Nonfiction Essays

I listened to Taylor Swift and my ears did not bleed. Instead, they rejoiced

On a recent family vacation, my daughter wanted to listen to Taylor Swift. I wanted to listen to Bouncing Souls. She won.

Something I learned while on a road trip with my family: Taylor Swift, not that bad.

As we made our way through the road construction on I-64 en route to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, my wife switched out our usual travel playlist, the Trolls soundtrack, with “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift.

“Not bad,” I said to my wife, as I glanced in the rearview mirror to see my daughter nodding along, singing in her car seat. “Has a very 1980s synth-pop feel to it.”

Later that evening as we checked into our hotel in Williamsburg, which my wife got a sweet deal on, I connected to free, unsecured wi-fi (always a solid idea) and downloaded “Welcome to New York” on my July playlist on Spotify, and hit the +1 button.

Fast forward a few hours and I would fall asleep listening to Taylor Swift on repeat while reading STORY: STYLE, STRUCTURE, SUBSTANCE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING, by Robert McKee—a very common summer read for those unaware.

Around 1:30 am, the song still looping, I would wake with drool on my pillow and press pause (until a new day).

Taylor Swift, "Welcome to New York" on Spotify
Taylor Swift held out on Spotify for quite some time. Thankfully, because she relented, I was able to discover how f*cking awesome the song “Welcome to New York” is. Not quite as awesome as Rancid, but she’s coming for you Tim Armstrong

Taylor Swift vs Punk Rock

If you only know me as a blogger in Internet Land, it’s worth mentioning at this stage of the post that while I can entertain most any genre of music (except country, save for Johnny Cash and a few others), by far the dominant musical style on my recently played Spotify playlist consists of anti-authoritarian punk rock from the late 1970s and early 80s and the punk revival of the mid 90s. A handful of albums worth mentioning:

Omega Sessions (1980), Bad Brains
Blank Generation (1977), Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Raw Power (1973), the Stooges
The First Four Years: Collection (1983), Black Flag
…And Out Come the Wolves (1995), Rancid
Maniacal Laughter (1996), The Bouncing Souls

Will admitting that I listen to Taylor Swift negatively affect my street cred and threaten my punk rock ethos?

I’m not worried about this revelation affecting my street cred or punk rock ethos. I’m a dad now, and have been for six years, so my street cred has been hiding in an alleyway dumpster since the first time I wore running shoes with a pair of light wash blue jeans while wearing the new glasses I had to get when my vision went south following the birth of my first child. That’s correct, I’m correlating the decline of my eyesight with my children being born.

You may also like: A Father’s Letter to His Children on Father’s Day

Speaking of street cred doing a nosedive into the cement. Did I tell you on the eve of this past Father’s Day I purchased some tighty whiteys I’ve had my eye on for the past three years? Technically, they are black not white, but no matter. These evolutions naturally take place as you age. You start to realize your dad, who used to walk around the house scratching his balls in a pair of tighty whiteys that were so worn out the back side was transparent and you could see his cheeks, that he was on to something not wearing boxers or boxer briefs like you young bloods. Also, tighty whiteys, if you get a certain cut, make you look pretty damn sexy if you’re in pretty good shape.

On the subject of threatening one’s punk rock ethos, that would be impossible. There are kids who listen to punk rock and think of it as music only, and then there’s the rest of the movement, who view it as 20% music and 80% a way of life and philosophy. Though I’m no longer a green mohawked teenager with Bad Brains spray painted in red on the back of my two-sizes-too-small black leather jacket, I’m nevertheless in the latter camp. As Greg Graffin of Bad Religion defines the punk rock ethos, I too define it:

“Punk is: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions; a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature; a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution; a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be; the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.”

Or, as Patti Smith put simply: “Punk rock is just another word for freedom.”

And you just thought our music was loud, fast, and angry? We have our own life philosophy. What other genre of music can say as much?

Since we’re on the subject of admissions: I once sent my wife a video by text message of me lip syncing to the song “True Colors,” by Justin Timberlake from the Trolls soundtrack. There’s a story behind this—one in which my wife said the lyrics remind her of how I am with her.

You with the sad eyes
Don’t be discouraged
Oh, I realize
It’s hard to take courage
In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small…
But I see your true colors
Shining through
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you

“True Colors” is a cover of the Cyndi Lauper song, written by Billy Sternberg and Tom Kelly, in 1986.

To introduce a more complete and emotional experience, I’ll embed the video below. Not the video of me. I’m not putting that on the Internet. Do you know what my cousins Robbie and Gary would do with that bit of evidence if it ever surfaced on the world wide web?

Listening to “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift in a constant loop, or the science behind music on repeat

Back in 2014 when I got a smartphone, my first trek into app-based technology was to find a solid streaming service. In comes Spotify, which, for me, a music junkie, is the auditory equivalent of manna from Heaven.

You may occasionally see me reference my Spotify playlist on this blog. I create a new playlist monthly. This playlist serves to play the same songs over and over and over and over for the entirety of the month.

To clarify, I don’t listen to the full playlist on repeat or an album. I pick one song from the playlist and listen to it on repeat, usually for a solid week or more and sometimes the entire month. That equates to about 100 times or more over the course of a day. Once the song ends, it begins again. Rinse and repeat. No other song enters my headphones. It creates an almost trancelike state for me, a flow state, which is a boon for my creativity and productivity.

As Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing, because it’s part of it all.”

Csikszentmihalyi is the author of FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE.

Some months the playlist will contain four or five songs; other times, as was the case for January, it will just be a single song: “Denmark (Instrumental),” by VVE.

The beauty of this is that even songs that aren’t instrumental-only take on an instrumental-only feel after about six or seven straight listens. Example: “Sorry Song,” by The Gamits, which is pumping through my headphones right now as I write this totally undistracted by the fact the guy is singing:

I’ve been waiting up for you so long
I can’t stand the fact that you’re so far away
Something’s gotta change or I’ll go out of my mind
Don’t think I can live without you…

My August playlist includes:

We Bought a Zoo, by Jonsi
Leaving Safe Places, by Random Forest
Fragment II, by Library Tapes
Iron in the Fire, by Tall Heights
The Scientist, by VioDance (Coldplay cover)

I’ve sat in the dark of the night downstairs in a chair and listened to “Leaving Safe Places” with tears streaming down my face. I’m not sobbing. I’m not even being overly emotional. I’m just thinking, usually about my dad when I cry. It’s so freeing and such a beautiful, alone experience.

Am I the only person who listens to a song on repeat this obsessively?

I’ve often said if you think you have an original thought or trait, just google it and you’ll find there are thousands scattered across the globe who share your brain with open threads on reddit or Quora.

In “The Guilty, Crazy Secret That Helps Me Write,” Ryan Holiday, the 30 year old author of EGO IS THE ENEMY and THE OBSTACLE IS THE WAY, writes:

I won’t say that I present the picture of mental health or anything, but most people would be surprised to find out I harbor a habit that hints at deep insanity. I listen to the same song over and over again. Alone in my office, or on my iPod, or on my phone, I play them on repeat over and over and over again. Loudly.

Oddly enough, Taylor Swift also found her way onto Holiday’s playlist. He continues, “God knows, I never thought I’d find myself 142 listens in on a Taylor Swift song on a Tuesday morning.”

Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, which powers 22% of the internet, including this blog, listens to a single song on repeat for the purposes of getting into flow.

Listen: Matt Mullenweg on The Tim Ferriss Show

In “The Psychology of a Small Playlist on Repeat,” software engineer Joseph Mosby describes the exact same process I follow on Spotify, writing, “I have always been a little spastic about my Spotify playlists, creating new lists for each month based on my musical whims at the moment.”

Except what Mosby had never done until learning of Mullenweg’s productivity hack was to listen to the same song on repeat over and over and over like a madman, and what he found was, much as Elizabeth Margulis found in her research for ON REPEAT: HOW MUSIC PLAYS THE MIND, that listening to a song on repeat tunes out monkey mind which is extremely useful for creative work.

“Monkey mind,” as its known in Buddhism, is a symptom of anxiety, and a topic I’ve written about here on this blog more than once. The Buddha spoke of kapicitta this way: “Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.”

There’s a popular myth on the Internet that human beings think over 50,000 thoughts per day. I can’t find the scientific evidence to back up this number. Regardless, whether it’s 50,000 or something more like 5,000, that’s still a lot of jumping from one branch to another. Being able to take a break from the swinging brings relief.

Read: Understanding the Monkey Mind and How to Live in Harmony with Your Mental Companion

And now, a list of songs I have listened to on repeat more than 500 times in a month in no particular order—many of which you’d never think in a million years I would listen to

Only Time, by Enya
Everywhere I Go (Kings and Queens), by New Politics
Erase Me, by Kid Cudi
Up Up & Away, by Kid Cudi*
I Wanna Dance with Somebody, by Whitney Houston
Blind, by Face to Face
Emerald and Stone, by Brian Eno
Where Is My Mind, by Maxence Cyrin (Pixies cover)
Forever Young, by Alphaville
Boy, by Ra Ra Riot
Wonderful, by Everclear
Vindicated, by Dashboard Confessional
Kill, by Jimmy Eat World
Wash Me Away, by Old Sea Brigade
Pretty Little Girl, by Blink 182
Welcome to New York, by Taylor Swift
Denmark (Instrumental), by VVE
End of the Line, by VVE
Leave to Love You More, by VVE
All That Remains, by VVE
Om Mani Padme Hum, by Buddhist Chants and Music**
Morning Chant, by Buddhist Chants and Music**

*This song is an instant pick-me-up. I can be in the worst mood ever and listening to this song about four times in a row squashes all negativity within 50 miles of me. The lyrics are as follows:

Now when the sun comes up
I’ll be there to say “what up” in the morning . . .
And those happy thoughts in my head
I’m feeling like I’m Peter Pan
Minus the tights and the fairies
Happy to see how far I’ve come
To the same place it began
My dreams, my imagination perfectly at peace
So I move along a bit higher
I’ll be up up and away, up up and away
Cause they gon’ judge me anyway, so whatever

**Not technically songs, but these are by far my two most played Buddhist chants which I listen to every single morning when I wake up. It’s like an anti-anxiety elixir (in voice).

What’s your experience with listening to music on repeat? Is your listening this obsessive? If not, perhaps you should give it a try and see what it does to your brain. Also, headphones. Use headphones. There’s something extra intimate you get with the music by wearing headphones.