Hey, Can I Borrow That?

A reflection on musical first loves, friendship, Spotify and borrowed time in the age of streamed music. 

Illustration by Anita Rudakov
Illustration by Anita Rudakov

Kate is both my best friend and my roommate, but I’ll never be able to befriend a shirt I’ve borrowed from her. I’ll never remember the day I bought it, sewed it, or took it from my mom’s closet. I won’t remember living in it for days or weeks, won’t hold it six months later and have a better idea of where I stand or of how things have changed. I always have to give it back before I even get the chance.

The first CD I bought was Kanye West’s Graduation. I listened to it over and over again on my Discman, feeling harder, better, faster, stronger with every run-through. I knew the crevices between songs, their silences and the sounds that followed. The lyrics were my secrets, the beats matched my steps, and the melodies followed me even when my headphones didn’t. Graduation and I knew each other, intimately. We played off of each other, bounced ideas off of each other, and, ultimately, grew out of each other. But for a time, the album was unarguably mine. We were each other’s. However briefly, we were alone in this world, together.

I can’t listen to The Life of Pablo in the same way. Not really. Not unless I wait for a free month of Spotify Premium so I can learn the order of the songs as they were meant to be heard, uninterrupted by ads, Shuffle Play, and the infuriating feature where Spotify plays songs by the artist that aren’t even from the same album. But a month isn’t nearly enough time to form a friendship. Sooner than I’d like, my time is up and I have to give it back.

Not only is our time together much too short, no level of Spotify subscription will allow me to really be alone with this music. I can always see that Facebook Friend is listening to Justin Timberlake, and my activity is always being tracked for tomorrow’s Daily Mix. I can follow my friends’ song choices like I can follow their haircuts and their politics. My relationship with these sounds isn’t a private one.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. I love following Kate’s playlists. Like the post-its and sea glass adorning her bedroom, her playlists are made up of the little things she’s found, collected and lovingly pasted together. They’re the things she uses to decorate her life, the traces left behind when she has gone home for the summer. I can see her and hear her in them. But I can never really know what these bumps and beats mean to her; I can’t feel how they make her feel. Her songs are beautiful and intriguing, but they aren’t mine. They were meant for someone else entirely.

I listen to Graduation now and I hear a previous version of myself sandwiched between the songs whose rhythms I once had memorized. It’s a familiar friend, a diary hidden in plain sight, something I often forget I ever owned and loved but loves me unconditionally anyway. In contrast, the music I stream is too quick to forget me, too apathetic about who I am and where I’m going. Like a shirt from Kate’s closet, it’s fun for a night, but it will always be borrowed.

I’ll only inhabit it ever so fleetingly, and she will always wear it better than I do.

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