“THIS Song Again?!” The Inescapable Travel Soundtrack

One thing I’ve noticed through the course of my travels is how closely places are tied, in my memory, to music. Of course, most of us have strong associations with all kind of songs — Radiohead’s “House of Cards” will always bring me back to a transcendent moment at Bonnaroo in the summer of 2006, while Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” reminds me instantly of an ex-boyfriend (yeah, I know. The weird thing is, I hear it more often than you’d think). But there’s something about traveling, about going out to clubs and hearing the same song three times in one night, for a month straight, that creates these indelible impressions. Almost every place I’ve visited has at least one song associated with it — some have more, and some memories are stronger than others, but they’re all there, and I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon.

I certainly won’t bore the Internet by enumerating the entire list (there are plenty of other blogs that will be more than happy to do so), but there are a few particular tunes that are permanently stamped on my memory, and I think it’s fun to see which songs — some deep and meaningful, others stupid and mindless — stay through years of experience.

When I was sixteen, I visited one of my best friends at her home in the Dominican Republic. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country on my own, my first time in the Caribbean, my first time trying rum, all kinds of firsts. Like most sixteen-year-olds, music was vitally important to my life experiences, and it became even more so when I was there. I think we tend to be especially open to the impact of music when we’re already trying to absorb everything else happening around us, and that was certainly the case for me. I still remember with perfect clarity sitting in the back of a pickup truck with about ten other teenagers, driving through the dark streets of Santo Domingo and yelling the lyrics to the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” and having it just mean so much in that moment. To this day, I still can’t hear that song without thinking of warm night air and that boy I totally had a crush on.

And then there’s Wisin y Yandel’s “Rakata” — one of my first introductions to the much-maligned but secretly widely-enjoyed genre of reggaeton. People in Latin America have such strong opinions about reggaeton: it’s fun, it’s lower-class, it’s crude, it’s hilarious, it’s offensive, it isn’t real dancing, and so on. While most or all of these may be accurate in various situations, the truth of the matter is, when you get anyone drunk, they LOVE reggaeton — or at least they’re perfectly happy to dance to it and keep their class-based opinions to themselves. Maybe its because I don’t have an official place in the Latin American social structure, or because I can’t dance to complicated beats, or because I secretly love songs with really absurdly dirty lyrics, but I kind of enjoy reggaeton. Not all the time, mind you, but when I’m in the mood to dance, or I’m feeling really good about my outfit that day, why not jam to a little Don Omar in my headphones?

It may all have started with that Wisin y Yandel song, though. That song was absolutely inescapable for the two weeks I was in the DR — blasting out of car windows, playing in bars, tumbling from the top floors of apartment buildings. My favorite memory, though, is my friends’ four-year-old brother inventing his own dance routine to this song, and showing it off to everyone. I don’t remember the specifics of the dance, but I do remember that it was adorable, and probably more coordinated than I could manage today. They start them early on the islands.

If anyone else was in Argentina during the first half of 2009, you probably remember this song. Good lord, this fucking song. I’ll admit that I’m sometimes prone to exaggeration, but I am dead serious when I say that there were about three months when it was IMPOSSIBLE to go to a single bar or club in the city without hearing this song at least once. I think my record for one night was five times. The only reason I didn’t want to cut my ears off — like I would if it were, say, another goddamn dubstep track — is because it’s actually sort of sweet and really catchy, in a Spanish “Call Me Maybe” kind of way. I probably walked around singing it to myself for about two weeks straight. Even when I listen to it now, I still feel like I’m strolling through Palermo snacking on an alfajor.

But travel music doesn’t only apply in other countries. On the contrary, I think some of my strongest musical travel associations were born in a car somewhere in the U.S. Road trips are, I suppose, the ultimate scenario for creating these kinds of musical memories — trapped in a car with another person/s who you may or may not like, surrounded by snack wrappers and GoogleMaps printouts, you have few places to seek solace other than music. And while most of us don’t repeat the same song five times over the course of our trip (unless all the iPods are dead and we’re stuck with the one Peter Frampton cd someone’s dad left in the car five years ago or, god forbid, the radio), there are still certain moments that stand out, like driving through foggy Tennessee dawn with Phish turned down low so everyone else in the van could sleep, blasting the Allman Brothers immediately upon crossing the Mason-Dixon line, cueing up the Dropkick Murphys to greet us at the Massachusetts border, or my roommate and I speeding across Indiana singing Britney Spears at the top of our lungs because it’s the only way to survive crossing that state with our sanity intact.

The jury is still out on what my Colombia songs are going to be — after all, I still have seven months left here, and there’s no way to know what music will inspire memories until I’m in a place where they’ll be memories, rather than my current reality. Still, I’ve had “Tu Sin Mi” bouncing around in my head since March, when I heard it twice a day while vacationing on a long weekend with some friends, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. And now it’s probably in your brain, too. Misery, company, etc. You’re welcome!

I’m not self-absorbed or deluded enough to imagine that I’m the only one with songs that take me back to special places I’ve been, though. Anyone else have some meaningful or amusing travel songs that will forever remind them of that ridiculous weekend in Beijing, or the time they got lost trying to get to Rome? Please share — I’d love to hear about some other musical voyages!

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