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 rootsy bass refrain stuck 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. “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 too loose for a lazy algorithm to have shuffled together, there was a pattern. These were all songs she had heard over scattered time. Through me. Ones she had left behind WITH me. Ones she couldn’t possibly call up without the suggestion of their provenance.
No, I chided myself once I could see beyond the surface glimmer of the melodies. There was too much else in the mix for this to have been a nostalgic run, though she had always been a sucker for that kind of thing.
So WHO, then? Who had interrupted the predictable metronome 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 new one I suspected she had bought without my advice? Was it HIS device? In his HOME? Had she shared the password 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 point I felt it was nothing short of trespass, especially as she had her own account [and which I still paid for]. I’d followed the rule book and practiced good hygiene – mercilessly severing the entangled orbit of our lives on social media. I didn’t need the stress of holding back my “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 user ratings we’d accumulated together and the mileage points my work compensated us with. I’d even chivalrously dropped out of our shared chat groups without making any fuss about it. 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 a form of idle speculation… a refresher on how I was better off without the soul baggage and depressing daily mutinies coupling generates. 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, 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 line-up of party starters. Most times it was something entirely new, suggesting an encounter with a member of a younger generation, a future I didn’t want 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 obvious titles, limiting myself to the choice material filched from my own history, unmindful of the worn heat and stale breath that comes with a faithless madrigal played over in service of promiscuity.
Surely she couldn’t replace that glorious time we’d prevailed over our once-yearly cocktail of drugs and a cold all-nighter on the beach as The XX smouldered over the busted car speakers. Or the subversive thrill of finding and gifting the most terrible cover versions of our friends’ favourite songs. Sharing a weekly poll of the 7 Best Breakup Numbers had been our act of punk courage, although I think there was an equal relief when I deleted that archive after we split up.
Still, I’d like to see “My Life is a Soundtrack” keep up with the cinematic quality of our eclectic, hi-fidelity, utterly spontaneous theatrical run.
Pretty soon, I was sampling and then replaying some of the new material. I figured if I used THEIR songs, we were squaring up somehow. And when she played back something I’d left there, bumping it to the top of the Favourites list, our geometry was 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 a 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 would be 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”… NASA knew to give its bold vessels names which would appease the Gods of space and time. She had drifted into the void still wearing my favourite “The 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 overwrite the recording clicks between the tracks.
Why did his rhythm suggest he was like me? How had he almost always inserted something tonally similar to what I’d line up next? Why would she choose another made of the same stuff?
‘Curate’ means to cure souls. Which of us had been curating really, and for whom?
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. I was appreciative of the ideas and inspiration she hauled into our life – always subtly – and suspected that she had abdicated DJ responsibilities to me partly as a kindness. 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. Most times she’d only make it louder. Without any judgement, she encouraged the hit and the miss and in her gaze I also became almost… expansive.
Now however, when it came to responding to every competitive gambit in this new arms race of sonic influence, I was tensely attuned to the strength of my riposte. It was 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. Streaming without ever having to choose, buy or keep made these commitments pardonable.
One of those cousins and I had always argued about the need to stay current. Did my years not recommend erudition over rebirth? Who really knew or cared if Synthwave had engendered Chillwave or vice versa? I had been schooled in the source material. My world was recorded in a lower key. Rhythm and melody, not flows and drops. Thieving samples and covering your tracks with an ‘Explicit’ label couldn’t ever erase the elemental relevance of the originals.
Some days I would flood the selection with genres she disliked just to drown out her current preoccupations. The misanthropic hard rock she’d complained about on thematic principle. The indulgent jam band recordings that went on way past their welcome. One time 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. I’d follow up with a ‘you may also like’ torrent just to remind her that we stood for patience and consideration in a world of transient consumption. It also gave me the satisfaction of having her full attention. She would have said it was ironic that this relentlessly intrusive middleperson, this technological gremlin sat in on all our shared time and yet allowed us both to say our piece, without interruption. We hadn’t ever shown each other that courtesy, not even through the abandoned experiments with the couples counsellors.
If I had a moment of weakness and made the error of posting something too sentimental, I figured I could always blame it on the gremlin. 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 make a pretty product of our reality? What 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 serve me for unselfish reasons.
Let the server armies try to corner us with regression analysis into their uninspired cohorts and let them fail miserably at affixing our beau ideal with a standardised label from their penitentiary-fit 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, 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 painfully accurate 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 haemorrhage. Garbage in garbage out. Garbage in garbage out. Garbage in garbage 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 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. With a soap and water kind of thinking which had made it easy for me to judge her and feel superior. 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 simple text reading “Princesses Don’t Cry”
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 fade out.
The Family Membership Plan.
A deep cuts compilation of all your collective days.
Cheaper than a postcard.
Filled with more heartbreak than any “Wish you were here”.