I Will Always Love You

I was flipping through the channels last night – it’s such a dilemma when a three-year-old has to choose between the Lion King and Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown – and saw ABC interrupt the broadcast with Breaking News…Whitney Houston was dead at 48.

While under normal circumstances I would be a little annoyed to hear Entertainment News considered ‘Breaking News’ – especially when one can only speculate that drugs were involved, but I felt this strange feeling of loss roll through my body. And I have to admit; it confused me. I mean... I haven’t been a Whitney Houston fan in over fifteen years.

I felt the need to ‘tell’ someone this horrible news, so I walked into the living room and said, “Chuck, Whitney Houston’s dead.”

He looked at me quickly and said, “Oh…” (A very normal response, especially since he’s a country music fan.)

It wasn’t until I was in the car a few minutes later and “I Will Always Love You” came on the radio that it all kind of clicked for me.

The second I heard the first note of that song I was immediately transported back to my youth, and the nostalgia of being a carefree teenager washed over me. It was as if I was slow dancing with my first boyfriend again. I can see it as if I was watching it on TV.

I was in my best friend’s crowded basement at her birthday party. The whole basement was decorated in a Coca-Cola theme, so the floors were these huge red and white tiles. The green sofas had been pushed to the walls to make room for a dance floor. The lights were dimmed, and I can still feel my heart beating sooooo incredibly fast as I wrapped my arms around his neck for that first dance.

I was young. I was innocent and naive and I had my whole life ahead of me. My biggest dilemma in life was what outfit I was going to wear to the party – which was probably my staple ensemble for that phase of life; a pair of jeans, belted at the waist with a braided belt, some sort of tight, horizontally striped, scoop-neck top, and of course my Eastland Bucks with white socks. (Oh my lord, I’m laughing just writing about it.) The saddest part of my style was that another of my best friends and I thought we should dress like the Bobbsey Twins, so there were two of us in this get-up!

I remember it so, so vividly – like it was yesterday (which is frightening, because I can’t really remember yesterday.) I decided to do some research to see if I was the only crazy person who had literal pictures of events that took place almost twenty years ago still etched in my mind…thank God, I’m not.

I stumbled upon the most interesting blog on Psychology Today called Your Musical Self (I recommend checking it out.) The blogger is Kimberly Sena Moore, and she’s a certified music therapist. There are posts about everything from singing to your baby to the history of holiday music.

Anyway, this particular blog was about the connection of music to our memories.

Here’s an excerpt from Moore’s article:

Last year a study came out that outlined where in our brain that connection happens. What structure is responsible for this powerful music-memory association? The answer: The medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).

The MPFC lies right behind our forehead and is thought to be responsible for self-referential processes, including our ability to integrate sensory information--such as music--with autobiographical information. 

In his study, published in 2009 in Cerebral Cortex, Petr Janata, a researcher at the University of California-Davis, had college-age students, while hooked up to an fMRI machine, listen to 30 second snippets of songs popular when they were 8-18 years old. After listening to each excerpt, the participant answered questions about the song (e.g. was it familiar to you? was it enjoyable?) as well as questions about the content and vividness of memories that were associated with that song. By comparing their answers with their brain activity while listening to the excerpt, Janata found that the dorsal regions of the MPFC seemed to be the area responsible for associating music and memories, especially when those memories were emotionally-salient.

What strikes me most about this is the last phrase; music sticks with us most when it’s associated with a memory that is emotionally-salient. The definition of salient is moving by leaps or springs, jetting upward… exactly what my heart was doing that first time I slow-danced with a boy. No wonder I have such an emotional connection to Whitney Houston; her music helped shape some of the most important, nostalgic memories of my life.

While, unfortunately, Whitney Houston will probably be remembered for her struggles with drugs and her crazy marriage and divorce – to me she will always be singing in the back of the room when I think back to that first dance. She wasn’t just a part of pop culture or music history, she was the conductor – and helped set the stage – for some of the most vividly wonderful memories I have. And for that I say, Thank You.