Kelly J. Baker
It was a Saturday in mid-April. The kids were off to Grandma’s house. Chris was working in his office upstairs, listening to music with his headphones on. The rhythmic thump of his foot on the floor above me suggested that he was probably listening to Miranda Lambert or Kacey Musgraves, the current favorite artists of all four Bakers. And I was waiting on him to finish work, so the two of us could spend the day together.
I picked up a broom to sweep and kill time.
My half-hearted attempt at cleaning required a soundtrack, so I pulled up the Amazon Music app on our television and scrolled through the library of music we’ve accumulated in fourteen years of marriage. I passed by Jimmy Eat World, P!nk, the Pitch Perfect 1 and 2 soundtracks, Musgraves, Miranda, Taylor Swift’s 1989, Maroon 5, Kansas, Rachel Platten, Reba, Fall Out Boy, and Journey. None of these artists or albums interested me. I didn’t want to listen to any of them. I searched on.
The black and white cover of Matchbox 20’s Yourself or Someone Like You caught my attention. I couldn’t remember the last time I listened to this album that I used to love, so I queued it up.
“Real World” blared on the speakers; I began to sweep. By the time track two, “Long Day,” started to play, I was dancing and singing around my living room with wild abandon. The broom became a microphone with stand. I sang loudly about long days, trying to get away from myself, and looking for hope in somebody else’s pocket. “It’s me, yeah,” I sang along with the chorus, “and I can’t get myself to go away.” My singing became more enthusiastic with each line, but then, I stumbled over the last line of the chorus. My breath caught in my chest, and I wheezed out: “Oh God, I shouldn’t feel this way.”
Oh God, I thought, I shouldn’t feel this way anymore, but I suddenly did. “Long Day” kicked me in the gut and kept kicking me while I was down. That overwhelming desire to get away from myself, to escape that early life I ended up with, crashed down on me.
I now remembered why I hadn’t listened to this particular album in years. It hurt too damn much. Playful nostalgia disappeared, and all that was left was old hurt. Memories resurfaced that I thought I had forgot. I wasn’t ready for them.
Yourself or Someone Like You conjured up what it was like to be 18, fighting my way to adulthood with every breathe I took. I vaguely remember that girl I used to be, but the burning desire to escape came back to me with sharp edges and unforgiving clarity. Long blonde hair, faded jean shorts, cherished Vans with rainbow laces that I purchased with some of the money I received for high school graduation, and the shadows stuck in my eyes.
In particular, I remembered the week after I turned 18. That week was a shitty week. On my birthday in August, I moved out of both of my parents’ homes into my paternal grandparents’ house. My mother was distraught. My father was gleeful as if this was his battle and he had won. I was exhausted and spent. I was so tired of being child of divorced parents, feeling the constant pull and tug of shifting between families and lives week after week. On a Saturday, I grabbed my cardboard boxes of all my possessions and left both of them. I was unsure I would ever return to either. (Later, I discovered I didn’t want to leave my mom behind.)
At a karate lesson on Tuesday, I held a punching bag for another student. The chain holding the bag broke free from the the ceiling. The bag and I pitched forward. A punch meant for the bag, instead, caught me in the cheek. Lights twinkled in my vision as I struggled to figure out what exactly had happened. As my sensei, a gruff former Marine, looked over the injury, tears leaked out of my eyes. The whole right side of my face began to swell and bruise. He was impressed I took a punch so well; I couldn’t find the silver lining. My cheek later turned black and blue. There’s a permanent dent in the collagen in the apple of my right cheek, which could only be fixed with expensive plastic surgery that I couldn’t afford. That dent appears even now when I smile.
On Thursday, I caught a cold with a nasty cough. My grandmother helpfully handed me a bottle of cough syrup from her medicine cabinet. Rather than Robitussin like the label claimed, she gave me liniment. I knew something was wrong from the instant the medicine hit my tongue because it tasted like gasoline fumes. A trip to the ER confirmed that I wasn’t poisoned and wouldn’t die. The ER doctor jokingly suggested I learn how to better evade punches and ordered me to eat as much bread as I could to “soak up” the liniment.
After forcing down so much bread that I wanted to puke, I lay on my grandmother’s couch with my face throbbing. I wondered if the liniment wasn’t some sort of karmic justice for abandoning my parents. I prayed to God to let me live or to kill me quickly. I didn’t care which, but I needed Him to make the decision sooner rather later. Maybe, life would be easier for my parents without the daughter that reminded them of their failed marriage and divorce. Maybe, my grandmother was trying to kill me. Maybe, this line of thought wasn’t getting me anywhere.
Hours later, I finally fell asleep with prayers on my lips and Matchbox 20 songs running through my head. God and Matchbox helped me through the night.
The next day, I insisted that my boyfriend drive over to Tallahassee with me, so I could purchase Yourself or Someone Like You. I had wanted to purchase the album for awhile. When I heard Matchbox 20 on the radio, I was astonished that their lyrics described my life in its most harrowing details. I needed that album more than I needed anything else, and I needed it now.
With determination, I entered Sam Goody store in the Governor’s Square Mall. A sales clerk gasped at a livid purple bruise on my face. Later, she asked me if I needed help and glared at my boyfriend. He was not amused. I smiled grimly as I searched through cassette displays for Matchbox 20. I couldn’t be bothered by what either of them thought.
I found Yourself or Someone Like You on cassette. I bought the album with little fanfare, but I clutched the cassette to my chest. Little did I know, this album would become my security blanket assuring me that life had more possibilities than I could see.
Matchbox sang what I wanted to say but couldn’t. They gave me a language for despair and hope. I sang along with them in anguish, desperation, and the desire to escape. When life became unbearable, I popped Yourself or Someone Like You in the tape deck of my old, red Pontiac Grand Am and fast-forwarded to track 4, “Push.” Cranking up the volume, I belted the lyrics to protest the unjustness of everything. Everything always seemed to feel unjust.
“You wanna push me around?,” I howled. Go ahead and take your shot, world, I was ready. I already knew what it was like to be pushed around. I also knew I could survive it. My life was fucked up, but Matchbox showed me other people’s lives were too. As long as the album played on my stereo, I wasn’t alone. When I wondered, yet again, if I would ever be able to escape the life I was living, listening to Matchbox suggested that I just might.
Matchbox spoke to me. I was angry, oh-so-angry, and rebellious. Their anger, frustration, and unease mimicked my own. They seemed to understand where I came from, a trailer park in a rural town that most people had never heard of. A place in which imagination appeared only as a path to disappointment. Dreams shriveled and died in my hometown. Hurt and dashed hopes remained; it was safer not to aim high. It was safer not to aim at all. But, I still wanted to aim and hope and dream. The album let me. The album encouraged me.
Matchbox knew trailer parks, worn-down shoes, broken dreams, and emotional abuse. They knew that life more often kicked you while you were down rather than ever lifting you up. They also knew that fire-bright desire to get the hell out. They knew what is was like to want to escape. They knew the sacrifices of survival. They knew the limits to possibility. They survived, so maybe, I could too.
17 years later, listening to Yourself or Someone Like You, I no longer burned for escape because I made it out. I survived. Looking back I can still feel that need to relentlessly push forward and find something more. But, that angry girl is mostly gone, so Matchbox doesn’t speak to me, or for me, like they used to. When I was convinced I was drowning, their music was a life raft. I’m no longer flailing, struggling, or sinking. Their music convinced me to save myself, and I did. I don’t need the album any longer. Part of me wishes I still did.
The Albums series originated on that Saturday months ago. Matchbox 20 stopped me in my tracks, and I wanted to know what exactly had happened. I just wanted to listen to an album that I hadn’t heard in awhile, and instead, I couldn’t breathe. The broom slipped out of my hands and clattered to the floor. Yourself or Someone Like You evoked memories that I had long hoped to forget and clobbered me over the head with them. What I wanted to know more than anything else was if other people had similar experiences. Did certain albums impact other people like this Yourself or Someone Like You did me? What albums required a reckoning? Which albums made you feel?
So, I issued a call about albums, music, and feelings to figure out what music does for us, does to us, but also what it makes us remember. What I discovered is that music evokes serious emotions: joy, sadness, rage, disappointment, and so many others. Albums also evoke nostalgia for previous times, places, and moments. I received more pitches than I imagined I would. Folks wanted to write about record stores, road trips, infertility, college, grief, running, teenage years, lost dreams, American identity, escape, class, racism, parenthood, suicide, and sexuality, so I let them. I wanted to see how music moved through our lives and helped us survive. I wanted to see how music helps us learn to thrive. I wanted to see what music wrought.
Then, I started receiving essays, and they were good and haunting and lovely and true. Essays that broke my heart and made me sob. Essays that made wince while remembering the angst of being a young and misunderstood. Essays that conjured isolation and the fraught journey of trying to fit in. Essays that demonstrated again and again how life doesn’t happen turn out as we hope and we learn to pick up the pieces. Essays about moving forward even when it feels impossible. The writers in this series give us glimpses of the soundtracks of their complicated lives. I couldn’t stop reading their essays. I can’t wait for you to read them too. These are essays that the world needs, so I’m remarkably lucky to be able to publish the. Essays will appear on Tuesdays and Fridays throughout the rest of June, July, and most likely August. They range in style, content, form, and genre of music. I hope you read and enjoy all of them.
Music often saves us when we least expect it to. I offer these essays up as beautiful proof.