Pandemic Playlist: Reflections of Quarantine Life Through Music

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Pandemic Playlist: Reflections of Quarantine Life Through Music

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In March I was laid off from my full-time job of 6 years. Those first few weeks of unemployment found me struggling to stay productive and positive. With too much time on my hands I did what any well-adjusted person would do in that situation—listened to sad music to make myself feel worse.

Tom Waits – More Than Rain

Like many Americans, I live paycheck to paycheck. I knew that missing even one pay period would mean falling behind on several bills. I get paid weekly which means that even though I don’t make a lot of money, I at least always have enough to make it through to next Friday. Being broke made me feel like a failure. I resented my pre-pandemic life of always being so busy and going the extra mile at work. What did I have to show for it?

“None of our pockets, are lined with gold
Nobody's caught the bouquet
There are no dead presidents we can fold
Nothing is going our way”

The “our” in this song made me think of all the other people who were in the same situation as me. I was sad not just for myself, but for everyone else who was out of a job. It reminded me to be grateful for the things I still had.

Tom Waits is someone who I admire for his humor, but this particular song is void of any playfulness. The best way I can describe this song is to call it a cross between a lullaby for pirates and a circus ballad for depressed clowns. It features a melancholic vocal and a wearisome accordion sluggishly making its way through the song.

“It's more than rain that falls on our parade tonight
It's more than thunder
It's more than thunder”

The pandemic is much bigger than what we initially took it for. It’s poverty, depression, isolation, death…

The Specials – Ghost Town

The Specials are my favorite band, and this song which is perpetually on my playlist took on several new meanings for me. “Ghost Town” was originally written in response to unemployment and racial tensions in Thatcher era England. Now the song seems as though it was written against the backdrop of Trumpism.

“This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won't play no more”

Driving around downtown San Antonio during the early days of quarantine was incredibly eerie. All the usual sights had vanished: tourists waiting at crosswalks, work trucks driving to their next job sites, bicyclists slowing down traffic, mariachis playing at restaurants, and people strolling the Riverwalk. San Antonio was dead.

“This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can't go on no more
The people getting angry”

The harmonized ghostly screeches in the chorus set the spooky tone for the song. How can we possibly live in a city that is dead? When everything was closed, I felt like a ghost--dead and unable to enjoy my favorite hobbies. I couldn’t visit friends, travel, or waste time browsing clothing stores. I had a difficult time figuring out how to enjoy life.

Ginger Rogers – We’re in the Money

Of course a depression era song would resonate with me. For the first time ever I had money in my savings account. This was only possible because I was temporarily laid off and able to receive unemployment benefits. I begrudgingly went back to work when my boss received a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Not only did I have to work in-person putting my health at risk, but I also had to do so at my regular pay rate which was much lower than my unemployment benefits.

Body Count – Body Count

I discovered this song while watching a video montage of BLM protests on Instagram. I was immediately drawn to Ice-T’s angry vocals complemented by an equally aggressive punk rock backing. The lyrics sound like they written this year, but they are from 1992—a year after the Los Angeles riots.

“God damn, what a brother gotta do
To get a message through
To the red, white and blue
What? I gotta die? Before you realize
I was a brother with open eyes”

The Specials – B.L.M.

Just like Ice-T, The Specials have been singing about Black lives for decades. In 1980, Specials guitarist Lynval Golding wrote a song called “Why?” after he was violently attacked because of his race. In that song he seeks understanding and asks his attackers “Why did you try to hurt me?” Almost 40 years later, Golding wrote another song about his experiences with racism. Again, he takes a gentle approach by telling the listener:

“I'm not here to teach you
I'm not here to preach to you
I just want to reach out and say
Black lives matter”

Cher – Chiquitita

These days everything exhausts me, and I feel like I have no time to rest. As soon as Cher opens with “Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong?” I start crying. Thanks for checking up on me, Cher. As with most of her songs, I get happy when her music comes on because I know I’m about to do an ugly sing-along. Nowadays this song just hits different. “You were always sure of yourself / Now I see you’ve broken a feather” I have never felt so uneasy and uncertain in all my life. I used to be the shoulder to cry on when my friends needed comfort. I no longer have the energy to offer my strength.

Lila Downs – Una Cruz de Madera

Despite being a song about death, the Lila Downs version is a happy, upbeat tune. She turns it into a party song. The overall translation of the song captures how I want my loved ones to handle my passing. Instead of a fancy funeral, I’d prefer a big party in my honor. I don’t want my family and friends to shed tears, or feel any sadness. The only thing I want at my wake is a serenade in the early morning.

Toots – Got to Be Tough

Toots is one of those artists who radiates positivity. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when his upbeat tempos and powerful, soulful voice booms through the speakers. I saw him perform live a few years ago and watched him with awe. He would step away from the microphone and continue singing at an impressively loud volume—his voice filling up every corner of the auditorium. I was pressed up against the stage because he motioned for everyone to get closer. Toots came over to me several times and squeezed my hand and sang directly to me. In those moments I felt so happy and lucky to be alive. My best friend was right next to me and we both had tears in our eyes. How lucky we were that this Jamaican icon came all the way to perform for us in a stuffy San Antonio venue! We swore that we would see Toots again.

I was excited when Toots dropped his new single “Got to Be Tough” earlier in the year. It meant that a tour would follow. The song itself was also a great comfort.

“Got to be tough when things get rough
You got to be tough and this is a warning
You got to be smart, living in this time
It's not so easy to carry on”

Sadly, Toots passed away from Covid-19 two weeks after his “Got to Be Tough” album was released. Listening to the title single doesn’t bring me much comfort anymore. It makes me think of how excited I was that I was going to see him next year. Now it just makes me nostalgic for the days when we could go to shows and experience a more intimate connection with music. Nothing beats bonding with thousands of strangers who are singing, crying, and dancing to the same music as you. The song makes me miss being as happy as I was that day Toots held my hand and sang to me.

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