I called my dad on July 2nd while I swiveled in an office chair at work. For the last 5 hours, my Apple earbuds had transmitted sounds of trickling waterfalls and pattering rain drops. I thought this would be soothing. Instead, it was literally water torture.
I was only two days into my new life without music, and I was already going insane.
Thanks to my dad, I grew up in a household governed by music. One of his few splurge purchases was a gigantic set of oak speakers, of which he made good use. I watched him start many a Friday night by slicking back his hair, pouring a generous rum and coke, lounging on the couch, and blasting “Come Together” by The Beatles. Mashed potato and turkey dinners frequently featured a side of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits. It was not uncommon for the household to have three sources of music at a given moment, even if the cacophony of rap, nu-metal, and 4-minute bass solos (another Dad special) made my mom’s ears bleed.
Even with that said, it’s tough to describe the role music has played in my life. Obsession fetishizes it. Addiction cheapens it. Habit doesn’t cover the depth. It sounds weird to say, but the closest word I can find is companion. Music was there when I was an awkward teenager alone in my room. It was there in college preserving my sanity while I pored over archaic math proofs. It’s there when I’m working out, or folding laundry, or recovering from a hangover. In fact, almost every word on Alex Gives Up was written with music playing in the background.
So I’m not sure what compelled me to list “music” as one of the 12 items to give up back in January. But I did. And the incredulity from friends was nearly unanimous.
“Music?!” they would gasp, and you could feel the exclamation point puncture the question mark. “Why?!”
My only legitimate response was “to see if I can do it.” It was sheer naive audacity—masochism, pure and simple.
The rule was that I couldn’t listen to music on my own accord. That meant no headphones, no speakers, and no instruments. But since music is so pervasive, if I heard it on the street, at a friend’s house, or in the background of a TV show, I wasn’t going to sprint away with my fingers pressed in both ears.
Since July 1st fell on a Sunday, I didn’t start to feel the effects until work on Monday.
My work habits are entirely dictated by music. Doesn’t matter where I am, I haven’t reached the office until my headphones are plugged in and music is streaming. I listen to it literally all day. At its best, it sharpens my focus and helps work flow.
But in my most unproductive moments, I’m easily distracted by picking a song. Hours in aggregate have been wasted finding obscure songs on YouTube. So I thought there might be a chance that abstaining from music would have some benefit.
Within a few hours, that chance plummeted to nearly zero. I couldn’t focus. My face was molded into a constant grimace. In a move of visual exasperation, I slumped face first onto my keyboard. It was around this time that I called my dad and boldly self-diagnosed depression.
If this was Harry Potter, bullshit ambient noises would have been the dementor sucking the life out of me. I needed to switch tactics. Something rhythmic, but with a little more variation.
What about speeches? I Googled “famous speeches in history” and started with a portly, fiery chap who had trouble pronouncing his r’s: Winston Churchill.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall NEVER surrender.”
Fuck yeah Winston! You ‘n me buddy! It was just the jolt I needed.
Famous historical speeches became my savior. Good speeches have two primary components: what is said and how it’s delivered. A speech like “I Have A Dream” by MLK has a beautiful cadence and I’d heard the words enough times that I could lose myself in the rhythm and work. JFK became my Justice, Malcolm X my Mos Def, and FDR my Flosstradamus. In fact, I found a new rhetorical hero in none other than Richard Nixon who delivered the best speech of the 20th century with “Checkers,” a flawless dictation of his financial history featuring a spotted black-and-white puppy as the emotional high point.
But life without music was still dismal. I craved music like Christina Aguilera craves tubs of ice cream. I missed my Spotify and Hype Machine accounts (holla at sh’boy akorch16!), and my post-work ritual of playing piano to radio pop songs was dully replaced with TV. I nearly lost my shit any time a YouTube video was preceded with an advertisement for a new VEVO music video, possibly the first time in YouTube’s existence that someone has voluntarily watched the full 30 second ad instead of skipping through after 5. I didn’t even complain when my roommates would play country music, even if the sound of Southern drawls and twangy guitars still made me want to pitchfork Toby Keith right in the dick.
I knew that these were grey areas, but on paper I was still following the rules. However, it didn’t take long before I found the line and leaped over it.
On the first weekend of July, Fillmore Street was host to San Francisco’s Jazz Festival. “Well I walk down Fillmore all the time. This time, jazz music just happens to be playing,” I told myself.
File that one under “self-deluding bullshit.”
But goddamn did that bullshit sound amazing. There was a 20-piece band, complete with blaring horns, pounding congo drums, and booming bass. A few blocks up, a throwback rap duo laid down rhymes over smooth saxes and funky beats. You couldn’t walk more than a hundred feet without hearing the sweet sounds of jazz music.
It was bliss.
And it was cheating. But it was also the best I’d felt in a week.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only exception.
In May (fucking May), I learned that the San Francisco Symphony would perform a suite of Pixar music in July. In other words, one of the most renowned symphonies in the world would play music from my favorite movies on Earth. If I believed in God, his name would be Gusteau and his gospel would be Ratatouille. No way was I passing this up.
In late July, the day arrived. As I strolled inside, it felt like I had been transported to 18th century Vienna. The symphony hall was absolutely gorgeous: dimmed amber lights accented the flowing white pillars and crimson seats. Rows upon rows of musicians filled center stage. Even though I was slapping July’s resolution in the face, I was giddy with anticipation.
And then the music started.
The symphony opened with songs from Toy Story, the music simmering below an enormous screen silently showing scenes with Buzz and Woody. By the time the theme music from Ratatouille began playing, the tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was just so goddamned beautiful. The strings rose and fell as timpanis pounded and flutes crescendoed, each note illuminating Remy’s scampering footsteps. The two-hour set was mesmerizing and was the most remarkable live performance I’ve ever seen—definitely aided by the fact that I hadn’t listened to music in weeks (and was also fairly baked).
I never got used to it. Like the light had been sucked from my life. I hadn’t noticed until it was gone, but so much of my daily mood is intertwined with music—I have quiet, ethereal instrumentals for mornings, thumping electronic beats for daytime work, and laid-back rap for nights and parties. Instead, I was stuck with white noise and scattered sounds from the city streets. Pick any synonym for “depressed”—melancholic, glum, despondent—I had them all in spades. If it hadn’t been for Winston, Martin, and Franklin, the month would have been a total loss. It sucked. No… scratch that: it fucking sucked.
But I stuck to it. After 31 painfully long days, I was free. When August 1st arrived, I played my usual morning music and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
The worst monthly resolution to date was in the books. There would be rough (and embarrassing) times ahead, but my psyche would not take a pummeling like July’s again.
And for the first time in a while, I was excited for next month.
No longer would I be a godless heathen. In August, I would rid my soul of atheism and get buddy-buddy with the most famous man in history: Jesus.