The End of the World Playlist is an uplifting concept born from unhappy circumstances. It all began when my grandmother suffered a stroke that the doctor said she would never recover from. In the process of planning what I knew would be my last visit with her I started to compile all the books, movies, and music that I loved so that I could show them to her at her bedside. Because I had only had a couple of hours left with her, I realized couldn’t play her every song I liked. The criteria needed to be tighter, more selective. The visit was about showing my grandma who I was. I wanted her to get the deepest understanding of myself at that time because this was the last version of me she would see. With that in mind I started choosing songs that transcended taste and, for various reasons, had become a part of my identity. In other words, if the world was ending and someone asked me to in that moment define myself in songs this playlist would be my reply.
Every music lover has their own End of the Word Playlist. Perhaps some just keep better track of it than others. I write out my playlist every once in awhile, but for the most part it has become more of a collective than anything I could upload to 8tracks–consisting of full bodies of work from albums to–in some cases–entire artist’s catalog. But even in my most halfhearted attempts to label and corrall this special collection of music, the process got me thinking more about why each work moves me so much. Most of the time, I’ve found, the reasons can be grouped into four general categories.
1. Life and Lyrics
When a song so accurately describes your personal experience that you want to assume it was actually written about you, your life usurps whatever alternate meaning the author may have intended, until it becomes indistinguishable from your own. Shortly before my grandmother passed I had this experience with a song called “Catch the Wind” by Donovan. If I hadn’t been in that phase of my life I don’t think I could have ever truly understood the warm melancholy the song conveys. The very title expresses a desire to capture something intangible and inevitably fleeting, and for me that something was time. But what rang most true about that song was the singers desire for love and comfort in those precious moments. He croons about wanting to “hide a while behind [the] smile” of the girl he loves and “ feel [her] all around [him].” Once I discovered my grandmother had fallen ill, I put a big emphasis on speaking to her and making sure that all my visits with her included quality time. Listening to the song became a way of feeling less alone. Although I do not know Donovan personally, knowing that there was someone in the world who could understand my feelings gave me strength and a way to acknowledge my own thoughts in a way that felt cathartic.
2. Melody and Mood
I never understood “Kid A” by Radiohead before that trip to L.A. Despite the rave reviews echoed by every music magazine in the country, the album’s cold and heavily electronic sound mystified me. I could see nothing more in its songs than a series of bleeps arranged in a vague pattern. Nothing beautiful. Nothing revolutionary. At times I even wondered whether the genius of the album was over my head or if it could even be called music at all. In the end, all it took was one late night drive for things to slide into place. My father and I were traveling back from Venice Beach to our hotel in West Hollywood. The road ahead was pitch black with the exception of the two patches of light projected by our headlamps. As I fiddled with my iPod I settled on “Kid A,” deciding to give it one last chance. Listening to the album felt like I was wearing a special pair of glasses. From the first note, I started to see everything through the context of the album. Its soullessness that I once found strange suddenly felt profound. The headlights and neon signs zoomed past me, keeping time with the music. Just like the sounds from the speakers, the world outside the car window was both artificial and beautiful.
In moments like this one there is a synchronization between scenery and sound. The music feeds the mood of the moment and vice versa. The result is special ambiance that makes you feel like you are a character in a movie and this song is your soundtrack. Looking back, that moment in the car as magical and intense. A drive that should have been mundane instead felt otherworldly. My father and I acknowledged this with a deep, reverent silence as the album played itself through. Understanding the meaning of music sometimes requires understanding what kind of space and vibe it’s meant to be played in, and when you find that match it can be pure bliss.
Not all songs are built for longevity. Especially in pop music, the lifespan of most songs is designed to exist in an instant, burning and fading as quickly as a shooting star passes through the sky. These “it” songs are easy to spot since, usually, they are unavoidable. Radios and DJ’s play them into oblivion, drumming their infectious beats and rap breakdowns relentlessly into the public’s ears and labeling them as either “a Hot 100 song” or—if applicable—“Song of the Summer.” The downside for these kinds of songs is that as soon as their moment ends they become antiquated and forgotten. But in some cases, their brief existences give them a special power. In Summer of 2011 the “it” Song was “Give Me Everything” by Ne-Yo and Pitbull, and, like most “it” songs, I found it fun and catchy, but ultimately unremarkable. “Give Me Everything” made its way onto my End of The World Playlist not because of anything about the song itself but instead because of sheer happenstance; its fifteen minutes of fame coincided with a summer abroad program I attended in Thailand that marked my first time traveling without my parents. While I was there, I heard “Give Me Everything” almost everywhere I went, so much so that the trip and the song began to merge in my memory, although I didn’t fully realize this until after I returned.
Most of the time, memories are like fragmental movies that play in my brain, and I watch like a detached spectator. But when I hear “Give Me Everything” I access a deeper kind of remembering, the kind where I don’t just watch memories, but relive them, entirely. I am transported back to Thailand, and I feel everything: the taste of Thai iced tea on my tongue, the green of the rice fields, and most importantly the excitement of freedom and travel turning in my stomach. I don’t think the song could have become so representative of the moment if it hadn’t been so dated.
4. Songs that Evoke Physical Reaction
I don’t fangirl for a lot of bands, but if I had to make an exception it would be the Rolling Stones. I could probably name a million Stones songs that I am obsessed with but the one that rises above the others, and earns a spot on my Playlist is “Gimme Shelter,” which I first fell in love with when I went to see the Stones live in June 2013. “Gimme Shelter” is one of the Stones’ best songs, though it may not be the most commercial. The Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, said that he was inspired by a storm raging outside his window while he was writing it. You can hear the wind in the Oooh’s of the background singers and the pitter pattering of rain in the opening guitar riff. Combined, the two create an ambiance that is both beautiful and eerie, frightening and intriguing. It was already one of my favorite songs, but hearing “Gimme Shelter” in person brought it to a whole new level. I could feel my control over my emotions starting to slip. While I may have been in a stadium full of people, hearing the song played live and in person by the Stones themselves felt weirdly intimate, like the song was meant for me and no one else. This is when the tears started to fall, first one by one, then by the bucketful. I was in a spiritual moment. Suddenly I felt every note of the song coursing through my body, every syllable, every soundwave.
I probably would have lost my cool at some point that night, either during or after the show. But why did it happen then? And during that song? I have no idea. Over the course of that summer that moment at the concert started to seem even more fated. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to enter a very tumultuous time in where my own life would begin to feel like a storm, and the need for a mental and emotional shelter would become very real. This mystery adds to the beauty of the moment. I like that I can’t completely understand or explain why I reacted the way I did, even though I spend so much of my time trying to analyze why I like what I like, and put it in a larger context. It’s moments like these that transcend rationalization, when art bursts forth like a wave to submerge you in its beauty.