Musical Musings by Subhadra Jayaraman

During my long boring commutes to work on the subway train in Boston, I used to amuse myself by playing guessing games. More than half of the people who traveled with me on any typical workday would have headphones on. Some would be asleep, some staring out the window, some eating their breakfasts, some just typing away on their phones, some with their laptops out, some standing and tapping their feet, and some others just smiling to themselves. I liked to guess what they were listening to, and somehow, I would always think in music. Although some could have audiobooks or podcasts or news reports on – in my imagination it was always songs. That girl in the chinos and button down with neatly pinned-back hair, she is surely listening to Taylor Swift. The guy with the jeans almost falling off and a leather belt that was the most useless piece of clothing he wore – there’s definitely gangsta rap blaring into his ears. The serious old man sitting with his spectacles at the end of his nose – classical music. The couple sharing one side each of their wired earphones – Coldplay perhaps.

While I played this musical judging game, I once noticed that the songs coming from my own playlist were extremely diverse. There was a Bollywood song, one from AC/DC, one classical Hindustani ghazal, one Cardi B, one Spanish, one old country jingle, even one Metallica. There was barely any coherence. Maybe the other guessers in my train cabin guessed that I would be listening to Bollywood for sure (considering I’m visibly from the Indian subcontinent or the surrounding areas), but it was likely Jethro Tull playing at the time in my ears. Can you ever make any logical connections with people and the type of music they prefer? Maybe you could say that a Gen X would love the Beatles or Ilayaraja? But tons of millennials and even Gen Z like those songs. Maybe you could say where they are from decides what type of music they were exposed to? But music is quite boundless with Korean pop reaching every household and Reggae tunes in every part of the world.

I was reminded of a time when I visited Peru and went to a local market to buy souvenirs and tchotchkes to bring back with me. As I was haggling with one of the ladies for a lower price on a scarf, she turned to me and said “Okay miss, I know you are Indian. Sing me a Shah Rukh Khan song and I will give you half off on it. I love Shah Rukh Khan.” My eyes popped out of my head and I wondered if I heard her wrong. I requested her to repeat, and she did – an SRK song, please. So in the middle of the busy market, I sang an old Shah Rukh Khan song, and that lovely lady, grinning happily and humming along with me, true to her word, gave me the scarf for half the price. I couldn’t believe SRK and his songs reached the depths of suburban Peru.

On the train, I then turned my game on its head and decided to pick the most bizarre song for each person I saw there, in stark contrast to their appearances and breaking my internal musical stereotyping. The chic chinos girl got gansta rap, the useless belt guy got Carnatic, the bespectacled old man got Beyonce, and the couple, death metal. And somehow this unfettered designation felt like a far more satisfying and fun way to use my bizarre commute imaginations 🙂 

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