Have you ever listened to a song so much the recognition leaves you raw, nauseated, gasping with the fullness of imagined intimacies? Lately I can’t stop playing “Switch Sider” by Ella Mai. It’s a song about staying, even when your whole body is screaming for an escape route. It’s a song about loving someone more than they love you, even when your mama says you never should. In it, Mai sings about how she’s not a “switch sider,” how she’s not the kind of person to leave or change her mind, and so she’ll stay and stay. Lately I’ve been thinking about how staying, saying yes, all these gestures of stillness and accommodation, were grafted onto my Black body at birth. When she touched me, when she messaged me at 2 am, when she wouldn’t stop asking me for more, she didn’t truly believe I could say no. We come out of the womb unable to consent to the myths that are carved into our bones. It was believed that my ancestors’ bodies were already made in the shape of yes. The position of continually pulling oneself away from the doorknob is one we never agreed to, and yet here we are, smiling in our stillness, staying to prove we are, as Mai says “the definition of a rider.” What do you do with a definition whose meaning you never chose? Who said a rider stayed? Maybe a rider steps into a train car in the middle of the night and texts all her closest friends the nowhere address of her freedom. Maybe a rider posts the screenshots. Maybe a rider leaves.
Some part of me is scared of what this song will do to the present, wary of listening to something which so clearly justifies the choices behind my worst days. There is no moral offered here, no recognition of self-destruction, no ending. There is no leaving here. I imagine the chords transmuted into action, sonic reality bleeding back into story, me and Mai in an endless cycle of staying. And yet, more and more, I’ve found that maybe I’m not interested in songs that provide me with a clear path out. Near the end of the song, Mai says, “I know you went out last night/And I know there’s someone else/Maybe I should just…” The song leans into the ellipsis, and her sigh opens a question that is never resolved. “My friends warned me about you,” she finishes. “I mean, I should have listened.” She finishes on a note of resignation, acknowledgments of the missteps she made on the way to where she is. This is what is expected from a brown girl singing about how she has been hurt. Of course it is her fault, the origins of the hurt must lie in the failure to follow someone else’s instructions. But I am interested in what comes before the regret, what openings might fill that measured sigh. In that space of possibility in which I am presumptuous enough to think of an “us,” I see gestures towards self-abnegation, disappearing, the possibility of existence made smaller by the limitations of another’s understanding, the paradox of finding strength in the will it takes to not walk away. But then she sighs, and I hear the weariness of the Black women who came before, who stayed or left or were always halfway to saying fuck this shit, who shook their heads and dreamed of murder, who said “maybe I should just…” and left the expansiveness of that ending hanging in the air for everyone in the room to breathe. And perhaps what I am trying to say is that if you take my hand and follow the in-between of that ellipsis with me, maybe we can find our way through the door.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**