I have vivid memories of listening to “The Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack with my mother as a child, and I started playing piano when I was 4 years old. Singing pulled me in soon after that, and my passion for music has never wavered — my roommate has walked in on me belting out Broadway show tunes or Ariana Grande power ballads on too many occasions to count. Knowing this, it probably comes as no surprise that music is a major focus of my life; it’s something constantly in the back of my mind, whether I’m conjugating in Russian class or reading about the latest Trump scandal on CNN.
I also happen to overthink a lot, particularly when it comes to subjects I’m passionate about, and I often find myself asking a myriad of questions about the things encompassing my daily life. That’s how this column began, in fact — with a question. After doing some soul-searching about the morality of one of my new favorite songs, I had to wonder — how much should we care about the perceived meaning behind our music?
This curiosity began a few weeks ago, when Ariana Grande’s latest album, “thank u, next,” was released. I’m a big fan of her work, so I downloaded the album the second it came out on Spotify. I enjoyed all the songs I listened to, but the beat of the last track really pulled me in. All was well until the chorus, and I realized the song’s title was “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” Immediately, I had to pause the music.
Don’t get me wrong, the song was great — it was the perceived message that bothered me. I’d spent the past four years telling friend after friend to dump their cheating boyfriends, and now I was listening to a song that actively promoted interfering in a relationship. It didn’t sit right with me, and I was torn. The song was a real earworm — it was stuck in my head the entire day — but I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone overheard me listening to it.
The issue nagged at me for a couple of days until, as I’ve so often found in life, a car ride resolved it all. Halfway to Walgreens on an emergency trip with a friend, I asked her to queue up “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” on Spotify, briefly forgetting what had been bothering me all week.
“I’m not gonna play that,” she told me. “I don’t like the message it promotes.”
“But you listen to XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine,” I pointed out. “How are their messages about doing drugs, killing people and sexually degrading women any better?”
Then it hit me — we put way too much stock into the supposed “messages” the music we listen to sends out. Music is an art form, and art is meant to shock us, to provoke a reaction, to make us think about how we feel about the subject being written about, sung about or painted. Often the singer or lyricist wants to start a conversation with society about pervasive issues that he or she feels are being ignored — they aren’t advocating for us to replicate whatever bad behaviors they may sing about, and as Ariana herself has said, sometimes artists just want a “fun one” on the album.
The likelihood that the majority of people who count “Creep” by Radiohead as one of their favorite songs are actual stalkers is slim. Similarly, I doubt that anyone’s getting inspiration from Ariana’s latest album to break up others’ relationships. For me, music has always been a form of escape — it transports me into another universe, a place where I’m not myself for a few minutes. When I’m listening to a particularly good song, I might envision myself as someone more confident, or someone braver, if only for the duration of the music. That’s what my friend gets out of the hardcore rap she enjoys, and I know some of my friends prefer classical music because it makes them feel more focused and capable.
The reason for listening to a certain type of music doesn’t have to be the same for every person — the point is that you aren’t necessarily listening to a song because you live and die by every one of the messages in its lyrics.
So I say the music you choose to listen to doesn’t have to say anything about what you believe in or the causes you choose to support. You can listen to a song simply because of its catchy beat or because it reminds you of a happy memory. Go ahead and hit play.