I think I take music for granted. I don’t have curated playlists for every mood, I only really listen to it when I’m walking or in the car, and I rarely try out a new artist. I’m really lazy when it comes to this kind of stuff—I listen to Taylor Swift, musicals, and Panic! At the Disco, because it’s what I know and love. The most adventurous move I’ve made recently is listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR.
In short, I rarely pay attention to what I’m listening to or how I’m listening to it. This changed recently, however, thanks to an interesting conversation with my boyfriend.
As I previously mentioned, I really, really love Taylor Swift. And, during this interesting conversation, my boyfriend had the audacity to say he doesn’t like her music because he can’t “self-insert into it.”
I was quite taken aback by this claim. When I asked him what he meant, he said that, when he listens to music, he inserts himself into the narrative of the singer, and pictures himself going through what they’re going through. When he listens to a song, he thinks about it in reference to his own life.
I found this fascinating, because his music-listening process is very different from mine. I think about songs as encapsulated stories isolated from myself, and visualize them like I do the books I read. I find myself saying “I can see it!” after listening to a song I really love.
This is why I like Taylor Swift so much—I find her writing to be so poignant that I can picture her songs in my head. The cult classic “All Too Well” is my favourite song of all time because I see every line Swift sings like a scene in a movie, and watch the story unravel in front of my eyes. The song cuts me to my core, but I do not relate to it or see myself in its narrative.
Two very different things happen in each of our brains when we listen to music. And it seems to have significant impacts on the music we like—he likes country music (yikes) because they sing about living the rustic life and getting hurt and drinking and trucks or something, and I like anything with well-written lyrics that evoke strong imagery. But we both like songs that tell a story, even if the way we interact with those stories is different.
Shortly after this conversation, I was on a run, listening to Taylor Swift’s album Lover. “The Archer” came on, a song that I don’t particularly like because I can’t see it—its lyrics are just a tad too abstract. But I found myself thinking about the self-insert approach, and I pictured myself in the narrative of the song.
And, oh God, I almost cried. I related to it hard.
Then I thought about the books I’ve read—specifically the ones that have stuck with me. While I’ve loved many books with beautiful writing and visceral imagery that evoke stories so real they dance across my vision, it’s the ones that make me think about my own life that really stick with me.
I recently read and loved The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, for example—V.E. Schwab is an incredible storyteller—but I don’t think about it nearly as often as I do Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I read significantly longer ago. Normal People stuck with me because I felt as though Rooney had taken all the things I find most awful about myself and funnelled them into a lead character. I self-inserted into Marianne’s narrative, and I felt her story as if it were my own.
Though it is not my instinct to self-insert into music, perhaps I should do it more often. Perhaps the greatest thing about art is its ability to transcend reality, give us a glimpse into another world, allow us to see ourselves in that world, and, consequently, teach us something new about ourselves. Now, every time I listen to “The Archer,” I feel it like a punch to my gut and a knock on the side of the brain—a knock that’s asking me to look a little closer at my own thoughts.
Isn’t it cool that people can take such different approaches to such a universal activity? I suppose that’s what makes music so accessible—it has a place in every brain, for you can see it as a story, you can see yourself in it, and you can probably see it in a whole bunch of other ways, too. This tunnel of thought I’ve followed has made me wonder what those other ways are. So, I’ll leave you with this question: how do you listen?