To the best of my memory, I have cried to eight songs in my entire life.
The reason I’m so sure of these songs is that, for a few years now, I’ve kept a Spotify playlist specifically for the purpose of remembering whenever a song moved me to tears. The rule is simple: every time a new song finds some way to break me, it goes into the mix. These aren’t songs that make me cry every time I hear them; it’s far from a blacklist, or even a run of the tracks I should stay away from. If anything, this playlist is a time capsule, something that helps me to anchor myself to moments and phases of life that have long since passed.
The act of collecting deeply affecting moments has always been fascinating to me. From day to day, I’m never sure if I do enough to understand my emotions or even use that knowledge to put something affirmative back into the world. But keeping a record of the precise points in life when emotions spiked has proved to be a helpful practice and a good start.
“Because the Origami”, for instance, was a song that made me cry in my freshman year of college. I had moved to Manila, and for the first time in my life, I was choosing to live on my own away from family, a decision that, up until then, had been going swimmingly. I remember crying after telling a best friend how the song made me think of all the times I had disappointed my parents. “Because the Origami” was the first song to teach me about homesickness. Shortly after, when “I Have Never Loved Someone” made me cry, it was because I thought — oh, maybe I would like to be a dad someday — and simultaneously recognized how far I was from being ready for that.
That both of these songs were not only tied to related ideas, but also to my expectations of myself, my awareness of my esteem, and the physical and emotional costs of wanting a certain kind of life signaled that there was something these songs knew about me that I didn’t know myself. In fact, it’s often been the case that when I find a new song to cry to, it’s linked to some revelation or discovery. I rarely find myself crying to a song without that moment of surprise: of course, I’ve felt this way all along.
That’s part of why I think this kind of crying is very different from grief. I don’t know if art ever has the capacity to make people grieve in the way of real-life loss. For whatever time we spend with any work of art, even just letting it live rent-free in our minds, we never put in the same emotional investment as we would in our relationships with the world and with other people. When I wept to the songs “Distant Sky” and “Kids on the Boardwalk”, it wasn’t because those songs had taken something away from me. I cried because I was coming out of a relationship for which both of those songs seemed to sum up many of our mutual feelings at the time. I was hearing both of these songs anew, in the context of an experience that was different from the one I’d first heard it in. I felt pain, but the songs found me in my pain.
I don’t think I’m necessarily advocating for us to start crying to art more actively than I am suggesting that we should be more conscious of when it does happen without us expecting. Our culture is very obsessed with the spectacle of emotion, but the truth is that we are far from equipped with the means to wield these emotions in the right way. Traditionally, we’re brought up to think that displays of feeling, no matter where they happen, are always somehow unpleasant. Tears are often associated with only either sadness or joy, and crying is akin to making a scene. When we grow older, we become too guarded about our emotions to the point of excluding others from our interiority. It’s to the point that we like to call attention to whenever something makes us feel seen, but the moment of being seen itself is too private, almost intimate. In order to cry to art, one has to make the commitment to be open to that intimacy, so that when art manages to slip through the emotional barriers and make you cry, you know that you’ve opened yourself up to the possibility that you can be seen by anyone, even by people who have the least possible context of what you’re going through.
In the play The History Boys, Alan Bennett writes: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” The more you hold on to the moments when art has made you cry, the easier it is to remember that you are allowed to do that, there are and have been people who understand.
If there’s any worthwhile reason I have for keeping this playlist, it’s that there must be something important about having a record of every time I was allowed to think: there is always room to be frail.
Header art by Elle Shivers
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