Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Songs Remain the Same

Splice Today, Nov 03, 2008

Growing a record collection, one relationship at a time.

I've started to realize that I'm not very good at relationships. At least, I've had a lot of them and they never seem to work. Yet I have gained something from these failed affairs besides a tedious array of psychological disorders. Each boyfriend that passes through my life leaves a definite impression on one vital part of me: my music collection.

Like a divorcee in a community property state, I emerge from each break-up with possessions that were once theirs—the CDs that they left at my house, or the records that we bought together on idyllic weekends spent pawing through dusty piles of vinyl at second-hand shops in San Francisco. And though the bloom may have long ago faded from the relationship, I still have these remnants to remind me of those blissful moments of discovering a long sought-after out-of-print single.

My first boyfriend, clad in a leather jacket and hair made spiky with hand soap, wooed me to the strains of punk rock classics like the Ramones and Circle Jerks. His musical taste was much like our relationship: fast, loud, and despised by my parents. He took me to my first punk rock shows, where he would immediately jump into "the pit" in order to crash haphazardly into other sweaty punk rockers, while I, timid and out of place, would cling to the sticky walls and make my best effort not to get trampled.

Boyfriend Number One had been in a punk band of his own, a fact that deeply impressed me. A lead singer to the last, he was charming and enigmatic, but clearly in need of a nurturing force to help him with such trivialities as finding housing and getting a job. One of his few releases, titled Hell Bent For Rehab, featured lyrics about older men seducing teenage girls for kicks. "Dude, that's not, like, autobiographical," he once assured me. In the next breath he suggested that I not tell any of my friends that we were sleeping together. "I can get in a lot of trouble for this," he said, a moment later thoughtfully adding, "I'm already on probation."

In a music shop in Santa Rosa, he was thrilled to discover a copy of his record. He picked up the seven-inch disc and proudly showed me his work, his art. He did not own a copy of his own, nor was he able to pony up the $3.99 that it cost, but out of love for him I purchased it for myself.

Eventually the moment my mother expected and my father prayed for arrived: Boyfriend Number One walked out of my life and into the arms of a waiting stripper. The stain of his musical taste, however, was not so easily lifted. How else could I explain finding myself, a few years later, wrapped in the arms of a member of his favorite band, Fang? Scoring a member of Fang, an East Bay band who were best known for lead singer Sammy's stint in prison for killing his girlfriend and classic songs such as "Everybody Makes Me Barf," was perhaps the simplest way I could think to show Boyfriend Number One that I would, as the song says, survive.

I still have his band's record, and it sits with my other seven inches, in a type of vinyl purgatory, surrounded by 1980s teenybopper hits. I imagine that his record must feel much as he did with me, claustrophobic and out of place, yet incredibly cool and very, very loud.

Those 80s records are the residue from my next boyfriend, the only one whose musical taste I didn't have to pretend to appreciate. Number Two's wardrobe was filled with fluorescent colors and vintage band t-shirts; he worked at a record store and his entire life revolved around music. At night he would DJ in dark downtown clubs filled with people with fluid gender identities. His taste ranged from Kiss to Olivia Newton-John, and the defining style of his sets was complete and utter randomness and incongruity.

On occasion, he would try to stick to a specific genre at the behest of a club owner. One bar where he DJed, owned by the singer of the New York proto-punk band the Dictators, requested that he stick to rock ‘n' roll and early punk. Although his collection was vast enough to allow him to cater to this rather loose demand, he was unable to accept it. "They don't know what they're missing," he said with exasperation. He couldn't resist trying to work some of his other musical influences into his set list, but when he played the synth-pop instrumental "Popcorn," he was nearly booed out of the bar.

New Wave and 80s classics were his true love, a love he pursued with a passion that he would, unfortunately, never feel for me. The floor of our tiny East Village studio buckled under the weight of his records, and he would often stay hours after closing at his record store job looking for disco classics or ultra-rare Erasure remixes.

His favorite bands—Visage, Dead or Alive, and Sigue Sigue Sputnik—were not merely artists but spectacles in their own right. He collected bits of musical trivia about each member of these bands, and, because I lived with him, so did I. I know who has had nose jobs, who has been to rehab, and who was arrested for a serious case of kleptomania.

Each time Number Two infuriated me, which was regularly, he brought me reconciliation gifts of records and CDs purchased from the record store with his employee discount. "You like Tiffany?" he'd ask, and reappear with all of her B-sides and a handful of other teenage girl artists that I was sure to like as much or more. What he couldn't give me emotionally, he gave to me musically: Alisha, Shannon, Taffy and the Flirts, and they, unlike him, are still with me.

He still sends me packages of CDs and records occasionally and remains my lifeline into the world of pop music. When I get bored with my music collection, it's Number Two that I call, positive that he will bring new life to my playlists and help me out of whatever musical rut I've fallen into.

Boyfriend Number Three, despite being a self-proclaimed music aficionado, took much more from me musically than he gave, neatly paralleling the rest of the relationship. It was, however, his musical taste that I initially fell for. The first time I met him was at a friend's house, where he had brought a stack of records to play for us. When he sided with me against the rest of the room on the question of a-ha's best song (they said "Take On Me," we were for "The Sun Always Shines on TV"), I felt the first flutters of young love. It was only much later that I realized that having my own opinions parroted back to me, although intoxicating, was not the foundation for a lasting relationship.

In the early days of our affair, Europe was his favorite band, and he arrived at one of our first dates blind drunk after attending a Bruce Springsteen concert. Looking back, I now see that his penchant for lowbrow mainstream rock should have served as a warning. As the relationship progressed, his musical taste gradually shifted from stadium rock to trendy, hipster bands filled with boys in blazers with floppy hair and an excess of emotions.

Notwithstanding his refusal to meet or even acknowledge the existence of either of my prior boyfriends, Number Three had no compunctions about copying all of Number Two's music from my collection and adopting it as his own. He would DJ entire parties with songs that were, essentially, sloppy seconds from my previous love.

Much like his musical collection, our relationship favored style over substance and was not meant to last. I came out of that relationship with fewer positive additions to my musical collection, but a definitive idea of what I didn't want: namely, bands with limited talent and a decided focus on their hairstyles. I also discovered that these were qualities I could live without in a boyfriend. And sometimes, learning what you don't want, emotionally or musically, is all that you can expect to get out of a relationship.

There were others—casual dates who played a song for me that stayed in my life long after they themselves left. The DJs I've never spoken to but formed serious romantic attachments to based on their mixes. The DJs I have spoken to and realized that a fantastic mix does not romantic compatibility make.

Recently I've signed up on last.fm, a social music platform that tracks the music you listen to and makes suggestions for other songs or groups you might like. I've started using the site as a DIY dating service, comparing my musical compatibility with men in my area and listening to their favorite tracks, imagining what it might be like if I added them to my collection.