It was the cover art that caught my eye.
The Cartier-Bresson photograph still held all the tension of its decisive moment but in that minimised 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 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. None of that was hers. 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 the beat up phone with the sticky ‘R’ or the one I knew she had 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 after I first 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. But for for this one shared account 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” on another photo of her pretending to be embarrassed by her effortless beauty. I didn’t want to sign any more deserving petitions supporting the politics she had clearly gleaned from her friends. I had been more than fair around the terms of separation – letting her have all the clever user names and ratings we’d accumulated together. I’d gifted her the unused mileage points which my desk job had absurdly compensated us with. I’d even chivalrously dropped out of our joint 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 familiar clothes 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.
Not that I cared any more about her plans for another big night out, announced at the last minute by a euphoria of party starters. Most times it was something entirely 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 functional titles, limiting myself to the choice material they’d filched from my own history, unmindful of the stale breath that accompanies a lossless – and faithless – recording played over in service of promiscuity.
Surely she couldn’t replace the time The XX had drawn down the heat of the stars for us through that frozen all-nighter on the beach. That trip had also been her introduction to Tricky and there’s no way either of us would ever share what we did thrashing around in the back seat following his filthy metallic lead. We may not have had a theme song, but we had relished the subversive thrill of finding and gifting the most terrible cover versions of our friends’ favourites. Dedicating a weekly poll of the Best F@*king Breakup Numbers to her parents had been our act of punk courage, although I think there was an equal relief when I deleted that archive after we split up.
I’d like to see the editors of “My Life is a Soundtrack” cut anywhere close to the drama of our theatrical run.
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 speed dating remarked on the incongruity of my song selection.
But when she played back something I’d left there, bumping it to the top of the Favourites list, our geometry became briefly whole again.
The frequent time shifting of late-night sounds told me she was traveling a lot or at a minimum 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 protest politics of the local 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 knew her by.
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 “Dude Abides” t-shirt.
And now she was cueing up our private mixtapes for someone else. Allowing him to interfere with their precise narrative arrangement. To discard the handwritten liner notes and write over the 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?
Why would she choose another made of the same stuff?
To “curate” means to cure souls: Which of us had been doing the curating really, and for whom?
I will readily 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 DJ responsibilities to me partly as a kindness. For some inviolate, ancient gender rule that required me to remain the hunter gatherer.
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 knowingly ample bosom to conquer.
Most times she’d only make it louder.
Without any judgment, she had encouraged both the hit and the miss and in her loving gaze I also grew to become almost expansive.
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.
One of those too-many country cousins and I had often argued the obsessive need to stay current.
Did my years not recommend erudition over 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. 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 cheap authenticity with a minor in aesthetic appropriation. Thieving samples and covering your tracks with an ‘Explicit’ label couldn’t ever erase the debt we owed to the originals.
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, though no-less-dour live Radiohead album she had allowed me to keep on our shelf. Before the runtime was complete, I knew that its transcendent beauty had 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 give the entire thing a respectful hearing.
It felt nice 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 would have said it was ironic that 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 AI 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 label for their marketing profiles.
This form of convenience, this theft of our agency, it wasn’t charitable. They hadn’t ever offered to really 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 instead 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-machine-in, garbage-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 always took 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 endearment that was all her own. That we hadn’t really created anything lasting out of our enviable harmony. That the attunement had simply produced attenuation.
What good was all the music and inspiration if we had squandered the potential in the space between those lovers lips. If all hope for virtuosity was drowned in my assimilation. If the Family Membership Plan just didn’t have one.
When she didn’t log in for a while after that 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 out…