Most of my life I have had terrible taste in music. From time to time I embrace something unusual and cool (my love of Jelly Roll Morton as a toddler, for instance) but more often than not I brush past musical milestones (the guys in 5th grade who tried to interest me in Green Day, an aunt who worked for an early alternative radio station who offered to lend me her CDs, an encounter with the Seattle music scene during a 2001 visit) without so much as a second glance. It wasn’t until I was in college (with access to peer-to-peer sites, a really amazing college radio station, a lot of art classes*, much more free time to spend listening to music, and boys with excellent musical taste who I desperately wanted to impress) that I started to really pay attention to my reactions to music. I began to slowly take in a song and pay attention to my responses to different sounds.
My final semester of college, a childhood friend took it upon himself to send me two CDs in the mail after a long AIM conversation about music and influences. One was a mix CD, the other was the soundtrack to Garden State. At the time I was dating a guy who imagined himself a charming, romantic, yet rakish figure. He would tell me, “this reminds me of that song by XX, you know, ZZZ,” and I would nod in agreement and make a mental note to look it up later. I had never heard of any of the songs he imagined we were living. About the time my Garden State CD arrived in the mail, he became obsessed with the movie, while I fell in love with the sound track. Several times he compared me to Sam, Natalie Portman’s character, and she always won in his eyes. I was struggling with the idea of leaving my small college town and all of my friends for an uncertain future, and took long walks listening to the soundtrack on repeat. One song would comfort me, and the next would throw me into doubt, back and forth, over and over. It became my own personal soundtrack, to the point that even when I wasn’t listening to the music, a certain mood would queue up the corresponding song in my imagination. Every time I hear any of the songs from this soundtrack I am instantly transported back in time. Today I heard The Shins song “Caring is Creepy” and in my head I was suddenly walking through a small midwestern town under a cold spring sun, pondering my future and feeling depressed yet hopeful. Listening to The Shins, Iron and Wine, and Simon and Garfunkle led me to other artists, re-introduced me to Elliot Smith and the Beatles, and helped me to pay attention to my own internal taste, away from the judgements and pressures of others.
Last year I was introduced to the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl** by the author John Green in this excellent blog post. The very point of identifying the construct of a “manic pixie dream girl” with this phrase, as coined by Nathan Rabin and as explained by John Green, is that many men (and boys) believe in the existence of such a woman. A beautiful, flighty, fun, quirky woman who can bring a guy out of his shell, encourage him to live an exciting and surprising life full of unexpected adventures, and help him transcend his troubles through her presence and influence. She is, in some ways, the man’s answer to many women’s belief in a knight in shining armor. Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State is the typical manic pixie dream girl – and, I fear, has served as a measuring stick for many guys to evaluate their unfortunate girlfriends. Happily, while I enjoyed the movie for what it was, the soundtrack is what has stuck with me. When I hear those songs, I am reminded not of Sam and Andrew, but of my own life and my real struggles with identity and relationships. And, as Sam says, the Shins changed my life–at least as far as the music is concerned.
*I don’t know about all art classes, but there was a CD player playing constantly, and people would bring their own CDs to share.
**I recommend this list of movies featuring a manic pixie dream girl character.