What’s in the brains of those mystical music-y people?

I’ve a growing obsession with the makeup of music aficionados.

To clarify, I’m not concerned with people like me, who deeply enjoy music; I’m talking about that exclusive handful of society who knows what’s happening with music across all time and space. They know the new stuff, the old stuff, the foreign stuff, the rare stuff, the originals, the covers, the groundbreaking, the popular, and what’s coming out or being re-released. These are mystical people. As a music reporter for a short time in college, I saw a tantalizing bit of this world, but I never was fully immersed in it because, alas, sorority parties took precedence over seeing Cibo Matto at the Granada at the time. Then I moved out of the country, got typhoid, married a guy who loves Boys II Men and, eventually, got pregnant—two times, close together—so I’ve missed out on the world of music appreciation over the course of 10 years.

However, I proclaim, the music is back.

It started when my friend’s husband, Craig, hooked me up with an M.Ward compilation months ago, bless his soul for that, and we double-dated to the May 22 concert, my first live show in years. The joy was such that more than one eye rolled in my direction during the show, but I was a little rusty at the concert scene, so being really excited and talking about my love of the lyrics while he was actually singing them was just where I was at the moment. Forgive.

Next, my high school friend, Andrew, moved to Chicago for the summer and, in addition to sharing with me his own mind-blowingly beautiful albums and playing for me some other artists, which I promptly downloaded on my own, he took me on a field trip to Andy’s Music, a Chicago instrument store that lit a raging fire in my music-starved spirit. (Sitars! Singing bowls! Giant gongs! Guitars! Hand percussion! It was an imagination emporium.)

And then last weekend I had the massive joy of reconnecting with a dear old friend, Lyle, who always has new bands to love and is even casting a reality show on the topic. He promptly passed me some names to download and, as a result, today the boys were viciously screaming for Surfer Blood in the car. (I think they like the name. Lyle thinks it’s the drums. Johnny says it’s the name AND the “near, near, near, near guitar sound.”) Seeing Lyle brought about the crescendo of all questions I have on this topic: How in the world do these music people do this—know what music people will like? They’re like music prophets.


A blurry image of my fave music prophet, Lyle, in the foreground, dancing with Sarah and Dave at Lindsay’s Laguna Beach wedding last weekend.

Music Extra Sensory Perception: It’s for real

My first hint of Lyle’s musical extrasensory perception (we’ll call it M-ESP) took place 12 years ago. I think we were in his room at a rickety old house in Lawrence, Kansas. Either that, or we met while jogging on the hill in front of The Wheel (see: the scene of many a sorority party.) The setting is unclear but I’m certain about squishy foam headphones, a Walkman and his intent eyes waiting for my reaction when he put the headphones over my ears. In any case, the conversation went something like this:

Lyle: “Oh, Emily. You’ve gotta hear this song. It’s this band from the UK. The song is called ‘Yellow.’ Obviously.”

Me: “Oh, wow. That really is great. Who’s the band?”

Lyle: “They’re called Coldplay. Check ‘em out.”

We know how things went for Coldplay. But how did Lyle know, just from a quick listen to “Parachutes” (2000)?

What is inside of Lyle and other such trend spotters that draws them to great music? How do they find it? In one case, Andrew Morgan told me he discovered Arthur Verocai, a Brazilian artist whose badass self-titled album came out in 1972, when a record store employee handed it to him. Do music aficionados have radar for each other so they can talk about it with other people like them? A telepathic secret society? Do they read about it? Do they go to shows every night? And, most fascinating to me, how do they experience music when they listen to it? How do they feel when they hear something awesome?

My decidedly self-centered way of experiencing music

For me, most of the music to which I listen is inextricably linked to a memory. Or to the person who recommended it to or experienced it with me. Lyle and Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Emily and Whitney Houston’s “I wanna dance with somebody.” Matt and Wilco’s “California Stars.” Andrew and The Clientele’s “The Violet Hour.” Bethany and Renee & Jeremy’s sweet songs. Josh and early U2. Another Josh and Ani DiFranco’s “Dilate.” Kristen and “Little Red Corvette.” TJ and Moby. Katie and “This is How We Do It.”  Sarah and all old-school Madonna. Ty and Calexico. Sam and DMB’s “Crush.” Sun Dee and Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Mills and her Garth Brooks. Amber and Steve Miller Band. Elaine and Blackalicious’ “The Craft.” Liz and Guster. The list goes on forever…

Sometimes if there’s no specific memory or person, I’ll just appreciate the awesomeness of the creation until I can devise an idea or a vision to go with the song, as in, I conjure an imaginary alternate snapshot, which becomes my magical reality only when I listen to that particular song. Like, I morph into a 20-something X-ed-out starlet in a club when I hear Nikki Minaj on the radio. Or I’m suddenly wrapping my surf-salty skin in a blanket and snuggling with my kids on the sand to look at the night sky when I listen to “Constellations” by Jack Johnson. (I live in Hawaii in almost all of his songs.) I’m on the brink of eternal bliss in an ashram in India when I hear Yogananda’s Divine Chants.


Painting of Yogananda, my guru, covering the wall of Swami’s Cafe in Encinitas, Calif., home to a meditation center where I am known to bliss out on occasion.

Do other people do this? Music as fantastical escapism?

When I hear a song, I hear the lyrics, I feel the melody and if I don’t have an immediate emotional response to the song, I create one. And, reliably, I return to that response every time I hear the song. Surely M-ESP intuitives like Lyle, Andrew and others are able merely to listen without judgment, without attaching himself or herself to anything or anyone specific within or surrounding the song. Mustn’t they have some level of distance from the music so they can jump around from artist to artist without attachment? Or perhaps they feel things much more deeply than I do yet are able to keep their need to hold it on a personal level at bay.

So, fair warning: If you are a music intuitive, and I happen to sniff you out—you buggers fly under the radar about your gift—I’ll be awkwardly cornering you at the next party, attempting to extract tangible understanding about your music-loving existence.

Meanwhile, thanks be to all the music mediums throughout my life, or I would earnestly be listening to “Call Me Maybe” on Kiss FM all day long. (ooh, but I do love that song.) Instead, this week, my two and four-year-old are requesting Andrew Morgan and Surfer Blood on the drives to and from summer camp. That’s got to be a service of some kind to the future generation, no? And for that, I thank my friends with M-ESP. Keep the recommendations coming, pals. By bringing the music back, you’re making my world a far richer place.

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