It was the cover art that caught my eye.
The Cartier-Bresson photograph still held all the tension of its moment décisif but, minimised into that corner of my computer screen, it was a faded cipher in an ocean of stimulation.
I should have processed the hopeless lovers carelessly and skimmed right past.
Instead, my fingers stopped short and like a waylaid ant gawked at the source of their misapprehension.
I knew the image on the screen just as surely as I knew that I hadn’t placed it there.
The album – or single rather – was “Perfect” by Fairground Attraction. Its bass refrain struck up in my head and began to shimmer and shift with an unfamiliar hint of malice.
I expanded the window and squinted into the patchwork of Recently Played songs, trying to make sense of why it suddenly indicated a crime scene.
What was she trying to signal?
This wasn’t one of HER tracks but it had to have been her that just played it because I certainly had not. Then I spotted “Most Wanted” by Cults and estimated I hadn’t heard that since the time I had gone looking for a brand new retro fix in 2017. There was “Baby” by Donnie and Joe Emerson – almost an ancestral companion piece to those two. “Lovesong”. A Talking Heads compilation. All the campus radio ephemera surrounding it. That wasn’t hers either as sure as the fact that she had dropped out of high school.
And even if it was all too loose for a lazy algorithm to have shuffled together, there was a pattern:
These were songs she had heard over scattered time. Through me. Ones she had left behind WITH me. Ones she couldn’t possibly have called up without the suggestion of their provenance.
No, I chided myself once I had dug under the surface glimmer of the melodies. There was too much else in the mix for this to have been a nostalgic run, although she had always been a sucker for that kind of thing.
So WHO, then?
Who had interrupted the predictable raga of her daily audio routine?
How had HE presumed to use MY songs against, well, the memory of ME?
Why had she allowed him into OUR account?
Was it on her beat-up, just-about feature phone with the sticky ‘R’ or the one I knew she had recently bought without my advice?
Had she shared the passwords she’d memorised so grudgingly — settling the argument that her distaste for the alphanumeric wasn’t pathological – when things began to sour between us?
What else had she shared with him?
I’d made a note to cancel the family subscription as soon as I noticed her songs resurfacing in the library months ago.
At that time I felt it was nothing short of trespass, especially as she had her own account and which I still paid for.
We had both agreed to follow the rule book and practice good breakup hygiene.
And, except for this one lingering connection, I had played along nicely and been merciless in severing the entangled orbit of our digital lives.
I didn’t need the stress of withholding “Likes” from another photo of her feigning embarrassment at her effortless beauty. I didn’t want to sign any more deserving petitions supporting the politics she had so clearly gleaned from her fancy friends. I had been more than fair around the terms of our separation – letting her have all the clever user names and ratings we’d accumulated and had gifted her the unused mileage points which my desk job perversely compensated us with.
I’d even chivalrously dropped out of our common chat groups without making any fuss about it.
She was now the sole custodian of our online legacy – to have, hold or delete.
So, of course there’s no question of my having been possessive or ungracious.
I did allow myself the odd anonymous peek at her feeds only as an extreme form of idle speculation – a refresher on how I was better off without the soul baggage and depressing daily mutinies coupling generates. Seeing her again in those quirky poses and familiar outfits invoked only familiar contempt.
And while all that was harmless public domain stuff – you couldn’t call it stalking – this latest investigation was different. A necessary intervention, given that it was so clearly my meagre side of the settlement divide on which she was now splaying herself out.
After I’d spent entirely too long trying to associate tags as to the time, place and person, I wrenched back the initiative and decided I would leave those songs (now HIS songs) right there in plain view. Let the shame be on the exhibitionist. I didn’t queue up anything for days and the lingering evidence of her perfidy told her I knew.
Over the next few weeks, and as the tapestry grew, so did my confusion over her intent.
Was the illumination I was receiving from these faint ciphers Gatsby’s dock lamp or a gaslight?
Did the yearning in “Days Go By”, made sexier by the acoustic remix, now suggest more sex than yearning?
Was the earworm of “Can’t get you out of my head” simply saying “refrain”?
Not that I cared any more about her plans for another big night out, often announced at the last minute by a euphoria of party starters. Most were rakishly new – suggesting encounters with a member of a younger generation – a future that wasn’t my gig and which I never wanted any part of anyway.
I didn’t wait up to see if each of these ended hours later in a typically gooey lovemaking set.
I almost had to laugh at their reliance on store-supplied playlists with depressingly functional titles, limiting myself to the choice material they’d filched from my own history. I ignored the stale breath that accompanied those lossless (and faithless) recordings played over in service of promiscuity and began to reclaim it all in a collection I named “I, me, mine”.
Because all those songs had special intents and purposes and were always meant to remain part of the common estate of our lapsed dreams, desires and experiences.
Surely she couldn’t replace the first time The XX had drawn down the heat of the stars for us through that all-nighter on the beach. And neither of us would dare repeat the dirty dancing and filthy hereafters of the trip-hop summer we spent following Tricky’s metallic lead. In mock atonement, we had lived with the explicit lyrics filter engaged for an entire year and had missed the advent of The Weeknd’s unmissable shock erotica. We may not have had a signature tune, but we had relished the subversive thrill of finding and gifting the most terrible cover versions of our friends’ favourites. Religiously starting our mornings with any of the over-half-a-million breakup-themed playlists on Spotify had been our act of punk courage, although I think we both shared an equal relief when I deleted that archive after we split up.
And what a story our music told.
I’d like to see the editors of “My Life is a Soundtrack” or Cameron Crowe or even Tarantino assemble anything as esoteric as the deep cuts companion to our relationship.
Pretty soon however, I was sampling and then replaying some of the new material.
I figured that if I used THEIR songs, we were squaring up somehow.
Some of the girls I began revenge dating remarked on the incongruity of my selection… as if the entire process of courtship was anything more than an exercise in misrepresentation.
The frequent time shifting of late-night sounds told me she was traveling a lot or was back to the bohemian lifestyle she had let go of as our society and schedules diminished – first out of wilful seclusion to prioritise our young love and then from lazy habit and perhaps something a little more sinister.
Her sudden obsession with the dangerous politics of the vernacular hip-hop scene I could only hope meant a visit from one of her too many country cousins.
Eventually there was always a return to the songs I had known her by.
And when she played back something I’d left there, bumping it towards the top of the Favourites list, our geometry became briefly whole again.
Like a memory capsule pinging its proof of life from a location deep inside the new age of infinite selection.
“Endurance”, “Perseverance”, “Resilience”… NASA knew to give its bold vessels names which would appease the Gods of space and time.
She had drifted off into the void having stolen my favourite “The Dude Abides” t-shirt.
And now she was cueing up our private mixtapes for someone else. Allowing him to edit their precise narrative arrangement. To discard the handwritten liner notes and write over the nervous clicks between tracks.
Why did his tonal signature suggest he was like me?
How did he almost always insert something I’d line up next?
What made her choose another made of the same stuff?
To “curate” means to cure souls… She used that word almost as often as I misused alliterations but which of us had done the heavy curating, really, and for whom?
Full disclosure: I will grudgingly admit here that, aside from the limited repertoire of her music, she’d always had better taste than me. Because she was more open to the world and frankly kept cooler company.
And I was appreciative of the light and inspiration she brought into our life – and knew that she had abdicated the role of Song Selector to me partly as a kindness. For some inviolate, ancient gender rule that required me to remain the hunter-gatherer. Every time I threw on “I’m Losing My Edge” by LCD Soundsystem, I’d look to her for that indulgent smile couples reserve for when they hear each other repeating jokes or stories.
She did feel the need to constantly lean over and nudge the volume knob but that was her agreeable way of asserting the merest possible form of control. Of stooping gently with her knowing bosom to conquer.
Most times she’d only make it louder.
Now however, when it came to responding to every gambit in this new arms race of sonic influence, my ripostes gained a darker thrust.
It was like a rap battle, no, it was a schoolyard fight full of recklessness and bloodied noses. I found myself mixing critical picks I alone knew about with top-rated new releases I hadn’t vetted and wouldn’t usually abide by, given my aversion for pop-shallowness. I made wagers with the drunk confidence of a stock options trader. Streaming material without ever having to choose, buy or keep made these weak commitments entirely pardonable.
To hedge my bets, I made sure to put the outliers in a list I ironically titled “it wasn’t me [lowercase]”.
One of those too-many country cousins and I had often argued about the obsessive need to stay current. He was also the one who had recommended a steady intake of liquid THC for the vitality he said our relationship lacked.
Did my years not recommend erudition over constant rebirth?
My catalogue ran from African praise songs through Bach, Biggie and Blur into post jazz… why would I want for anything?
Of course I allowed myself fresh cuts of, say The Black Keys marking their return to the acoustic blues or Leftfield mellowing onto ambient shores. That was evolution. There was a cause for an extended play. Who really knew or cared if Vaporwave had engendered Chillwave or vice versa? I had been schooled in The New Wave. The height of THEIR scholarship was the kind of sound that could live inoffensively on any playlist – all shallow aesthetics and appropriation.
At some stage even Madonna had stopped trying to reinvent herself. Or she definitely should.
I took to flooding the selection with those “old person” genres just to drown out her current preoccupations. The misanthropic dad rock she’d complained about on thematic principle. The indulgent jam band recordings that went on way past their welcome.
She responded by calling truce and playing the quieter, live Radiohead album she had allowed me to keep on our shelf. Before the runtime was complete, I knew that its transcendent beauty had reminded her of that childhood secret and made her cry once more.
I was more delicate after that.
If she chose the obvious hit from a rich album, I’d make it a point to follow up with a respectful hearing of its entire track list. When she came across a new band that featured a brass section, I made sure to remind her of the homage we owed to The War on Drugs by playing one of their glorious ensemble pieces.
She couldn’t have acknowledged each of these messages but it felt nice that we were taking turns talking and to imagine that I had her full attention again. The app gave us both this rare space for courtesy you didn’t see in many places on the internet. She certainly would have chuckled at how this machine-cold mediator achieved what ALL the empathy-soaked counsellors she had taken us to could not.
If I had a moment of weakness and posted something too sentimental, I figured I could always blame it on some glitch in the software.
To support that theory I began to game the engine and upvote odd recommendations. I can only imagine the polyphonic confusion on her end as the corruption began to trickle into our feed.
Was that playing fair with the program?
Or was I being unkind to the tireless code that mined our truth and captured every whimsy to build an echo chamber of our reality?
What exactly had I signed up for in the unread Terms of Agreement?
Honesty? Partnership? Confidence?
Nonsense! I owed the tehno-logos no loyalty. Just as it didn’t attend to me for unselfish reasons.
Let the server armies try to corner us with regression analysis and let them fail miserably at affixing our beau ideal with a standardised marketing profile.
This form of convenience, this theft of our agency – it wasn’t charitable.
They hadn’t ever really meant to help us.
Even when they had seen our chemtrails begin to separate in the clear blue sky of their statistical determinism.
They could have sounded the alarm. Upped the pheromone content. Fed our image. Begged us to turn off autoplay and pay greater heed to one another.
Blaming the servility of their design, they had cancelled the alerts instead.
And had used their infinite capacity to track us both as we veered catastrophically away from each other, our wounded rhythms feeding this new algorithm.
We became multiple plot points.
We gave them reinforced instruction in the mess of humankind.
Two harvestable users were always going to be more valuable than one.
Well, screw that. I decided we would have our vengeance.
And so I didn’t cancel the account.
Not because they had a stranglehold on our fragile biography.
And not because they had identified the very patterns she had complained about, but seeing how they had chosen to reinforce them.
I got to work scuttling all narrative cogency until it would have hurt to find a foothold on the mountainside of hemorrhage.
Garbage in, garbage out. Garbage-grunge-kpop-machine-in, garbage-krunk-numetal-of arousal-out.
Fed back on repeat into the bellies of those sly masters of temptation, whose programming had so much to do with our well-being and despair.
Who stood as Gods on the event horizon of our collapsing moment.
Let them have at it and be consumed by the entropy.
Let them choke on our digital dust.
Let it all become white noise.
I didn’t realise Prince had died until I saw the barrage of standards she had posted.
She was achingly straightforward that way.
And somehow that sweet disposition had taunted me constantly to judge her and somehow I had always taken the bait.
But had her workout routines really been more embarrassing than my meditation podcasts?
Was being cheesy any less authentic than remaining sincere?
Just because I had good taste, did that make me a good person?
I broke our covenant and sent her a text that read “Princesses Don’t Cry”.
It struck me then that I hadn’t ever come up with an original endearment that was all her own. That instead of music makers or the dreamers of dreams or even gifted listeners we had simply been the passive players of a common opera. The mute chorus line through the time of heroic DJs and later when everyone was a DJ and then no one was. Ordinary muses at best. The playlist we used as a mirror now languishing in the compilation bargain bin of the going-out-of-business sale at a forgotten record store.
What good was all the art and inspiration if we had squandered the potential between those lovers lips?
If the cipher I had ignored was our relationship’s predictable course and collapse?
If the sheltering intimacy of the Family Membership Plan only revealed that we didn’t have one?
When she didn’t log on for a while after I worried about her.
And when I eventually found evidence of her elsewhere and as the playlist remained static longer still, I knew it was time to begin the permanent fade…
[…and because fade outs are for wimps]
I called her once, years later, from a borrowed phone. Knowing her strict policy on unknown numbers, I fully expected that she wouldn’t answer. The first bars of Erykah Badu’s “I’ll Call U Back” on the ring tune confirmed that it was her phone. Transferring to speaker, I closed my eyes, leaned back and smiled as the song played on