There’s nothing like discovering music in the backseat of a car. A perfect song can sneakily settle into your consciousness without your even realizing it. In the in-between moments when you have nothing to do but wait to reach whatever destination will define your day, your brain opens up to all kinds of background music. At least mine did.
As a kid, I took lots of late-night car rides with my parents, coming home from visiting relatives. These trips were no longer than half an hour, tops, but when I was five or six or seven years old, they seemed like the longest rides in the world.
My most vivid memories are of trips back from my paternal grandmother’s house on the South Side of Chicago. Holidays at my grandmother’s were filled with tons familiar faces and a bellyful of greasy, delicious soul food, all of which put me in a heady, receptive mood. On the way home, I took in the lights and the frenetic movement of the expressway as we whirred through Chicago’s neighborhoods, air blowing through the small crack of the window I left down.
My parents were usually quiet on these rides, too tired from the evening’s events to develop new conversations. I could never sleep in the car, so the radio, tuned invariably to Chicago’s V103 (a traditional R&B station), was my only source of entertainment. Quiet-storm R&B, the soulful territory of artists like Anita Baker, Sade, and Marvin Gaye, was the soundtrack of that moment. This was my mother and father’s music—their source of peace after the craziness of the holidays. And without my even willing it so, it became my music, too.
As a child, I hadn’t yet formed judgements about what I liked or hated music-wise—not explicitly, anyway—and so anything I heard was likely to slip into my brain, unfiltered, and stay there. But my teenage years gave me a new sense of musical autonomy. I no longer relied on my parents for rides, and the soundtrack when I was driving was provided by Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa—file-sharing services that gave you access to just about any song you wanted, free of charge, and in defiance of intellectual-property laws. If I heard a cool-sounding song on a car commercial, I searched for the lyrics online, then downloaded the track and anything associated with it. I spent hours making mix CDs on our desktop computer, which I would play on my Discman, hooked up to our car stereo. I was no longer subject to the whims of my parents’ car radio—now I was in charge.
Discovering new genres of music felt like I’d scored an invitation to an exclusive party, which felt great, but I was also suddenly resentful: Why had I never known about all of this great stuff before? Some deep-down (and not that intelligent) part of my brain decided that all the time I’d spent soaking in the “quiet storm” had deprived me of anything new or interesting. I spent my college years listening to a lot of soul and hip-hop, and rejecting anything even vaguely quiet or stormy.
On one of my visits home from college, my dad picked me up from the train station. In the car, Anita Baker’s “Giving You the Best That I Got” was on the radio.
I surprised myself by instantly singing along—I knew the rhythm, the instrumentation, and the lyrics perfectly. I don’t even remember learning them; in fact, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d heard the song. It all felt as familiar to me as my childhood phone number. Some things, you never forget.
I am 26 years old now, and that feeling of being so effortlessly attuned to music is harder to come by now, so when it happens, I appreciate it in a way that was impossible when I was a kid. I’ve recently gotten back into house music, which I listened to fanatically in high school and college. Last spring, on an early-morning cab ride on the way to visit my parents, my driver turned on a perfect blend of the kind of pop-oriented house—like Disclosure and Bondax—that I used to love. I don’t think he realized that I was dancing in the backseat, or heard me humming along to the songs and breaking out in smiles and squeals when yet another familiar tune started up. Then a song came on that I couldn’t place. “Wait, what is this song?” I asked him.
He turned around to show me his cellphone. The screen said that what was “currently playing” was “So Close” by Kidnap Kid. I made a quick note of it in my own phone, then spent the rest of the day singing the song’s chorus on a continuous loop in my head.
Later that evening, when I finally got the chance to download the song, I saw that it was already on my computer. I had listened to and loved it before, but I needed to come back to it by chance to realize how special it was to me. It was a nice reaffirmation that I know myself and what I like, and that I can keep on learning new ways to appreciate not just the music that was fed to me as a child, but also everything I’ve chosen since then.
When I hear quiet-storm R&B now, it feels like a warm embrace from my parents. I can see them turning to me from the front seat of the car and saying, “Don’t worry, we’re almost home.” ♦