[note: I originally pitched this to The Atlantic, as a response to calls for stories about personal interactions with technology. they sent me a really nice rejection, so i’m putting it up here instead.]
If we lived in the eighties, Jake might have made me a mixtape. If we lived in Texas or Maryland or California we might have listened to it driving around aimlessly in the twilight. But it was 2012, in New York City, and I was still using iTunes.
We met on move-in day; he lived down the hall from me in a Columbia University brownstone. He didn’t roll up in a red Porsche but he might as well have.
He was, no exaggeration, the Platonic ideal of the American teen fantasy. Blonde hair cropped short except for a little flop across his forehead, glacial eyes, Brad Pitt jaw. He surfed, he skateboarded, he was a wide receiver from San Antonio. He wore crew neck sweatshirts with khaki shorts and worn-in Vans. His resting face was a brood, but he grinned occasionally. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, his mother had named him after Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles.
We started talking at a campus bar one night about Wes Anderson soundtracks, as people do at campus bars. When we got back to the brownstone, I saw that he had already placed his number on my door, written on a sticky note.
He was out of place at Columbia, more Friday Night Lights than Bright Lights, Big City. He was an American Anachronism. Where other collegians thought a “hey wut u up to?” text was a straightforward way to ask someone out, his sticky notes seemed delightfully analog. His request for a dinner date was like being offered Turkish Delight in Narnia.
We continued to talk, over the next few weeks, mostly about music. He convinced me to activate my Spotify account. Soon my inbox pinged with a red notification button. It was “Money Trees” by Kendrick Lamar. He suggested more: Beach Fossils, M. Ward, Toro y Moi. He twangily mispronounced “Moi” and “Bon Iver” and “Seu Jorge.” I looked forward to seeing that red notification on Spotify, more than I looked forward to his texts.
Sharing music has the effect of immediate nostalgia. I was collecting each interaction with Jake as I was each song. One day, sitting in his bed, he asked me what kind of music I liked most.
“I guess… music to zone out to,” I said. I named my next Spotify playlist that, thinking he might see it on the app. Spotify can act as a kind of social network where you stalk what your friends are listening to, but this hasn’t seemed to catch on much, giving Spotify libraries the kind of honest messiness that Instagram accounts had when people just wanted to make their pictures prettier, before we had hundreds or thousands of friends.
I never completed “Music to zone out to,” because soon Jake stopped talking to me. We stopped exchanging songs. Every time I opened Spotify, I felt indebted to him. Each playlist was imprinted with his personality, his taste, his influence. He walked out of the brownstone with his headphones on, always brooding, never smiling. Sometimes I checked to see what he was listening to. I realized I didn’t know him very well. I didn’t know him at all. He had a girlfriend back in Texas.
A few weeks later I saw a little red notification button on my Spotify app. Jake had sent me, by way of explanation, a song. Specifically, “Southern State” by Bright Eyes. I think my eyes rolled fully into my skull, exorcism-style. I refused to open it. I have since refused to open it. Sometimes the little red notification button disappears, but it always comes back – on my phone, my work computer, my new laptop. I looked at the lyrics, something about a brooding young man who jumps into the arms of the first girl he sees in a new town. I got it. I moved on. I graduated. I started paying for Spotify Premium, writing for a music blog, and going on dates with people with even better music taste.
Still, the reappearing red button works its nostalgic magic, the remnant of a weak and corny gesture, now years old. The kind of thing that only works in John Hughes movies. I use Spotify every day, and I’ll readily retire it when it fades into obsolescence. It’s less classic than a red Porsche, but no less transporting.
//images: Spotify, jessicaajg.tumblr.com