Breaking Up (With Music) Is Hard to Do

Maybe with music and ending a relationship, we should all take a cue from the kids in the video for “Dirty Boots,” a song by one of my favorite bands, Sonic Youth. Watch it here.

I grew up in the mixed-tape generation. My first kiss, my first boyfriend, my first everything is captured on some dusty cassette somewhere.

My marriage also had a soundtrack. Thanks to my ex-husband, I fell in love with folk legends like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the sad, sweet loneliness of Texas’ Townes Van Zandt. Although I appreciated grunge in high school, it came into its own when my ex and I rocked out to Screaming Trees and Soundgarden on our cross-country road trips. I in turn introduced him to the Dandy Warhols, a band he loved so much that once we ended up seeing them several times in one summer, buying tickets to their shows in both Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Like everything else in our marriage, music was about compromise: we opened ourselves up to experiences that we weren’t initially into, so we could share something.

Over the years, I’ve traded out mixed tapes for Spotify and made countless playlists I listen to whenever I need to change up my emotional atmosphere. Do I want “Rock Sirens”? Am I feeling “Unabashedly 80s”? There’s this endless shapeshifting of songs that carries me to my past, my dreams about my future and back again.

But that “Shuffle” option on Spotify can be like a ninja sneaking up on you and swiftly drop kicking your heart. One day while going home from work, I decided to let Spotify randomly select from my playlists for me. Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” the song we had danced to at our wedding, came on. The pain I felt from hearing it was so physical I was worried I might throw up or cry or both on the subway.

There is no way to split up the asset of music in divorce: it’s too deeply embedded in our lives, our memories we all share. So what are we supposed to do?

Me, I continued chronicling my heart’s adventures with new Spotify playlists to power me into the life I was building. Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” gradually gave way to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a Bob Dylan song he covered as the lead singer for Them. I realized I had suffered through a lot of shows I didn’t enjoy with my ex, including countless bluegrass jam fests that bored me to tears. The best antithesis I could think of was to rediscover bands in genres I loved, like electronica and shoegaze, and go see them live. With all the DC music venues, the options were endless. I listened to my friend, who reassured me that no one could ever take Bob Dylan from me, that Bob Dylan belonged to everyone and always would. And he was right. Eventually I didn’t skip those familiar songs when they came on but instead listened to them with the perspective of someone who had returned from a long journey where she had gotten lost many times.

Lately, my adventures in dating remind me that music is not relegated to just the person we may love at the time, but in how we live our lives and what we enjoy at that moment with that music. Those moments in music are always ours to have and to hold, even if the person isn’t. Maybe with music and divorce, we should all take a cue from the kids in the video for “Dirty Boots,” a song by one of my favorite bands, Sonic Youth: let it inspire us to share some time with someone, however fleeting, before we hurl ourselves into the possibilities out there that we haven’t discovered yet.

What makes your heart sing now that your relationship has ended? Let me know in a comment below. And if this blog resonated with you, thanks for recommending it.