Susannah Conway column
Re playing the soundtrack to a relationship break-up in her past, Susannah Conway relives the pain, but also find sit a very healing process.
When I was a teenager Sundays were the most anticipated day of the week. After lunch I’d sit in front of the stereo with a blank cassette ready to record that week’s Top 40 songs off the radio. There was definitely an art to pressing pause before the DJ started talking but those mixtapes would keep me going for the whole week. Like most teens, I was a pop music fanatic. Making a mixtape for a new friend was a powerful way of communicating how cool I was (spoiler: I wasn’t). Wham, Tears for Fears and Eurythmics were all favourites, and I remember asking for the Sade album for my 11th birthday, but it was Madonna I truly idolised. Her music was the backdrop to unrequited crushes and my first dance with a boy. I have poignant memories attached to her albums from the Eighties and to this day Lucky Star remains one of my favourite songs.
But somewhere around 1989 Madonna fell out of favour on my record player. I left school and went to art college, got into my first serious relationship and dove into rave culture like a duck to water. It wasn’t until 1998 when Ray of Light came out that her music realigned with where I was in myself. I was building my grown-up life in London and felt a connection to Madonna’s new incarnation as mother and soul- seeker. Music came along in 2000 and became the soundtrack to my time as a fledgling journalist, and then in 2003 American Life hit the shelves just as my 10-year relationship imploded.
It’s not an album you’d associate with heartache, but it was the only album I bought in the months it took to wind down the relationship. I knew I needed something fresh to listen to, something to give me hope, something to make me feel anything other than the sadness that was breaking me apart. I haven’t heard the songs from that album since, so for the purposes of this column I searched for the album on Spotify and there it was, Pandora’s box of pain ready to be relived.
The title song of the album didn’t feel too bad, but ten seconds into Hollywood I had to press pause. Those first few guitar notes pulled my mood down to my shoes. I persevered. Love Profusion and Nobody Knows Me both felt surprisingly uplifting and I remembered how the upbeat pace of the songs gave me momentum as I packed my possessions ready to move out of our shared home.
And then Nothing Fails, the sixth song of the album, started playing. I could feel my younger self sitting in her new bedroom, not long after the break up, playing that song. I could practically taste the red wine that got me through those first weeks of transition. “You could take all this, take it away / I’d still have it all / ‘Cause I’ve climbed the tree of life / And that is why, no longer scared if I fall.” I listened to that song hundreds of times, embedding it into the DNA of my memories. The third time I listened to it in 2018 I could feel the tears wanting to come. It was healing to be able to connect to that scared version of myself and know she would be okay.
We each have a soundtrack that’s accompanied us through life. It’s made up of the music our parents played, the songs we sang with our friends, the first dances and break-up albums, the karaoke favourites and personal anthems that have seen us through the best and worst of times. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a musical preference, be it classical, rock or anything in- between. Even the birds sing each day.
While I don’t feel an urge to listen to American Life again I’m glad to have a sonic scrapbook of that time. Fifteen years later my life is unrecognisable and so are my musical habits. The arrival of digital music has transformed how I listen to music and I sometimes miss the genuine anticipation of a new album coming out – do they still play the Top 40 on the radio? I do know my favourite part of the week is now Monday morning. That’s when Spotify delivers my Discover Weekly playlist, a “mixtape of fresh music… chosen just for you.” FURTHER READING From left: Music and the Mind by Antony Storr. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. You Are the Music Victoria Williamson