'The universal language': How music transcends time, space, and lockdown

Rob Dobi for Penguin

Every week, my youngest son – he’s 21 – receives a handwritten note, by post, and every week, he sends one. He and his girlfriend, marooned in their family homes in different parts of the country, are sending each other their Desert Island Discs, one at a time, not as a link sent electronically in a split second, but the old-fashioned way: in an envelope, with a stamp and the assistance of the trusty Royal Mail.

In this slowed-down life that the pandemic has imposed on us, these children of the digital revolution are embracing the concept of patience, and somehow innately understand that the songs they’re choosing and sharing with each other are worthy of this kind of mindful, reverential care.

His first song to her was ‘California Dreamin’, by The Mamas and the Papas, which caused my maternal heart to glow, because that would be one of mine, too – and doubtless for the same reason. When he was young enough to enjoy singing with me, it was our party piece, a duet we perfected over time, in the car, on many a school run. I cherish that connection between us, and my small influence on his now vast musical knowledge and appreciation, and I also cherish the fact that he’s fluent in the language of music, understands its power as a means of communication, knows that in good times or bad, nothing touches us in quite the way that a song can.

This truth is what drives the narrative of my book Mix Tape, in which three decades of silence between Dan Lawrence and Ali Connor didn’t stand a chance against the inexorable power of the perfect track, which brings them back together. The only boyfriend from my own past who presented me with a mix tape early on in our relationship immediately had my full attention, and that first tape was followed by more: laboriously compiled recordings of his favourite love songs, which made me overlook, for 12 months, all the many reasons why he wasn’t right for me.

In 1986, it wasn’t simply a matter of downloading an all-new Spotify playlist, either. An old-fashioned mix tape took time, and patience, and the ability to precisely judge line and length to decide if there was just enough room left on side one for 2’41” of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’.

I’d never heard of Van Morrison until then. I’d never heard of John Martyn either, or Nick Drake, and although I had heard of Frank Sinatra – obviously – I certainly hadn’t ever listened to ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, as if it was being sung directly to me. That’s the thing, with a mix tape. Even the most familiar songs become personal messages, when someone else has chosen them with only you in mind.  

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all about love – there are all sorts of reasons to send music to someone, and there’s surely never been a better time to do it. Everyone in the world must be missing someone right now, and at a time when none of us can travel anywhere, a great song lets you go in your mind to wherever you want to be.

A week or so into lockdown, when we were all still living with the shock and disbelief, I got a WhatsApp message from a good friend in London and right away I knew what to do. “Hope you enjoy,” I wrote alongside a few suggestions, and he sent me a link to a new Spotify playlist he’d made – which was the kindest, coolest thing he could possibly have done. Three hours and 14 minutes of impeccable, eclectic, restorative music. ‘Right Place Wrong Time’ by Dr John; ‘Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife’ by Drive-By Truckers; ‘Morning in America’ by Durand Jones & The Indications; ‘Laughter’ by Josh Rouse; ‘Under the Mojito Moon’ by The Bahama Soul Club.

On and on they went, many of them – such as those – tracks I’d never heard before, yet others so familiar they form part of the fabric of my life; Joe Jackson, Steely Dan, Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell. It makes me happy just thinking about those artists.

I played the new playlist when I was out walking the dog, cooking in the kitchen, driving the car, and sitting in my office trying to write fiction but instead thinking about my kids, their lives on hold, their uncertain futures, their occasional inevitable bouts of loneliness, here in this family of five. The songs acted like a filter on my mind, letting in good thoughts, keeping out the bad. The same friend has sent links to six more of his playlists since then, so I now have over 20 hours of curated songs available whenever I want solace or distraction – or, indeed, when I feel like working on my musical education, because there’s always new stuff to discover, new songs to fall in love with.

Right now, I believe we need the power of song, and there isn’t a lockdown mood that can’t be catered to by music. It recalls people and places and feelings, and reminds us about ourselves. It can lift the spirits, calm the mind, make you dance, make you think, make you feel so much better than you were feeling before you played it. It’s a universal language, the link that connects us, a way of holding hands across the world. We’ve been cast onto our separate desert islands under circumstances beyond our control, but we do still have the discs, and we’re not, thank goodness, restricted to eight.

So, play them, share them, spread the love. It’s so easy to do, and only good things will come from it.

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