Welcome to “My Life in 10 Tracks”, a series in which contributors share the top tunes that they associate with the defining eras of their lives thus far as well as memorable moments that lie on the vast spectrum of pain and pleasure. Charting important milestones through music, our contributors revisit and reflect on adolescence and coming of age; first love and last heartbreak; new beginnings and departures.
“You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now it’s all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me. It’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?” — BoJack Horseman
Welcome to my life, one filled with emptiness and nothingness. What is the meaning of life? Is there freedom in failure? Can I find happiness on the other side? Who knows, do you? Music has been an integral part of my life that offers solace, providing me a reprieve from the complexities of the world. A source of comfort and a portal for escapism, music is the coping mechanism I turn to when I face existential crises, social anxiety, and constant desolation.
Introverted, awkward, and uncomfortable in my own skin, I am a self-professed anxious millennial — a label which I shamelessly lifted from “Hangman” Adam Page (pardon the nerdy wrestling reference). And these 10 tracks are emblematic of my struggles with mental health and my hopeless pursuit of happiness.
As the youngest in my family, my childhood tunes were largely whatever my elder siblings listened to in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This includes mandopop, music by English boy bands (god, I used to love A1 and Blue), and honestly, anything that was charting on Billboard Hot 100. As I entered my adolescent phase, I realized that the constant black cloud that shadowed me all my life was never going away. I started to pay more attention to the music I was listening to. I was — and still am — perennially caught in the twilight zone between accepting my fate as a wallflower and striving to be the coolest kid on the block.
Longing for emancipation from expectations and the weight of life, music has allowed me to carry on, to daydream. These 10 tracks definitely carry a certain emotional heft — it is so difficult to feel good about myself most of the time.
#1. Good News – Mac Miller
Posthumously released in early 2020, this is an alternative emo hip hop track that features a slow and chill instrumental beat. The lyrics chronicle the days during which Mac Miller struggled with loneliness, depression, and his desire to escape from the weight of life. He left us in 2018, which made the track even more heart-wrenching; I cried buckets on numerous occasions.
The lyrics of this song encapsulate my struggles. Lines like “Oh, I hate the feeling / When you’re high but you’re underneath the ceiling” remind me of my enduring pursuit of happiness. There will always be things that weigh me down whenever I experience some semblance of happiness — I couldn’t help but find more tunnels even after seeing the light.
“Heard they don’t talk about me too much no more / And that’s a problem with a closed door” was symbolic of my penchant for pushing people away because I was too selfish to share my troubles with those I love; I didn’t want to be a killjoy and ruin their happiness. And eventually, they stop paying attention when you close the door on them one too many times. I don’t blame them, I really don’t. They probably don’t even know how they could have been of any help. Sometimes, just sometimes, you sink so low that the bottom feels like the only genuine safe space.
#2. True Love Will Find You In The End – Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston was the grandmaster of lo-fi music. As an elusive “outsider musician”, Daniel lived a life riddled with mental health struggles that were well-documented in the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston. This track encapsulates the complex simplicity of Daniel’s work and espouses hope and optimism.
True love will eventually find you, so you should not give up. But “true love is searching too,” so you have to try and step into the light and accept the love that comes to you too. True love, as I understand, leads to happiness, which in turn brings meaning to life.
This track offers me a glimmer of hope, be it in love or in life, and strengthens my will to continue living. Always hoping that life will someday be better, I pushed myself to keep going. As bleak as that sounds, I count that as a win. After all, the great Charles Bukowski once poignantly said, “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside — remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.”
#3. Seventeen – Sharon Van Etten
One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Sharon Van Etten displays her introspective lyricism with this track. “Seventeen” is the anthem for my reluctant ascend into adulthood (which I define as having a full-time job), one filled with regrets, self-doubt, and anxieties.
If you ever need a reason to cry, please skip to 2:52 – 3:15 of the video. The raw emotionality in Sharon’s delivery is so haunting that I wish I could turn back time to give 17-year-old me a kiss on the forehead.
“Halfway through this life
I used to feel free
Was it just a dream?”
I was 17 about a decade ago. How I miss being a young, naive, and impressionable youth, unaware of the trials and tribulations that lay ahead of me. I thought that I could take on the world and chart my own path in life. Now, jaded, empty, and older with nothing to shout about, I miss the times when I was less damaged.
The cruelty of time knows no bounds. I wish I could turn back time. I wish I could right all the wrongs that I had committed. I wish I could tell my younger self to keep my chin up after every setback; to not yield to toxic masculinity and bottle all my emotions up. But then I realized all I can do is hope and pray. Life goes quicker when you are older. All my regrets are still regrets.
#4. Mr. Brightside – The Killers
Here’s something that is uplifting — well, sort of. This track needs no introduction. “Mr. Brightside” was somehow my song, bestowed upon me by my housemates during my study abroad in Paris. An absolute banger, it was my go-to whenever I needed to hype myself up since my late teens.
But it is also an anomaly. A track that was made in Nevada that just wouldn’t leave the UK top charts after almost two decades, confounding everyone in the music industry. Funnily enough, the track reminds me of my complex feelings toward football as a self-proclaimed aficionado. Football has millions of followers around the world. Yet, I feel extremely alone. I am highly critical of the moral bankruptcy that modern football has produced. How is the game beautiful when the institutions at the top actively condone all the misgivings that happen?
The deaths and mistreatment of the migrant workers in the building of the stadiums and infrastructure needed for the 2022 Qatar World Cup (and by extension, the insidious sportswashing carried out by despotic states); the vile sexual misconduct male footballers have gotten away with; the aggressive commercialization of football that made it less accessible to the have-nots; and the toxic fan culture filled with racism, misogyny, sexism, and homophobia. These are just some of the pertinent socio-political issues off the top of my head. Am I the only one who is bothered by these problems? I hope not. But none of that seems to matter to most fans. Just give them bread and circuses, and football will be the opiate for the masses.
#5. Dove – Munya
A track that doesn’t carry as much emotional baggage for me (I swear). “Dove” always brings me back to my time in the French Riviera during the summer of 2018. Close your eyes. Imagine that you are on the remote beach of Villefranche-sur-Mer, lighting one up with a glass of Aperol Spritz on the side. Everything would seem hunky-dory and we can pretend the world is not an awful place.
“Dove” is a dreamy bedroom-pop track performed entirely in French by the Quebec-based singer. Since je ne parle pas français (I don’t speak French), I have no idea what the song was about. But because of how dreamy the track sounds, I felt a connection with it, and being unfamiliar with the language did not lead to discomfort. In fact, I didn’t even feel the need to translate the lyrics; I was in a comfortable state of unfamiliarity.
This paralleled the time I spent in Paris in 2018. It was a place where I haven’t been; everyone spoke a language foreign to me; my stay was transient. I didn’t feel the need to belong and I felt very liberated. Maybe, for the entirety of my life, I will never find a place where I can truly feel like I belong. Sometimes, I really wonder if people like me are meant to be lost souls for life. But we sure can dream — dream about a place, a space where we belong.
#6. Wake Up – Arcade Fire
With such an opening line, I couldn’t possibly leave “Wake Up” out of my list. This indie-rock anthem was my go-to track whenever I had the tussle with the black dog. Think: crying alone in the corner; pretending that my eyes are dry; having to “man up” and “move on”. Rinse and repeat.
It hits particularly hard when Win Butler sings “Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up / We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms / Turning every good thing to rust / I guess we’ll just have to adjust”. We were young and arrogant. We had no idea of the harm we caused to the people around us. And now, we cannot turn back time. We just have to live with the guilt and accept that we are damaged goods.
This track is also deeply personal to me as I had the privilege of watching this indie darling live. It took 15 hours to get from Paris to Manchester via bus. It was the first time that I had traveled alone and, thus, my first-ever live concert experience alone. They closed the gig with “Wake Up” and the whole arena rose and sang along.
I will never ever forget about that unbelievably biblical moment, particularly the interlude. Because, momentarily, we were one. Of course, that left me in tears. Music can be so magical sometimes.
#7. Kokomo, IN – Japanese Breakfast
My love for Michelle Zauner, who heads the band Japanese Breakfast, began in mid-2019. In the heat of the moment, I decided to wage a war against my own anxiety and self-consciousness by attending their gig at the Esplanade Annexe Studio alone. Thankfully, I did not see anyone I know. With a combination of red wine, pale ales, and G&Ts, I had a bloody great time.
“Kokomo, IN” is a sleepy indie-pop track that never fails to make me smile with sadness and cry with happiness all at the same time. Encompassing the theme of saudade, heartbreak, and solitude, it leaves you longing for the one who got away (despite knowing that they will never return). I suppose for someone who is so comfortable with being alone that it almost feels like an addiction, loneliness — when it hits — always arrives unexpectedly.
And this track is what I listen to when I find myself missing that someone special whenever I am lonely; missing all the whimsical memories that we shared. Alas, it was too late, I was too late. The one that got away has been gone for a long time. Yet, I am still here waiting. With a tear in my eye and a smile on my cheek, “Kokomo, IN” will always remind me of this huge void that has not really been replaced despite all this time.
*Please do read “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle, a touching memoir dedicated to her late mother. I had just lost my 16-year-old Pomeranian when the book arrived via mail. I cried for days after reading the first few chapters. Living with grief and trying to overcome it is probably one of the greatest obstacles of life — I wish that I didn’t have to experience that anymore.
#8. Fake Plastic Trees – Radiohead
The alternative to the alternatives, Radiohead showed us that there was actually an alternative to the grunge and Britpop scene in the 1990s. The coolest band on earth that did whatever the hell they want, they had the audacity to make the switch to electronic music after releasing OK Computer, their magnum opus.
“She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run”
I could have easily put tracks like “Nude”, “Let Down”, “Videotape”, “2+2=5”, “Decks Dark”, and “Karma Police” in this list since they all encapsulate the jadedness and emptiness I felt. But ultimately, I decided on “Fake Plastic Trees” instead.
These lines always remind me of failed relationships, meaningless sex, and missed opportunities. What I have experienced was not real at all even though, at that point in time, it certainly did feel that way. The illusion of love — like non-biodegradable plastics — seems real, usable, and everlasting. But it isn’t. Love is delusional. Plastic is not natural. We construct a world of make-believe to satisfy our primal urges and dreams of depravity.
#9. Heroes – David Bowie
This is the tunnel song from Perks of Being a Wallflower. It was my coming-of-age film. I was 18 and it hurt when I saw so much of myself in the main character. A wallflower since I was a kid, crowds and social situations were anxiety-inducing. I can’t, for the life of me, mingle with people. There seems to be no room for people like us in this world. “Heroes” is not just a song. It encapsulates an experience, a trip, a journey to never giving up on hope.
“We could be us, just for one day.” Though basic and generic, it was nevertheless a powerful line for me. Not everyone understands how difficult it is to simply fit in. We are desperate to be us, even if it’s temporary. Every day, we put on different masks to perform different social functions and roles that the world expects us to — a deep-cut reference to Erving Goffman’s theory of Dramaturgy. We can all dream, just for one day.
And Bowie, oh Bowie. He was probably the only celebrity whom I idolize. Not just because of his artistic talent. It was everything. His status as the ultimate chameleon who was unafraid to do and experiment with whatever the f*ck he wanted. Always comfortable in his own skin, I wished I had an ounce of his bravado and confidence. Perhaps, that was the reason why I was so enamored with him — because I wish I had the courage to break out and become “me.” But who am I? I don’t know. Maybe I will never find out during this lifetime. I really miss him. Rest in peace.
Remember when Logan Lerman’s character said “I feel infinite” during the tunnel scene? How I wish I could feel infinite every single day of my life — to feel free of constraints.
#10. Luna Phantasm – bonsoirkitty
A track produced and released by yours truly. Using only GarageBand, this is an instrumental track that I created in the midst of lockdown and unemployment. It is a mellow space-themed atmospheric ambient track that shouts isolation and escapism. It was, to an extent, inspired by Slowdive’s Pygmalion and Sufjan Stevens’ Convocations LP; I wanted to create a track that would allow you to close your eyes and let your mind wander. To wander into the distant galaxy, far away from all your troubles.
The epiphany came one night while I was sitting by the beach at East Coast Park in the middle of the night (alone, of course). The moon was magnifique that night. It was glowing at me, inviting me to escape there, both physically and spiritually. Too bad, I could not. I snapped a photo and was determined to make a track out of it. I decided to name it Luna (that “Luna” from Phillip K. Dick’s lovely, lovely, lovely novel Ubik) instead of “the moon” or “lunar” to make the track a bit more special.
This track signifies my desire to get away from all the trappings of life. Namely, the knowledge that everyone I know will die someday, somehow, and I don’t want to be left behind to mourn their passing. I grieved over — and still cannot stop grieving — the death of my beloved Pomeranian. I don’t think I can deal with a loss of this magnitude or even larger, moving forward. While I was making this track, I kept imagining myself being in outer space alone, away from everyone and everything. Being isolated in a completely foreign space, in total unawareness of my surroundings, is my kind of utopia.
Bonus Tracks (B-side)
Time for a quickfire round.
#11. Time – Pink Floyd
Listening to the Dark Side of the Moon — by the kings of progressive rock — was a seminal moment that developed my musical taste. “Time” is the pièce de résistance of the album. Definitely a track for me to sob to as I ponder the meaning of life.
#12. Mad World – Gary Jules (featuring Michael Andrews)
Materialism, consumerism, and capitalism. There is no way to get out of the system. Despair and die.
#13. Don’t Delete The Kisses – Wolf Alice
A track that calls to mind the doldrums of modern conditional, requited love. Love is scary. It makes us embark on restrained courtships filled with uncertainties, insecurities, and self-doubt.
#14. I Loved Being My Mother’s Son – Purple Mountains
I am a bonafide mommy’s boy. I am not ashamed of it. I am ashamed of not doing more for her. She is my everything and I would die for her if I had to.
#15. Fluorescent Adolescent – Arctic Monkeys
A true indie bop about missed youth, recklessness, and debauchery. A staple in my music rotation in my late adolescence. Alex Turner, you handsome bastard.
#16. Jesus, etc. – Wilco
Whimsically beautiful, it is a track that I fall back on whenever I need comfort.
#17. Frail State of Mind – The 1975
An emo UK garage-inspired track that tackles the supposed frailty of one’s mental health. Much like Matty Healy’s narrative arc, I regularly find myself apologizing and feeling bad for my tussles with the black dog.
#18. Ode To Viceroy – Mac DeMarco
Everyone has their own choice of poison, and mine turns out to be lung cancer-inducing…
#19. How Soon Is Now? – The Smiths
Would have made the main list had Morrissey not been a ripe old c*nt with his myopic worldview.
#20. 海闊天空 – Beyond (Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies – Beyond)
“原谅我这一生不羁放纵爱自由” (Forgive me for the unbridled indulgence of love for freedom.)
All photographs by Kit Loo