34. “Bailero” from Chants d’Auvergne, Frederica von Stade with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Remember mix tapes?

Um. No.

Okay, I get it, Valley-Girl-Voiced Imaginary Reader. You’re younger than me. You can un-pause Spotify now.

Anyway, I would pick my songs and add up the times of each song to make sure I could maximize each 45-minute side of a 90-minute tape.

I would give my mix tapes names like “Chill Songs” or “Raunchy Rock.” And there was one very special tape I made called “Smile Songs.” And this song, which I knew from the soundtrack to the mesmerizingly awesome show Northern Exposure, was on it.

Why “Smile Songs?” The simple answer is that the songs on that tape made me want to smile. And smiling is good. But, and this is where it gets a little less simple, smiling doesn’t really come naturally to me. Smiling makes me self-conscious. Smiling seems to take effort for me. It makes me feel like my cheeks are made of rock and the muscles underneath are churning like Olympic rowers (seriously, nothing looks more strenuous than rowing at the Olympics) to move them out and up and into some semblance of a grin. It never feels like I’m stretching my mouth wide enough to get the full endorphin rush you’re supposed to get from smiling. Smiling, especially for photos, gives me a low level of anxiety. Should I accompany the smile with a raise of the eyebrows? Do I keep my mouth shut? Do I show some teeth? It’s funny, some people when they smile, you can see every tooth in their mouth and their gums. Me, you’re lucky if you see a millimetre of incisor.

So, clearly I have some bizarre issues with smiling. But other people seem to have an issue with my smiling as well – or, I should say, lack of smiling. I can’t tell you how many times, especially in my teens and twenties, that people told me I should smile. “Why don’t you smile more?” “You don’t smile enough.” “Smile!” But why? Why did it matter so much to them? Were they worried about me? Did they think my naturally stoic countenance revealed some dark depression? I mean, sure, I’ve always dealt with various degrees of unhappiness, but who doesn’t? I wouldn’t say that in my case the book can always be judged by its cover. Like I said in a post from earlier this year, while they say some people have “resting bitch face,” I have resting serious face, and often even excited serious face. That’s just me. Showing expression feels unnatural. Call me weird if you want to. Because, frankly, that’s more accurate. Just don’t call me serious.

I think the reason I called the songs on that tape “Smile Songs” was because what they actually did for me is release those endorphins that fully smiling does for most people. And this song so does that.

If you’ve followed this blog, or take a quick look at the songs I’ve written about, you’ll see a lot of 90s rock, some old blues and R&B, some poppy stuff – but no opera. This is the only operatic song that’s ever really spoken to me, not that I’ve spent much (well, any) time giving it a chance. Still, that voice, those whistling woodwinds, that melody: endorphin rush every time. It makes me feel peace, warmth, beauty, nature, like I’m in some expansive field of green, under the sun and blue sky, where everything smells fresh, where everything is easy and nothing matters but being there and hearing those sounds.

That’s the feeling Northern Exposure gave me, too. It’s the kind of art that’s full of contradictions that has always spoken to me. Because that’s life, full of contradictions and grey areas. It was funny, it was dramatic; it was realistic, it was surreal; there were breathtakingly beautiful people (oh, sweet Janine Turner), there were very unremarkable-looking people (which was refreshingly new on TV); and everything in between. The show was inspiring to me. It made me want to make something like it. It made me want to be a TV writer. It made me want to create a TV show that gave off that same vibe, that made people feel the way I felt when I watched it. Okay, it’s been 20 years and I haven’t done that. I’m not a TV writer. And I do wish I’d tried to follow that path, I just didn’t know how it was possible at the time. It’s a regret. But I am thankful that I get to write for a living, even if it’s not TV shows. And that I get to write for fun, too, and post things here about music and weirdness and (get ready, I’m going to be that guy in the movie that conspicuously says the movie’s title) my shuffled life.

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