Everything I Do, pt. 14: How do old songs teleport us back to the past? [October 6, 1991]
Plus: Mariah Carey, Public Enemy, Carl Cox, and Red Hot Chili Peppers
This week’s Number 1 : ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ — Bryan Adams
I’ve listened to the damn song a lot over the last 14 weeks.
I’ve listened to it so much that it’s become like white noise to me. My brain has trained itself to filter out Bryan Adams and slow rock jams and anyone who might be wearing too much denim.
And yet, each time I hear the song, there’s a small part of me that’s transported back…somewhere. Back to the summer of ‘91, back when I was 13 years old, full of equal parts hope and dread, struggling with that uncomfortable feeling of living in a pubescent body. It’s like being itchy all the time.
I spent a lot of time by the sea that summer. I can still smell the saltwater when I hear ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’.
It’s not as powerful as the effect as some other songs. Have you ever heard a song and just crumpled? Just fell to the floor, overwhelmed, feeling like you’ve fallen into a wormhole, like you’ve travelled back in time?
There is, it turns out, a biological reason for this.
The definitive book on the subject is This Is Your Brain On Music by the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. It’s a great book and, rather than trying to summarize it here, I will recommend that you go read it.
But basically, music does something amazing to your brain. When you listen to a song, almost every part of your brain becomes active simultaneously. Your left hemisphere is stimulated by structural information, like the lyrics and composition. Your right hemisphere processes the emotional aspect of the music: joy, sadness, and the shock of an unexpected part of the melody.
When you’re listening intently to a song, you also start to perform an activity called mind wandering. It’s when your mind starts to drift and you have random thoughts that aren’t caused by external stimuli, but by your own emotions.
(Sad songs cause the greatest degree of mind wandering, although these wanderings don’t always produce sad thoughts. Some people find it very soothing to mind wander while listening to sad music.)
Now, it’s important to understand that our minds are not solid-state devices. They’re kind of like lava lamps, forever changing as various thoughts and emotions drift around inside them.
Buddhists say that the mind is a blue sky, and thoughts are clouds.
It’s very rare for us to experience the same mental state twice, just as it’s very rare to see the same cloud twice. To get back into a previous mental state, you would need to recreate all of the emotional triggers that stimulated the original mental state.
And guess what?
Music does exactly that.
Each time you listen to a song, you’re providing yourself with a uniform blend of whole-brain stimulation. You pop right back into the same mental state you were in the first time you heard it.
If that mental state occurred during a moment of powerful emotion, such as a kiss or a fight, then you’re likely to experience those exact emotions again.
And emotion is tightly connected to long-term memory recall. Emotion is how we remember. Dopamine plays a crucial role in memory formation.
And what is the most emotional time in our lives? Adolescence.
This is literally, physically true. Our frontal lobes don’t reach full maturity until our mid-20s, which means that we spend our teenage years being dominated by the more emotional parts of the brain. You never feel things as forcefully as you do when you’re 16.
Which means that there are powerful emotions connected to most of our teenage memories. And when we sit in our bedrooms and listen to records, we’re actually programming ourselves with mental triggers.
Every time you listen to that song again, you’ll be right there, back in your bedroom. You will have time traveled.
Which would be really cool, if our adolescent selves weren’t controlling the time machine.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 10 (↑ from 35): ‘World in Union’ — Kiri Te Kenawa
The official anthem of the Rugby Union World Cup, and the first recording thereof. People like Shirley Bassey and Paloma Faith have recorded subsequent versions.
Australia went on to win in 1991, after soundly beating England in the final. More importantly, they only narrowly squeaked past Ireland in the quarter-finals.
Number 22 (New Entry): ‘Can’t Truss It’ — Public Enemy
Apocalypse ‘91 is the end of an incredible three-album run from the hip-hop gods, following on It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and the monumental Fear of a Black Planet.
But hip-hop was also beginning to move on from Public Enemy by 1991. A Tribe Called Quest dropped The Low End Theory this week, and Dre’s The Chronic is only a year away. Nonetheless, this song showed there was some life in the old dogs yet.
Number 24 (↑ from 31): ‘I Want You (Forever)’ — Carl Cox
One of the songs that very quietly ushered in the era of the megastar DJ.
Which is ironic, because the whole point of dance music was to eliminate the celebrity artist and allow a pure communion between dancer and song. DJs were supposed to be anonymous, replaceable technicians and dance music was going to be the soundtrack of a new anarcho-communist utopia.
Oh well! Maybe next time!
Number 32 (New Entry): ‘Emotions’ — Mariah Carey
America and the UK were at odds about Mariah during the 90s. In the States, all of her singles went rocketing to Number One; this side of the pond, she could barely break the Top 20.
I seem to remember ‘Emotions’ being a big hit at the time, and certainly the whistling bit at the end made it quite memorable when you heard it on the radio. But it wasn’t until 1993’s ‘Dreamlover’ that Mariah finally became a legit star outside of North America.
Number 38( = ): ‘Love’s A Loaded Gun’ — Alice Cooper
When did Alice Cooper go from the main hate figure of the Satanic Panic to a cuddly rock grandpa? Probably somewhere between this song and his cameo in Wayne’s World.
Album of the Week
Blood Sugar Sex Magik — Red Hot Chili Peppers
Following on from last week, this is another astonishing week for classic albums, with the following records all debuting in the charts:
The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest
Diamonds and Pearls, Prince
Pretty On The Inside, Hole
Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails
Orbital, aka Orbital 2, aka The Brown Album, aka The one with Halcyon and that Star Trek sample, Orbital
All of these are probably better records than Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but BSSM sold a billion copies and played the biggest role in defining the 90s, so here we are.
It was an unlikely hit. RHCP had been going since 1983 and released four records in that time, receiving zero acclaim outside the LA live scene.
At heart, RHCP have always been a fuck-around party band, both on- and off-stage. They went hard at their live shows, they made funky, upbeat bops, and they took a ton of drugs. It was a lifestyle that killed their guitarist Hillel Slovak, almost killed Anthony Kiedis, and failed to produce any significant records.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik is their fifth record, and their first under the patient eye of superproducer Rick Rubin. BSSM hinges on two songs. The first single, ‘Give It Away’, is the apotheosis of what RHCP had been trying to achieve for the past decade: irresistible, unforgettable funk-rock.
And then there’s ‘Under The Bridge’. Kiedis didn’t want to record the song at all because an emotional ballad was so off-brand for a group that had written songs like ‘Sexy Mexican Maid’, ‘Party On Your Pussy’, and ‘Catholic School Girls Rule’.
But this was the mood of the 90s. People didn’t want their rock ballads to sound like ‘November Rain’ anymore. They wanted songs that were raw, vulnerable, and introspective. They wanted ‘Under The Bridge’.
The penultimate Bryan Adams piece. Can you believe it?