I don't have a favorite song
But I do have a consistent answer to "What's Your Favorite Song?"
Space Oddity was the first song that made me cry. It was 1981 or ‘82 and I was laying back in the reclined seats at the Ocean County College planetarium. There was a farm scene all along the bottom of the domed ceiling and, as the virtual sun set behind it, the stars came out as they would if a person was in, say, Iowa. I can conjure the wonder I felt as I sit here and type.
We were there on a class trip. They gave the same-ish program each year: these are the constellations, these are the stories that go with them, laugh-break for Beetleguese, and the show was over. The disembodied voice asked us to remain seated as the lights came up and played music in place of dead silence.
If you don’t know the song (it’s a David Bowie song also known as Major Tom) it’s about an astronaut who loses control of his capsule and makes peace with the fact that he will spend the rest of his life spinning away from Earth into the vast nothingness.
It made me so sad. Everyone else was getting antsy, talking, messing around in the petty, intolerable ways of pre-teens. I had to account for my tears. It was as if no one else heard this song about an astronaut dying.
I pretended to have been asleep (I was no less awful and petty than the rest) and rubbed my eyes especially hard to wake up. I wondered about the song and the singer a lot for what was years in my memory but couldn’t have been for more than a couple of months.
It was very difficult to find out the name of a random song in the pre-internet age. With few exceptions, you really just had to wait to hear it again and hope the DJ identified it. There was a real frustration that came with hearing a song on the radio only to discover the title was announced before it played.
You just had to wait for next time.
Not much later I saw this on (the still-brand-new) MTV:
It’s the same story about the same astronaut with different words and music. When I was older I would learn the phrase “variations on a theme” but at the time I was stupified.
Worse, I still didn’t know the name of the “real” song and the VJs clearly did because they alluded to Space Oddity by David Bowie without using any of those words. It was the worst kind of tantalizing.
I’m sorry to say that I don’t recall when I finally found out. It makes sense, though, the wanting being more memorable than the having.
Songs might be the most contextual art. They dig in at a time and place. We love them at least as much for what they evoked in a place and time as for their artistic merit (insofar as those are different things).
I’ve been thinking about this recently because someone asked me my favorite song, and it’s a question I don’t like to answer. Maybe it’s me but what’s-your-favorite questions put me off. It’s a question without context that requires a specific answer, like being asked, “What do you truly believe?”
I get that it poses as a friendly if inane inquiry. Favorite song (or favorite food, or whatever) is supposed to give people a snapshot, some “in” to help them fill out a better picture, but it feels to me like a line in an obituary questionnaire:
Tony Russo died last week, leaving behind everyone who hasn’t died yet. He was a writer. His favorite food was ice cream. His favorite song was All the Young Dudes.
When we know we’re getting reduced to a few lines, we’d like to make them count. I want to make it clear that I’m not afraid to commit to having a favorite song, I just don’t think of songs that way. Sometimes I “need” to hear a song, but it’s more about what I’m trying to evoke in myself.
I’ve taken to responding, “Today?” when people ask me. It’s more satisfying than saying “I don’t have a favorite song,” while giving me license to answer the question differently across time.
It also buys me time to rummage around for the title of a song, but I’ve discovered a new approach. I’ve decided that my favorite song is going to be the last one I searched for on iTunes. It’s objective and mostly accurate. It reflects the last song I felt like I wanted to hear all on its own, the last song I was compelled to listen to.
If you’re one of those people who hates trying to think of your favorite song on the spot, I can’t recommend this practice enough. Cut yourself some slack if you’re looking for songs for your kids (obviously), and just scroll down to the last song you pulled up because you needed to hear it.
Keep the Faith,
If you try this, let me know what your favorite song is today. Mine is Flight of the Bumblebee.
The Devil in the Web still is available to watch. Two friends have so far reported that it’s a fair synopsis of the Devil You Know, which I don’t think they were going for, but whatever. As a gentle reminder, Dragged Into the Light is available to buy in all formats. If you’re interested in a free audio copy, just respond to this email.
I promise I’ll return to the podcast in the fall. The revamp is underway, but I’ve decided to clear my deck until I finish this war memoir. In fact, with the exception of this newsletter and fulfilling paid assignments, I’m going to step way back and throw myself at this thing. I keep breaking my stride to do other things and it’s tripping me up.
If you’re a Day Drinking on Delmarva listener, I’m recording a month of “we’re taking a break” shows to run until August or so.
Finally, if you got a kick out of this, please forward it to someone who might also like to subscribe for free.