On Repeat: The Power of Music in Lockdown

Artwork by Megan Smith

Lockdown has forced everyone to find creative ways of keeping in contact with friends and loved ones, and many of us have relied on technology to support our new socialising habits. From Zoom pub quizzes to online multiplayer games, technology has been a lifeline to people whom we don’t live with. One such lifeline for me emerged from an unexpected place: Spotify. The music streaming platform has a number of features which are ideal for connecting with others: you can access your friends’ public playlists, see what they are currently listening to and create collaborative playlists together. Even though it may still be a while before we are all in a club together, music has kept me connected to my friends through an especially dark winter. This experience inspired the following piece of semi-fictionalised writing on the escapism of music, and its ability to both transport the listener into the past and enable them to envision a Covid-free future.

The summer that wasn’t

July 2020. I have just moved back to Bristol. The sun is out for the first time this year. I am sharing a flat with a friend whom I have known since we were teenagers. [‘Strangers When We Meet’ — David Bowie] We are both back to complete university work and to spend some time in the city after three months of lockdown with our families. The flat is a sun trap; it soaks up the rays and warms us. The afternoon passes quickly, structured into blocks of time by unpacking our belongings. My friend and I spend our first evening socialising with people our own age for the first time in months. Although barely anything has happened during lockdown, we feel an intense desire to be up to speed with what the other is thinking, where he feels himself to be, how he is moving through the new world that we inhabit. There is laughter, clinking, and an overwhelming sense of relief.

Later that week, I am working in my bedroom. [‘Every Morning’ — Sugar Ray] The deadline for the first draft of my dissertation is rapidly approaching, so I am spending a gorgeous summer day inside at my laptop. A lawn mower buzzes lazily next door and our neighbours’ voices drift up from the garden below. I am stuck on a particular line of poetry. I know what I want to say about it, but fathoming the words is like weaving strands of toffee. The sound of old school hip hop [‘93 ’Til Infinity’ — Souls of Mischief] pulses from down the hallway. I decide to take a break from writing. I close my laptop and wander into the living room, where my friend is playing a video game. We greet each other with the casual familiarity that is only possible with a friend you have known since childhood. We crack open a couple of beers and snuggle into the groove of the evening. I start to make dinner, leaving my friend in charge of the music. He puts on [‘California Love’ — 2Pac feat. Dr. Dre]. The lazy beat of the song coupled with the beer puts sunshine in our minds. We reminisce on our college days and escapades, swapping memories of how we tumbled through our youth with the unfettered gusto of free-runners in the night. The hours slide by, liquid in our palms, and our talk turns to the present. My friend and I exchange our anxieties about the Covid situation. We voice our concerns at the ways that swathes of the country have been decimated by the virus and commiserate at how our own lives have been stymied by its spread. [‘This Year’ — The Mountain Goats] The only pieces of solace we can salvage from the desolation of restrictions and worry are our natural tendencies towards optimism. We hold onto our faith in the promise of change.

When hospitality venues reopened later that summer, I return to work at a local pub. Although government-mandated restrictions are in place, our customers are happy to be back and there is a constant rotation of faces through the doors. Everyone is enthusiastic [‘Thinning’ — Snail Mail] to soak up all they can of the summer. Afternoons flow as smooth as a blues run. The rich smells of food and drink suffuse through the pub. When the evening comes, the energy ramps up in preparation for a party [‘I Like It’ — Cardi B] that can’t happen yet. The pub is full of racing dogs that have been caged for months. All they want to do is run. The next best thing is taking what they can from the few night hours that we are permitted together. Things start getting a bit messy at around 9. My coworker takes over the aux cord and sonic chaos ensues. The thumping beat of [‘Rock DJ’ — Robbie Williams] blares out over the speakers. The venue is instantly divided into people who are drunk enough to relinquish any pretence of coolness and lean into the early 2000s vibe, and those who still want to appear vaguely respectable. Tonight, I am in the former group. My friends and I are yelling the lyrics. This period of isolation has at least forced us to abandon anything that isn’t a display of deep affection for one another.

As the evening winds down, the lights dim and customers start preparing to leave, the energy changes to looking towards closing time. My coworker, however, still has control of the music. We have morphed from noughties throwbacks to old school country songs [‘Your Man’ — Josh Turner]. He is prepared to squeeze every drop of lemonade from this government-enforced curfew. My friends and I look on, bemused yet entertained, as he zanily acts out his best country singer impression, his gangly limbs and mime-like expressiveness creating a hilarious spectacle. The campness of the performance is its very appeal. When it is over, we applaud and whoop cheerily. For this brief instance, we are a gang of friends having fun, oblivious to the wasteland of the outside world.

Hazy days

Winter arrives. The cold weather brings frost, unease and increased illness. More and more people I know become sick with the virus, until finally a nationwide lockdown is announced in November. My flatmate and I are required to self-isolate two days before lockdown comes into full force. Although of course necessary, self-isolation is the antithesis of what being in your twenties is supposed to feel like. At the exact moments when we should be congregating, feeling the warmth of company and conversation, we are instead iced out in our household bubbles. It is now that I become nostalgic for summer. Not the most recent season — with the weirdness of restrictions, nothing has felt normal since March — but for previous years, before loneliness became the defining characteristic of our lives. As I struggle to concentrate on my third crossword of the afternoon, my mind drifts. I think about lying beside the river. [‘Squares’ — The Beta Band] It is the summer after my final university exams, and my friends and I have made our way to a field not far from the centre of town. A river passes through the field, its presence both assertive and reassuring. We have brought snacks, inflatables and a boombox. The afternoon quickly melts into a daydream glow. Conversation is easy, punctuated by dips in the water.

My friends and I relish in the feeling of post-exam release. For me this is coupled with another form of liberation. During the previous spring, I underwent a surgical process for transmasculine people known as top surgery. On paper, it is a fairly straightforward operation, with little chance of complications and a rapid recovery. In practice, top surgery was also an escape valve for the anger, discomfort and dysphoria that I had harboured towards my body throughout my entire life. Although my physical recovery was fairly easy, the emotional journey that I have travelled over the last year has been long and winding. This moment is the first time that I have been able to enjoy being shirtless in public without worrying about pulling my stitches or darkening my scars in the sun. It is the first time perhaps since childhood that I have felt truly unself-conscious in my body. [‘Bamboo Bones’ — Against Me!] To me, freedom feels like safety. It tastes like a can of warm beer and sounds like my friends squirting each other with water guns.

Like sugar dissolving in water, this memory begins to blur with another. Here, I am again by a body of water. Another friend and I have traipsed to a lake on the outskirts of town. We fought through overgrown pathways and tore ourselves raw through the thickets to get here, so being at the shore feels like a triumph. My companion strips off down to his underwear. He runs into the lake and dives in, his arms slicing like knives through the water. I stay on the shore, wanting to take a breather before plunging in. The afternoon is wide and tranquil. [‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’ — Frank Zappa] My clothes are sticking to my skin and I feel beads of sweat around my forehead. My friend swims powerfully, light dashing off of his skin as though it is as reflective as the lake’s surface. There is no one else here besides a family of two parents and a young child. The child tentatively approaches the lake. They reach a hand to the water; the unfamiliarity of this medium is clearly perturbing. One parent comes up from behind, and the child watches them wade in up to the knees. The adult turns back and beckons. The child hesitates, then follows. I see my friend turn in the water and start to swim back towards me. I take off my shirt and get to my feet, striding towards the lake, and as I do, the tapestry shifts.

In this vision, I am younger. My peers and I have not quite lost the sheen of childhood, and hanging out on the beach still has its novelty for us. We dance with frivolity and ease, [‘RARE ESSENCE_TMA_83 BPM’ — Kelala] the sky blaring down on us. The smell of smoky goodness infuses the air as someone prepares a barbecue (inevitably transforming to acrid burning). We sit and eat, sunshine and smiles lighting our faces. We talk for hours about college drama, what TV we’ve been watching, what we think about the newest album from our shared favourite band. The content itself is unimportant; it is the heart that matters in these conversations. As the light fades and an invisible hand paints pink strokes across the sky, we become more raucous, preparing for revelling late into the night. Appropriate behaviour is discarded like empty cans strewn across the pebbles. At some point in the night, the party is at a lull, and I look up at the sky. [‘Acolyte’ — Slaughter Beach, Dog] The blackness is dotted with blurry stars and a warm breeze brushes past my cheeks. My friends are stripping off to swim in the sea, inviting as a blanket on this hot summer night. I remember thinking at this moment that I will never be happier than this again in my life. I am glad that I have since been proved wrong, but this moment is exactly the escapist fantasy that I need right now in my bedroom during the coldest winter of our lives.

A little soirée

Although recreating in-person hangouts is never the same over video calls, in this extended separation technology has been our salvation. My friends and I have had some success with using our laptops and phones to make us feel more connected [‘Amanaemonesia’ — Chairlift], but of course this is limited in its ability to replace face-to-face interaction. This is at the forefront of my mind one evening in deep lockdown, when a friend and I are watching a film, our screens synced so that the film is playing at the same time for both of us. Although our generation has grown up with touchscreens surrounding us and the ability to contact other people literally at our fingertips, there is nothing that quite replaces being in someone else’s physical presence. As she and I type to each other in the chat box beside the film, I am filled with pangs of something that feels like grief for normality. It is like she is a phantom limb; we are cycling through the motions of our typical interactions, but the remote nature of it means that this conversation feels devoid of colour.

After closing my laptop that night, I am filled with a profound desire to gather all of my friends into one room together. But, since that is impossible right now, instead I seek comfort in songs that we used to listen to at the house parties of our late teens. As early noughties melodies [‘Independent Women’ — Destiny’s Child] pump through my headphones, I am reminded of how things got messy in the best way possible. We consumed amounts of alcohol which would be enough to send a carthorse into a coma. We danced with that strange mixture of self-consciousness and nonchalance that only appears in teenagers. I remember people [‘Chelsea Dagger’ — The Fratellis] hooking up who really shouldn’t have, friends getting off and feeling the awkwardness at school the next day, and (a minority of) people quietly flirting who would go on to become couples. Despite the chaos, there was a tenderness in these nights, heightened by the feeling that our youth would go on forever and that nothing could stop us having fun.

When we grew older, houses morphed into nightclubs and groups of friends became throngs of strangers. There was a beautiful anonymity in being part of a club crowd, with neon lights streaking the room and sweat fogging the air. Although to some people the experience feels like sensory hell, there is community to be found in these rooms in which everything is surface [‘Immaterial’ — SOPHIE] and all surface is intangible. I miss being surrounded by strangers. I miss the tangential familiarity you had with fellow regulars who only saw you at your drunkest and messiest. I miss the smoking area chats that were so utterly casual because you knew you would never see each other again. I think perhaps there is value in being reminded of how forgettable we can be, the fact that many people neither know nor care who we are. Our need to be loved and recognised as individuals balanced with our desire to confront the world as a lone agent, blending into a multitude of cyborg faces.

As we crawl towards the end of a third lockdown, [‘Little Dark Age’ — MGMT] I think also of our inability to mourn the disappearance of these experiences collectively. It’s true that there has been loss on an unimaginable scale across the country and of course many people have experienced worlds of suffering far beyond being separated from loved ones for a few months. But, at the same time, there is minute detail in the panorama of loss that has affected us as a country and as communities. When the time comes for our reunion, our songs will soundtrack our joy, but until then, I will find consolation in those little names and icons on the sidebar of my screen.

[‘(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay’ — Otis Redding]

Article by Alex Jacobs

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