On being … the lyrics of your life?

By Ingrid Sapona

The late Dick Clark is credited with coining the saying “music is the soundtrack of our lives”. That has always – if you’ll pardon the pun – resonated with me. Like a contestant on Name That Tune, as soon as I hear the opening notes of certain songs, I can tell you where I was and what was happening in my life at the time. Few other things can do that for me. (Actually, the only other sensory trigger I can think of is the smell of Coppertone – it takes me to the beach immediately, but there’s no timeframe associated with it like there is for me with music.)

But beyond their magic carpet-like ability to transport me to some other time in my life, I’ve known for a long time that certain lyrics have imprinted on my soul in a way I thought was unusual – but that I recently realized might happen to others too. This revelation came to me recently in a comment Jane Pauley made (in her new book) about how she explains her career trajectory. She said that in struggling to explain her tremendous good fortune, she often thinks of the lyric Maria sings in the Sound of Music – somewhere in her childhood, “she must have done something good”.

Actually, that particular lyric happens to be one that made an impression on me long ago too – but not in quite the same way it did for Ms. Pauley. Truth is, sometimes, when things aren’t going well, I think of that lyric and worry. For those of you who don’t remember the song that well, before Maria revels in the fact that she must have done something good, she admits that: “Perhaps I had a wicked childhood, perhaps I had a miserable youth.” Yes, with a healthy dose of Christian guilt (perhaps courtesy of all the nuns in the movie, which I saw at the tender age of five), the fear that I never had that moment of truth haunts me.

Some lyrics taught me lessons that I subconsciously adopted. Smile (the song by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, to a melody composed by Charlie Chaplin) is the perfect example. You know: “Smile though your heart is aching, smile, even though it’s breaking… Light up your face with gladness, hide every trace of sadness … Smile, what's the use of crying, you'll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.”

Long before I ever experienced heartache, those lyrics made their way into my head. I think the fact that the song doesn’t identify a particular type of hurt is what helped me relate to it. And at some point fairly early in my life I realized that a smile can be a wonderful mask – I’m sure I got the idea from the song. And then there’s the coping mechanism aspect of the song that I have also relied on for years – the notion that smiling actually helps turn my mood around. (You
know, I’ve always wondered whether T.V.’s Dr. Phil had the lyrics of Smile in mind when he came up with his “fake it till you make it” mantra.)

Then there are some lyrics that have percolated into my subconscious that, when they bubble up, suddenly fill me with gratitude. There’s a refrain from a James Taylor song that hits me every time I walk into my front hall after a trip or a particularly long day: “
Isn’t it nice to be home a-gain…” The simple truth of that lyric reminds me of how lucky I am to have a home I love coming back to. And I have Irving Berlin to thank for another lyric that happily springs to mind often after chatting with, or visiting, one of my sisters: “there were never such devoted sisters”.

There are even some lyrics that miraculously pop into my head to calm me when I’m distracted or worried by “what ifs”. No, I’m not talking about Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” (though that lyric would clearly help at such times). The lyric that hits me is a bit more obscure: “Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul but it’s bad for the heart” (it’s from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music). Odd, I know, but it does help remind me to focus on the present.

Anyway, you get the picture. But my reason for writing this isn’t to share anecdotes about the impact of lyrics on my life. It’s because I’m wondering whether – like me and Jane Pauley – there are lyrics that have imprinted on your soul or psyche…

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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