observations and opinion
“You should try Songza” I was told. “You would like the singer-songwriters.”
We have all had these conversations. You know the ones, where someone suggests a book or a film or a movie or a person, based on some idea of who you are or what you like. These are gifts, intended as such at any rate. But they are also semaphores transmitted across the foggy dark of the frozen ocean night. They are the messages you send out, bouncing off the mirror of someone’s mind, right back in your face.
The gift of Songza was a key into an old trunk full of chestnuts, fallen free from the tree in the 1970s and piling up like a pirate’s heap of rubies. It was a lovely thing to receive: Songza not only is littered with countless recordings from all popular genres and eras, it is also rigid: you can choose the channel but you can’t choose the tunes. They are placed on the platter one after the other, for you to listen to, or not. But if you are so fickle as to skip too many, Songza is unforgiving: it fires you from the channel. Or more accurately, Songza offers to sell you the right to choose, or to go back and be a good listener.
This rigidity might sound irksome to the 21st Century dweller who is accustomed to having what she wants when she wants it, but it is also part of the gift: the gift of not having to decide. The gift of someone else’s thinking. Indeed, it is the difference between someone giving you a plaid scarf and someone giving you a gift card. You may be stuck with a plaid scarf but you have also received thought and effort (however hopelessly wrong). They have given you a little bit of themselves.
When I was introduced to Songza I took it in this sense: it was a deliberately chosen idea, drawn from the experience of another person – it was a little bit of the person who gave it to me. It was also a message of how I was seen, of how she might wish to be seen, of how she might wish to be seen seeing me. Or it was none of that, just an idle comment. We pack all of these things into the tight package of any gift, even one so tiny as a string of letters in an otherwise politely innocuous email.
Inside the box of course, once unwrapped and peeled apart, is the present itself (or more accurately, the recent past): a trillion tunes, strung out like Christmas bulbs on a thousand criss-crossing wires, lighting up one after the other. Songza is so riddled with genres, eras, styles and attitudes as to be almost a parody of modern musical selection: yearning to listen to some sexy, funkadelic heartbreak dance numbers from 1974? Songza has a channel for you.
The free edition of Songza is frustrating to us now that we are so accustomed to deciding all the time. It will let you choose channels, like the car radio, but after that baby it’s listen or twist the knob and try another station. And as I say, this is the real gift of it: the inevitable, unintended intersection with the unknown.
When first told about Songza, it seemed meant to give me access to a trove of mopey, forlorn melodies plunked out on guitars back in the 1970s. That is how I was seen, that is what I had said I liked. Having signalled a taste for it, I invited more of it. And it was a thoughtful gift to someone who has actual memories of the 1970s, when you think about it.
But as someone wrote back in those 1970s (and recorded in 1980), “life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans” and as in life, so in Songza. This little app, unimportantly stationed on the third “page” of my iPhone icons, has become a gateway to artists and songs I knew little or nothing of: A Fine Frenzy, whose “Almost Lover” is a charming and slightly dark discussion of giving too much feeling to the wrong person; Landon Pigg’s “Falling in Love at the Coffee Shop” which is, truly, beautiful and sweet; the unexpectedly good acoustic version of Katy Perry’s “The One that Got Away” by none other than Katy Perry.
And then there is the song you always knew and never really liked, that you were too cool to hear for what it was, that has become itself almost a parody of its era. In my case, “Everything I Do, I Do it for You” by Bryan Adams. Never really liked the guy much, his hoarse croaking voice yelping above the power chords and drum kits. But on a long snowy drive one long lonesome night, Songza asked me to listen all the way through, and doing so suddenly I understood why so many millions of people gave a little of themselves (and their money) to Bryan Adams. It’s a very genuine song.
Not just the tunes are good; even some of the channels have a peculiar charm, such as “Canoe Camping on Wapizagonke Lake” (which opens with Neil Young’s “Old Man” – probably to get a little cred). And it’s not all modern pop either – how about British working class folk tunes evoking the industrial unrest of the early 1900s? Somebody is having a damned good time programming Songza and more than once, I’ve wished it was me.
On my first trip to France, I took a long train ride from Paris and arrived at the town of Beaune in Dijon as the evening light began to fade. I wandered the maze of ancient streets, switching right and left as I traced my path to the modest digs rented over the phone that morning. I felt lost at times –another empty laneway, a horsemeat butcher, a chocolate shop, stores shuttered in the late hour of the day. But where was my bed? Suddenly a long, pale blonde girl appeared before me as I turned a corner. “Are you looking for the Hotel Comfort?” she said, spookily. I was, in fact, looking for the Hotel Comfort. “It’s here” she said, her willowy arm gesturing ahead. A ghost had appeared in Beaune. And indeed, the hotel was there. And so was the ghostly girl.
This is Songza: an endless warren of cobbled streets studded with the right and wrong places, what you came to see and what you never expected. Promised pleasures and unexpected treasures, unwelcome accidents that might be skipped over – but which can cost you. Gifts are full of life: they are what someone thinks you are, what someone wants to be, what someone hopes for, sometimes what you need, even if you don’t know you need it. Songza has been all of this and more. It seems to me that I ought to give something back in return.
Maybe a plaid scarf.