Throwbacks & flashbacks

“Two of us riding nowhere/ Spending someone’s/ Hard-earned pay/ You and I have memories/ Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.”

The playful timbre of Paul McCartney’s voice singing to The Beatles’ folk rock melody glided through the air. 

As soon as I heard the distinctive guitar strum and the meaningful lyrics, I recognized the song that had defined an era in my life.

It took me back to the trailer park where a childhood friend and I would ride our scooters, wind ruffling our already-tangled hair from an earlier adventure. 

It took me back to organized expeditions along concrete drainage ditches behind the houses in our neighborhood. We would follow their path until the sun set and it was time for dinner.

It took me back to long walks in forested areas, balancing one foot in front of the other on fallen tree trunks.

Hearing that song enveloped me in a feeling that I couldn’t quite identify. It wasn’t an emotion with a name, it was the vivid– but fleeting, memory of what it felt like to live in my childhood.

I soon discovered that I was not the only one who had experienced the transportational effects of a phenomenon called musical nostalgia; the feeling that a song awakens when it reminds you of a period of your past.

Upon introducing this term to my younger sister, she excitedly queued up a song that I hadn’t heard in years. The song was “Fancy” by Reba McEntire, which begins with the unmistakably eerie calling of the song’s title. I’ll admit, I was initially caught off guard when the song played. The gritty country-blues melody resurfaced the dormant memory of a time in my life that I had nearly forgotten.

I was surprised to feel enormously grateful for the song. It startled me to believe that we can so easily lose parts of our lives to the past.

Associating music with pieces of my past comes naturally to me. I grew up in a family where it always seemed as if music played in the background – like white noise. This manifested in the way that the raspy lilt of Amy Winehouse’s voice in “Valerie” reminded me of my mom’s band rehearsals. 

Late nights in someone’s cramped living room with the bass so loud that I could feel it in my chest. The music almost took physical form as it pressed against me. My sister and I struggled to hear each other over the song while munching from a box of Cheez-It’s. 

From time to time, I catch myself singing along to a song on one of the old band setlists. I’ve come to believe that humming to the melody has given me the power to absorb the memories attached to a song, even years later.

Music also has a unique way of reminding us of the things that we love.

The upbeat trill of “Head Over Heels” by the Go-Go’s takes me back to my first viewing of the infamous romantic comedy 13 Going On 30 when I was just six years old. The song is reminiscent of what it was like to be myself when I first watched the movie: a young, hopeful girl hypnotized by the allure of a happy ending.

I can’t say that I’ve changed much, because that movie marked the start of my identity as an eternal optimist. And the song attached to the film reminds me of that.

But when I hear the lamenting chords of “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”  by Five For Fighting, I am forced to reflect on a time when I struggled with my own identity.

The whining vocals evoke a vague memory of laying on my bed, staring endlessly at the ceiling as if I could find myself there. I wondered, with Vladimir Ondrasik, if “even heroes have the right to dream.”

Music accompanies us through the complexities of our lives. Melodies have the power to move us. They allow us to remember what it felt like to be who we were in the past. 

Taking this ability for granted strands us in a two-dimensional world where we can only see what’s an arm’s length in front of us.

I don’t think we could bear to live in a world like that.

I don’t think we have the choice.

Because when the calm thrum of “Brighter Than the Sun” by Colbie Calliet filters through an open window or breaks through the static of the radio, I can’t fight the flashback.

I’m in the passenger seat for the first time. The window is rolled down and 60 mile per hour air sifts between my fingers.

I squint in the sunlight, but I’m content. The beams of light warm my face in a way that makes me feel blissfully lazy.

I can’t help the grin on my face as we pull into the driveway.