Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is from an anonymous reader:
I just narrowly avoided a breakup, and it got me wondering: What music, movies, books, etc. have been or would be tainted for you by the specter of sadness due to a failed relationship? (Mine would have been The National, so I’m glad we’re still together.)
I wouldn’t say that I’m sad that one of my big, long-term “let’s live together because we’re so in love” relationships ended about 10 years ago—it was just awful, obviously, and I’m way happier and way more married now—but I am sad that a really great song, Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” got so inevitably tied into that shitty entanglement. It was “our song,” to the extent that we’d talked about dancing to it at our wedding (which—again, thank God—never happened). And when we broke up, I’d listen to Morrison’s warble and get depressed, thinking that I’d lost my one true love, the one person who understood me. This was absolutely insanely stupid, and I realize that now, but it still bums me out to listen to “Crazy Love,” even if I really do think it’s one of Van Morrison’s best songs. I will say, though, that I don’t think I get depressed because of the song, but rather because it’s a reminder of just how depressed I was at that period in time. Love—or the perception of love, at least—can really mess you up, man.
There used to be a dark cloud of awkwardness hanging over Low’s Transmission EP. The five-song collection (six if you count the 10-minute-long unlisted noodling-around that closes out the record) came out in 1996, just as I was in the middle of my first intensely over-the-top high school romance. We both became obsessed with the haunting (even by Low standards) tracks, going so far as to actually perform versions of “Hands” and “Jack Smith” together as a couple, à la Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. (I know, I know.) When the relationship ended, so did my ability to listen to the EP, at least for a while. After a couple of years and a little distance, I was able to put the record on and again appreciate its spare beauty without the emotional baggage. Also, it’s got a kickass Joy Division cover, which supersedes most things.
I started dating my first boyfriend when I was 18, the summer after I graduated. By 19 he had bought me my first record player as a birthday gift. It was the kind that allowed you to transfer vinyl to your computer, so that night we sat down to rip one of my first records—Elton John’s Madman Across The Water. When we played back the “test-song” on my computer, we realized it had recorded not only “Levon” but also our conversation. At the time, I was mortified that there was recorded proof of me being affectionate, but when I moved to Chicago, and we commenced what would be three years of long-distance dating, I would revisit the song to curb the love pangs. When I graduated college and it became apparent I wasn’t going to move back home then or probably ever, we ended things amicably. This seemed worse than a horrendous breakup, because everything reminded me of “how good I had it and how I let that go,” and “Levon”—with commentary or not—is still especially difficult for me to stomach.
My first relationship ended a few short months into college—a victim of the “turkey drop,” a term for all the high-school-into-college relationships that end before Thanksgiving—and for what seemed like a long time at age 18 I had been listening to G. Love & Special Sauce with my high-school boyfriend. Post-breakup, G. Love was tied up in everything about that senior-year relationship, including the roads of my hometown where we would drive aimlessly the way suburban teenagers do and the That ’70s Show lifestyle my Wisconsin friends and I lived in high school and couldn’t quite re-capture on college breaks spent back home. Early on post-breakup I’d indulge my (in hindsight over-the-top) all-consuming heartbreak by revisiting the G. Love albums my boyfriend and I had listened to most, but after a while Yeah, It’s That Easy and Lemonade stopped being weepy feeling-sorry-for-myself sessions and turned into tiring reminders of a relationship I was ready to move on from. I did pick up 2008’s Superhero Brother, telling myself I was over the relationship enough to enjoy G. Love as I once had. I was wrong, of course, and after a half-dozen half-hearted listens I abandoned the album to the crack between the car seats. I haven’t listened to G. Love since, though it’s hard to tell if that’s because of how drastically my musical tastes have evolved in the past eight years or if it’s because it still invokes that first heartbreak sadness. Probably the latter.
This technically hasn’t happened to me, and that’s by design. One of my guiding principles when dealing with a break-up is not to let the person leave with my stuff, and while that stuff is occasionally more tangible, it’s usually a song or an album. I feel like I’m giving someone too much power if I let them spoil my enjoyment of something I once loved, so I’m a proponent of exposure therapy. I’ll play a song on repeat for days to dilute its emotional impact. Even though I get sick to death of it, I can revisit it down the line without bringing those emotions back. The only time this hasn’t worked is with “Excuse Me” by Jazmine Sullivan. It shuffled up while I was riding in the car with a friend at a point when I thought I was mostly over a recent break-up. I told my friend the song had always made me think of him, and she said “Really? He once told me it makes him think of you.” It was a gut punch, considering I’d never listened to the song with him, or even talked about it with him. I can still listen to it, but I’ll never be able to separate it from that relationship.
One of my college relationships semi-permanently soured the music of Bright Eyes for me, though that has less to do with the pain of love lost than it does with embarrassment at what an asshole I was during the spring of my sophomore year. Twenty-year-olds aren’t exactly renowned for their emotional maturity, which is why 20-year-olds in the mid-’00s were naturally drawn to Conor Oberst’s red-wine tantrums. Ten years later, I can still appreciate the rubbed-raw intensity of Fevers And Mirrors and Lifted, but the songs are also blueprints for bad dating, in which the hangover of one heartbreak fuels the next one. That summer, I poked at the wound from a breakup, playing “The Calendar Hung Itself…” on repeat, daily, blind to the fact that sympathizing with the POV within its lyrics was exactly why I felt the way I did.
There’s a trembling ache nestled in the middle of the cool, sleek blackness of Interpol’s 2002 debut album, Turn On The Bright Lights. It doesn’t require a shitty personal association to make it hurt more. Yet I had the mixed fortune of experiencing a meteorically explosive relationship—and an equally cataclysmic breakup—soon after the album came out. Even better/worse, my girlfriend and I discovered the album together, became obsessed with it together, then more or less fell apart with Paul Banks’ curdled croon seeping through the distance between us. If that sounds mawkish, well, those were mawkish times. To this day, I’m still not sure if the residue of one disfigured romance makes Turn On The Bright Lights unbearably unlistenable for me, or if it just sums up a time when all the aches seemed so apocalyptic.
I’ve written in the past about the death of my fiancée, Shanna. It’s hard to narrow down one thing that I love that hasn’t been made bittersweet by the loss; Bob’s Burgers, which was the cornerstone of our weekly dates, snuggled together on the bed and laughing; “Gimme Sympathy,” by Canadian rock band Metric, which was playing during our first kiss. Even stuff like the crappy Cameron Diaz/Jack Black rom-com The Holiday takes on strange, heart-breaking significance, because she once insisted I give it a chance. But I’m going to go with something we did together that made us a team: Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, which we played together in the summer of 2013. Although I held the controller, every decision was made together. Sometimes that meant heated ethical arguments, waged quickly while the timer ticked down. Other times, clear-eyed, nodding agreement, a shared belief in our righteous cause. And through our shared choices, we decided who protagonist Lee Everett really was, and how he would guide our surrogate kid, Clementine, in a dangerous world. I’ll never touch The Walking Dead again, no matter how many more seasons Telltale releases. It’s a game I loved, but some of the parts I need to play it are lost now, forever.
I’m a lucky jerk who’s never really had to go through the failure of a serious relationship, but I’m fascinated by the question, because if you ignore the petty tyranny of wedding anniversaries and go with the full length of our relationship, my wife and I have been together for almost 14 years at this point. Reading these responses has me thinking about what pop-culture stuff would be ruined if we split up, and the answer is almost everything. Well, not everything: there would be no feuding over who had emotional custody of Peaky Blinders (her) or Michael Mann movies (that’d be me). But a lot of it would be fraught, which is why my hypothetical answer is as broad as rock concerts. We have been to a lot of shows together, and I imagine the experiences of going back to see They Might Be Giants or The Hold Steady or Belle & Sebastian, among many others, would be painful. So like I said, I’m lucky.
I’m also lucky, but for a different reason—namely, that my exes have had questionable taste in music. Can’t hear the opening strains of Less Than Jake’s “Sugar In Your Gas Tank” without recalling making out in the pit with an excitable ska kid? Oh well. Have a distinct sense memory of riding in a hot car with the guy who would break my heart a few months later, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” playing softly on the tape deck? Whatever. Ministry always dredges up memories of the kid in the black trench coat who gave me mono (or maybe I gave it to him)? Meh. I’ll be fine.
For better or worse, my “lost love” list is short to begin with, and to whittle it down further for the purposes of this question, it comes down to just one person who messed me up to a degree where there’s any sort of residual annoyance about the way things went down, and even in that instance, there’s enough distance now that I can look back and see that I ended up being inappropriately bitter about the way things ended. (Not that some degree of bitterness wasn’t warranted, but I definitely went overboard, and I regret taking it to that level.) With all that said, though, I wish that I didn’t associate Mystery Science Theater 3000 with that relationship, because it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. Thankfully, it’s not like I’m constantly thinking about her when I’m watching it—to be honest, I’m generally just thinking about how many times I’ve seen the episodes and which of my favorite lines is coming up next—but given that I barely watched it when she and I first started talking, there’s generally at least a brief moment where I find myself suddenly taking a deep breath, after which I instantly thank my lucky stars that I found my wife when I did.
Like Katie, my big heart-stomping, sweatpants-for-days break up was from a guy who told me when we first started dating that his favorite band was a novelty rap group (yeah, yeah, I should have trusted my gut and fled at that exact moment). Oddly, it was clothes that I remember wearing at particular points in our relationship that I had to give away. But it’s odd that the one relationship I had in college where I was truly a terrible person to this guy who worshipped me affected me the most. He made me this killer mixtape and I can’t listen to the songs on it anymore. Goodbye, “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key.” So long, “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness.” I hardly knew ye, “Letter From An Occupant.” Why? Maybe out of guilt, because I was a pretty horrendous girlfriend. But, man, it sucks, because it was a great mixtape.