Sounds of the City

Starting on September 22nd, 2019 — a few weeks into what was the fall of my sophomore year — every time I’d hear a song from a passing car, I’d Shazam it and add to my “overheard - New Haven cars” playlist. I wanted to be able to remember the city through more than just pictures, and to have a way to remember New Haven outside of the context of Yale. That way, when I inevitably leave (not that I’m eager to think about the future! or graduation! or getting older!), I’ll have sounds as well as sights to tie my memories too. Already, it’s become like a soundtrack curated by the city itself — and New Haven’s music taste is pretty immaculate.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, and throughout my whole gap year, I would listen to the playlist in my bedroom and attempt to reconstruct the city from memory, street by street. Now, did I get very far doing that? Do I have a terrible sense of direction? When I finally returned to New Haven this August, were the aspects of the city that seemed different now just things I’d misremembered, or features that had actually changed? I’m unsure! But I do know that in the 756 days since I first made it, the playlist has grown into a sprawling list of 90 songs, clocking in at a length of 5 hours and 34 minutes — a joyous mix of pop, R&B, and hip-hop amongst other genres, stacked with artists like Mary J. Blige, Megan Thee Stallion, Ne-Yo, Doja Cat, Bad Bunny, Cardi B, and Beyoncé.

Here are some of my favorite songs from it!

No. 18 — Miss Independent by Ne-Yo

A throwback bop — what’s not to love? Simply excellent. Brilliant. Smooth. Ne-Yo, along with Mary J. Blige, have some of the most entries on the playlist, and I’ve come to associate their voices with the city. I think I heard this in New Haven during my sophomore year, right before I was about to hop on a bus with my friends, to go see the ocean. I’m not sure. But I do distinctly remember that it was brightly sunny, that the sky was clear and the air was crisp, and that the city felt like it was smiling that day.

No. 31 — Volví by Aventura & Bad Bunny

I first heard “Volví” this August, when it was thrumming out of the speakers in my housemate’s car, and then later from the speakers of a passing vehicle. She played and sang along to it during every grocery trip and snack run and drive to go hiking, and insisted that she was single-handedly going to stream it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And I fully believed that she was capable of making it happen! In some ways, there are parts of her that live in this song — her laugh, her enthusiasm, the joy she conjures. All cities, and most places, are made from people — and over time, memories of my closest friends have been incarnated in their favorite music.

What some of the rest of the playlist looks like!

No. 41 — Exhale (Shoop Shoop) by Whitney Houston

The day I added “Exhale” to the playlist, I was moving into my off-campus apartment, lugging heavy furniture up a questionably built wooden staircase. While I stumbled made my way up the stairs, a birthday party began on the other side of the fence behind our complex: complete with a bouncy castle, the echoed laughter of children jumping up and down, and speakers loud enough to fill the block with the sound of Whitney Houston’s voice. Out of breath, I took a moment near the second flight of stairs, just to rest and hear her singing soothe the air. Like most of the songs on the playlist, it has since become a reminder: of the last days of summer, of the promise of good things to come, and of a home whose surroundings are never without joy.

No. 45 — Essence by WizKid ft. Tems

This song should, technically, be on the playlist at least ten or eleven times — it’s everywhere. As it should be, of course, because it’s a banger! WizKid and Tems’ voices are constantly gliding around the air in New Haven, pulsing from cars, motorcycles, bluetooth speakers nestled in backpacks, headphones, the singalongs of passersby, and restaurants. It’s gone No. 1 in New Haven! Certified multiplatinum in this city!

Pictured: me, spontaneously on the sidewalk, whenever a car drives by playing a smash hit.

No. 55 — Stay by Rufus & Chaka Khan

This song was actually overheard by a friend! In many ways, it’s become a collaborative playlist over the years, with my friends texting me excitedly whenever they have a new song to add, or to ask for updates on how the playlist is going, or that they heard one of the songs from the playlist while walking around and thought of me.

No. 65 — Every Time I Close My Eyes by Babyface ft. Kenny G, Mariah Carey

As someone terrified of flying, this is the song I listen to when the turbulence gets particularly bad on planes, Babyface’s voice and Mariah Carey’s backing vocals like a calming balm for nervous tension. It’s also one that none of my friends have heard before when I put them on to it, and one I never expected to hear out loud unless I was playing it — until, during one particularly stressful night doing homework in my room, I heard it echoing down the street in front of my apartment. It was like a whisper just loud enough to catch the meaning of, or a gust of wind — there, softly, then gone. But it had appeared nonetheless, and I took it as a sign that maybe my night wasn’t such a bad night after all.

No. 90 — My Life by Mary J. Blige

As of now, the last song on the playlist! With all the turmoil of the past year, and the uncertainty of the present and the future, I’m less confident than ever about what my future at Yale, or life in general, holds. But if nothing else, throughout the next year and a half, I’ll have these songs as a kind of anchor — an ever-growing collection of reminders to notice the good when and where you find it, however serendipitously, monumental or ordinary, big or small.