundtrack of a Christmas season heavy laden with wonder in our new home. As for the pop music–sometimes a dose of melancholy provides just the right accent for high-gloss pop.

Do you have any favorite music with unfortunate associations? Is it on your Christmas list this year?

30 Responses to When bad things happen to good music

  1. Steven B on December 14, 2006 at 5:49 am

    Unfortunately, I only have positive memories evoked by the wonderful collection of (mostly) Rutter tunes. This Cambridge Singers disc is truly exquisite.

  2. danithew on December 14, 2006 at 10:27 am

    I simply won’t let bad experiences taint great music. I find that musically I’m able to leave bad memories behind and ‘re-appropriate’ the music into new memory categories. Sort of like the “replacement therapy” you talk about.

    I’ve had other experiences though, where music I wasn’t so wild about sort of pushed itself into my life. Seal’s song “Kiss of a Rose” is the biggest example. I had one dating relationship where that song just kept popping up. It didn’t seem to matter what we were doing or where we were, that song seemed to somehow be on the radio in the background. It wasn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard, but it’s not something I’d personally choose for the soundtrack of my life.

  3. Mike A. on December 14, 2006 at 10:43 am

    “It didn’t seem to matter what we were doing or where we were, that song seemed to somehow be on the radio in the background”
    It was played pretty much constantly during the summer of ’95, so it was pretty unavoidable.

  4. Susan M on December 14, 2006 at 11:02 am

    I couldn’t listen to the Replacements’ “Waitress in the Sky” for a long time after 9-11.

    The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” is not something I can listen to very often, because it was sung at my brother’s funeral.

    But I love to hear Pink Floyd and Megadeth, because those were records I borrowed from him as a kid.

  5. larryco_ on December 14, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    When bad things happen to good music:

    Good thing: Layla by Derek and the Dominos (featuring Eric Clapton)
    Bad thing: Layla by Eric Clapton in a lounge lizard acoustic version.

    ’nuff said.

  6. Melanie on December 14, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    Just a few days after my mom left my dad for another man, the Beatle’s song “Yesterday” came on in the car. My dad sang along. We both cried. I wanted to die.

    At the end of a day where I’d been to the funeral of a friend and was introduced to my ex-boyfriend’s fiancee (while I was giving his stuff back) … I once sang along at the top of my lungs to Billy Joel’s “It’s All About Soul”. The message of being “as hard as the rock in that old rock and roll” gave me a sense of hope that hadn’t seemed possible earlier in the day.

  7. anon for this on December 14, 2006 at 5:26 pm

    Hearing “Called to Serve” after your son is sent home from the MTC is a special kind of hell.

  8. Carolyn on December 14, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    On the train on the way home to see my dying father, I listened to two Shery Crow CD’s over and over. I haven’t been able to listen to any of her music since. Ten minutes is about all I can handle. Somehow it just puts me right there again.

    “O Holy Night”, which used to be one of my favourites, is also on my list. This is because of the year it was sung by our ward choir when I was music director. The infighting and the politics surrounding that calling still leaves a bitter taste.

  9. Carolyn on December 14, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    Oooops. That should be Sheryl Crow.

  10. Chad too on December 14, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    Jonathan,

    I knew there was a reason we’re friends. The Rutter disc you mention is in heavy rotation here, as are all Rutter Christmas discs. Wexford Carol from the album you mention is my personal favorite

    We discovered Dog Train (unadulterated pure genius, if you ask me, especially The Tantrum Song, the Boring Song, and Penguin Lament) last Christmas and all my nieces and nephews are getting it from me this year.

    I’m glad you’re giving them all a second chance.

  11. Heather O on December 14, 2006 at 8:39 pm

    There’s a country song entitled, “My Baby loves me just the way that I am”, and somewhere the words “He’s my biggest fan” come on. It’s a cute song about a woman who has a man who accepts her for everything she is. I was in a bad relationship with a person who would constantly quote that song to me, sing it when it came on the radio, etc. I suppose every woman wants a man who is her biggest fan, but I can’t stand that song anymore, just because I associate it with him.

    Jodee Messina’s song, “I’m just going through a little down time” literally got me up from many a bathroom floor when I was trying to work while pregnant and puking 7 times a day. Now, I just can’t hear that song at all. It reminds me too much of barf.

    No bad associations with Christmas music, though.

  12. Kristine Haglund Harris on December 14, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    Jonathan, it would appear that Rutter’s “What Sweeter Music” is particularly designed to trip up would-be purists: here’s my slightly grudging paean to the poem and Rutter’s setting.

    I have lots of inappropriate associations with hymns, though they’re mostly giggle-inducing rather than weepy–there’s “May My Heart–cha-cha-cha–be turned to pray…” and “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” with a boogie-woogie bass, The flies’ mating hymn (“Carrion, carrion, carrion’) and lots of other really bad jokes from a couple of decades sitting in church with a family fully of smarty-pants with the same congenitally cornballish sense of humor.

  13. Alison Moore Smith on December 14, 2006 at 11:24 pm

    What a fun post. The odd thing is that–even though I truly believe I live in a somewhat Trumanish music video–I can’t think of any music that has such associations for me. Even the “our songs” from old boyfriends just don’t bother me at all. And “Consider the Lilies,” which somehow turned out to be the song I sang at funerals for my niece, my dear friend’s baby, a close friend, etc. I don’t even distance myself from that.

    I suppose it’s because I have so much music around that I also have positive associations with all the music I like.

    OK, except Beatles music. I hate Beatles. All of it. Every sliding, slurry, drug-induced, self-absorbed note of it. But that’s not because I have any negative experiences associated with it. (I’m too young to have lived through the mania.) I just hate it. It’s the listening to it part that is the problem.

  14. Marjorie Conder on December 14, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    My Favorite Things from the Sound of Music is the one piece I can think of that I consistently feel the same way I felt in 1959, every time I hear it to this very day. It was Christmas season and I think that song, which had been around for a bit was just starting to be associated with Christmas. In any case it was played a lot. Much more than now. I was newly pregnant with my first baby. It was a time of hopes (mostly realized across the years) and fears (I had no idea what I really would be up against!) It was also a time of odd physical and emotional feelings. Altogether it was a time I was trying to come to terms with the new realities of my life, and at least as I remember it now, for good or for bad, it was all lived out to the theme of My Favorite Things. A bit sureal, don’t you think?

  15. Russell Arben Fox on December 14, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    “I hate Beatles music. All of it. Every sliding, slurry, drug-induced, self-absorbed note of it.”

    The fact that you chose the terms “sliding,” “slurry,” “drug-induced” and “self-absorbed” to describe the Beatles’ music suggests to me that you have, in fact, actually heard very little of it.

    The only song I can think of that calls up any truly negative memories for me is Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American,” which not everyone would consider “good music,” but still, that’s all I can come up with. I had a missionary companion that would play this song full-blast on his little tape recorder every morning in Korea. He was a hard worker, but had, well, shall we say some interesting doctrinal beliefs, plus a tendency to quote little nuggets of wisdom that, for no good reason I can express, continually drove me batty. It was a fun month, I’m telling you.

  16. Blake on December 15, 2006 at 10:17 am

    My memory of Christmas music centers on a magic moment in a branch in Milano, Italy. I had only 1 month left on my mission. I loved the members and had seen a number of people’s lives changed by the gospel message dramatically. They were happy and attending. The branch president chose to have an impromptu song by the missionaries: I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Before this time I hadn’t like it. Too much hyp for Boring Bing and all. There were twelve of us in the branch. We had a great piano player (Elder Claridge). We began to sing and it was … well, stunning. The music was sonorous, moving, and heart-felt. Somehow the missionaries sounded like a world class men’s ensemble. When were through there was not a dry eye in the place except the missionaries singing. The meeting didn’t continue for several minutes. The branch sat in wondering silence, smiling. Members got up and spontaneously interrupted the meeting to come to hug the missionaries. It was so great.

    They were crying in part because they had compassion on us. They knew we were away from home to serve our Lord at Christmas. We loved them and they loved us. It was the most Christ-mass moment I have experienced. No when I hear that song, I never hear the crooning voice of the Bring on Bing, but the rich intonation of that missionary group. I still get tears in my eyes almost every time — and I hear it a lot this time of year. My heart melts at the memory with love and longing for those wonderful people in Milano.

  17. Jonathan Green on December 15, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    Blake, that’s wonderful. I should have encouraged more people to comment on good things happening to bad music. (Not that I consider Bing bad, but that’s mostly because I associate him so strongly with Christmas when I was younger.)

  18. Ardis Parshall on December 15, 2006 at 1:52 pm

    I worked in Marseilles, France as a missionary. In many ways that ward suffered from conversion to Americanism as well as Mormonism — the chapel was the twin of many Wasatch Front buildings, members mimicked missionaries in ways that had nothing to do with the gospel, and some families not-so-subtly encouraged “understandings” between their girls and the elders, hoping it would lead to marriages and emigration to the U.S.

    The young people were working on an American-type roadshow with drill-team style dancing to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The dancers were mostly girls, but there was one gangly 18-year-old boy, front and center. We saw them practicing on several evenings, and always this young man was there, unselfconsciously performing those corny motions.

    He was a good kid. I wish I remembered his name. That July, we had an odd number of elders in the district. Rather than allowing the missionary work to be hampered, this French priest moved into the elders’ apartment for the month, serving as temporary companion to one or another of the elders so that they could have two teams out instead of one threesome.

    Late in August, the young man was killed in a motorcycle accident. For 25 years, whenever I hear that stupid “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” I see a young man dancing on the Marseilles stage and remember how willing he was to serve.

  19. Hans on December 15, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    “I hate Beatles music. All of it. Every sliding, slurry, drug-induced, self-absorbed note of it.”

    Huh? I remember writing a term paper when I was working on my B.Mus. at the University of Utah that compared the Beatle’s album “Abbey Road” (which is really a song-cycle) favorably with the song-cycles of Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Obviously, you have never really listened to the Beatles.

  20. Jonathan Green on December 15, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    Hans, Russell, I have to point out that Alisson’s appraisal of the Beatles has the full backing of a number of EFY, youth conference, and CES speakers I heard in the 80s. Haven’t you seen how over the years their music changed along with their hair and clothing styles? It was all clearly laid out in one youth conference multimedia presentation.

    I don’t have strong feelings about the Beatles either way. I’ve probably heard all their songs at least once, but I’ve rarely gone out of my way to hear any of them a second time. However, I did once silently hum “Come Together”–from deep in the Beatles’ psychodelic phase–to maintain my composure in between rounds on the way to winning an elementary school district spelling bee. I wish I could say I was only making this up to burnish my nerd credentials, but it’s all too true.

  21. Blake on December 15, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    Just for the record, I love the Beatles even more than Bing Crosby!

  22. Lori on December 15, 2006 at 10:40 pm

    I listened to some recordings of The Nylons when I was morning sick with our oldest daughter, and for several years after that hearing songs from them would bring on a wave of nausea (worse on one track I remember that wasn’t so great to begin with). I wouldn’t categorize them as great music, but it was certainly fun, until the vomiting started. Since child #1 was followed by 2 through 5, time available for rehabilitating old music is somewhat limited.

  23. Russell Arben Fox on December 15, 2006 at 11:56 pm

    “I have to point out that Alisson’s appraisal of the Beatles has the full backing of a number of EFY, youth conference, and CES speakers I heard in the 80s. Haven’t you seen how over the years their music changed along with their hair and clothing styles? It was all clearly laid out in one youth conference multimedia presentation.”

    Um…yeah. I still someday need to write up the story about the pinhead youth speaker who captivated our stake with such multimedia presentation. Also his demonstration of the Satanic messages encoded in Styx and Rush songs. Plus, of course, his recital of that oft-told story about Gene R. Cook meeting Mick Jagger on an airplane. About which, frankly, I always wanted to hear Mick’s side of the story.

    Disliking particular Beatles songs or albums or styles they went through is one thing. Disliking their entire oeuvre, however, is a little like disliking every single movie Katherine Hepburn was ever in: it can be done, but only with great effort.

  24. Jack on December 16, 2006 at 12:40 am

    RAF,

    People have a right to dislike what they dislike. Some folks hate all opera. Some hate all musical theater. Some hate all country music. Some hate R&B etc. Some hate the entire Beatles canon perhaps because they hear it more as a genre rather than a particular style within a genre. It’s their loss, of course, but there it is.

    I’ve always wanted to hear Mick’s side of the story too. I wouldn’t be suprised to learn that he purposely tried to raise Gene R. Cook’s ire–you know, just for the fun of it.

  25. WillF on December 16, 2006 at 9:51 am

    Every time I hear early music (e.g. Reinassance era) I feel like I am in the Tanner building (at BYU) at 5:00 am pushing a vacuum cleaner while half awake. I used to listen to recordings for my music history course while working as a BYU custodian and ever since then I cannot shake the association of early music with early morning custodial work.

  26. D. Fletcher on December 18, 2006 at 9:45 am

    Why would a purist scoff at John Rutter?

  27. Kristine Haglund Harris on December 18, 2006 at 11:11 am

    Um, D., The Donkey Carol?

  28. Jonathan Green on December 18, 2006 at 1:23 pm

    D., I can’t help you there, not being a purist, but my roommate at the time wasn’t quite successful in restraining his scoffing. Bill, do you want to elaborate? (And, you know, I do admit most of the pieces on the second, “Christmas Night” album are tripe.)

  29. Bill on December 19, 2006 at 2:35 am

    You’ve got to give me a little credit for at least trying to restrain myself. I’m probably even more tolerant and circumspect all these years later. Let’s just say that Rutter’s music is programmed all out of proportion to its quality, and that, given the enormous universe of great music, the frequency of such programming represents a certain failure of imagination or lack of curiosity.

  30. D. Fletcher on December 19, 2006 at 11:23 am

    John Rutter is a great musician, a trend-setter and innovator. He carefully blended two quite different styles of music (post-60s-rock “pop” and high Anglican choral chant) and did it very successfully, with richer harmony than was normal for pop (and great counterpoint, too), and greater accessibility than was normal for Church music. And yes, there are some missteps along the way, such as “The Donkey Carol,” which errs on the side of puerileness. But anybody that can write “Nativity Carol” (which is on that Christmas Night recording), and stay writing strictly for the Church for their entire life, is pretty great in my book; I might even call that work “pure.”