By Matt DeButts
Why have new experiences when you can have the same one again?
Since late last month, I have been working in my childhood home’s dining room. It is perhaps the only space within earshot of every moving thing in the house. In the morning, I hear the whine of the espresso machine as my mother makes coffee. At midday, I hear my brother listening to Drake in the shower. The lawnmowers outside thrum in the afternoon; the click-oooook-slam of the front door is the metronome of my day. The dog, named Stella, makes no noise but is constantly chit-chatting with people — or so you would believe, listening from the dining room as my mother, father and brothers talk to her like the household therapist.
Loudest of all, though, is the same song on repeat, played through my noise-canceling headphones: the 2018 pop-country ballad “Slow Burn” by the country music icon Kacey Musgraves.
Listening to a song on repeat provides all the satisfaction of the first listen with none of the anxiety about what comes next. “I’m alright with a slow burn, slow burn, slow burnnnn,” Musgraves croons as the guitar blends into reverb, the final note strums, the music fades and then — just when silence presses in, the song starts up again. The acoustic guitar appears. When the drums drop out and the guitar remains, you’re ready because you already listened to it forty-three times today. In these pandemic days, the future is filled with fear. Why not return to the past?
Repeated listening allows you to seep into the grooves of a song, discovering newness in the contours of the old. The first few listens, you hear the essentials: the rhythm, the beat, the words, the vocals, the chorus, the bridge. On repeat listening, however, the song’s deeper message reveals itself. “I’m gonna do it my way, it’ll be alright,” sings Musgraves. On the page, those words seem trite, even banal. On the sixty-fifth listen, however, they transform you to your core.
Music elevates lyrics, and repetition elevates music. “Even the lyrics to the best songs looked flat on the page,” observes the writer Starlee Kine in a 2007 episode of the NPR podcast This American Life. She was composing a break-up song with help from the British singer-songwriter Phil Collins.
“Sometimes it’s the simplest thing that actually reaches people,” Collins replies. “What becomes important is the way it is sung.”
We are accustomed to listening quickly — absorbing information and moving on. We enjoy endless variety — the limitless fathoms of online streaming. We hear, but we don’t really listen. Repetition slows you down. When Kacey Musgraves sings, “I’m alright with a slow burn,” she is in fact making a profound claim about how to live one’s life; it is a powerful prescription for the perpetual sameness of our pandemic days. Hear it once, twice, three times, and it’s easy to dismiss her. Listen again and Phil Collins is proven right. The gentle simplicity of her lyrics — “I am gonna do it my way, it will be alright” — disarms you. You realize it is going to be alright, eventually. She reminds you, “Whatever feels good.” It occurs to you that “whatever feels good” is a fine way to live life. Your resistance melts away against the steady reassurance of a country drawl.
A critic might argue that there is value in fresh experiences, cultivating diverse music tastes and learning new things — you know, living a full life and so on. Indeed there is value in those things. The hagiography of new experience, however, overlooks the transcendent possibilities of reliving the same experience but more deeply. For example, you could wake up in the same bed, eat the same breakfast, walk the same streets, watch the same sunset and talk to the same people. These acts are simple, even banal. In that sense, maybe they are like song lyrics: if performed with passion, they become conduits of the sublime.
These days, many of us work from home. Hear that sound? Weeeeeeee, shhhhhhhhhh, ngggggggg — espresso, showers, lawnmowers. Birds, sirens, street-cleaners, ringtones, keyboard clacks. You’re not imagining it, you have lived this day, you have heard this song. In the teeth of the familiar you can seek refuge in the confected diversity of a Spotify playlist. Or you can make the bolder choice, the beautiful choice: to lean in. Pick a song. Listen to it again. And again. Embrace what you have, rather than shuffling in vain for what you have not.
Don’t take my word for it. Find your bard, listen to her. Here’s mine: “In Tennessee, the sun’s goin’ down / But in Beijing, they’re heading out to work.” Translation: the days repeat themselves. The song is on loop. Listen again — you might just find something new.
Contact Matt DeButts at mdebutts ‘at’ stanford.edu.