Pangyrus presents our Listen Up! music discovery column, where musicians and music lovers share the music that inspires them.
What if I
What if I learned
What if I learned to sing you sweet love songs?
What if I, what if I, what if I
What if we
What if we found
What if we found a way that we could get along?
What if I, what if I, what if I
–Cuddle Magic, “What If I” from Baths, 2020
For the past nine years, I’ve been a touring musician, splitting my time between a series of taped-up tour vans and a succession of Brooklyn apartments that were better for cultivating mold than any sort of settled life. Then COVID hit. By the middle of March, I was isolating with my girlfriend in Portland, OR, where I grew up, and the life I’d been living was gone.
I started to wonder if anyone really needed music, whether I even needed it anymore.
I’d been performing since I was a kid, but now whenever I tried to play or sing, I found myself breaking down in debilitating and assuredly song-ruining tears (try singing any song except possibly “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore while crying and you’ll see what I mean). I was newly in love but I had lost my love songs. And while I tried to tune into new music, for the most part it either seemed tone-deaf or I just couldn’t make myself listen.
What saved me was Cuddle Magic. I don’t mean my girlfriend, although moving to Portland after dating for two months turned out to be an inspired leap of faith. I mean the Brooklyn band, and their song “What If I,” the first single off their album Bath, recorded completely live with 23 mics placed in every corner of a bathroom in Long Island. Bedrooms get more airplay these days, but bathroom recording is by no means a new art form. Lindsey Buckingham famously strong-armed Warner Brothers into reproducing his home’s 1927 bathroom in the studio to replicate the natural echo of his demos for the Tusk sessions. He had the resources to bring the bathroom to the band. Cuddle Magic, on a humbler indie label budget, brought the band to the bathroom. And recorded my song of quarantine.
Why did “What if I” break through my Covid paralysis? I think it was its simplicity. Cumulative songs make their way into our collective consciousness in childhood as a tool to teach us learning through repetition. They’re always simple and add an easily memorized line each time they go around and build a long, often silly story that’s designed to leave you a little smug about your memorization skills. “Rattlin Bog” was my favorite at camp, but the “12 Days of Christmas” and “Alouette” are other famous examples and even “Baby Shark” could be considered a close cousin. For me these songs conjure summer camp nostalgia: days of singing assemblies, snack swapping, and running through sprinklers. Sadly however, as the Toy Story franchise loves to remind us, we all must grow up and retire our lunch boxes–forging out into the adult world of complex lyrics and inevitable heartbreak. And pandemics.
“What If I” was the first cumulative song I’d heard since my camp days and the first to speak to me as an adult. I couldn’t get it out of my head. The rare song that manages to be both catchy and meaningful usually comes with a simple message. In the midst of a global pandemic, civil upheaval, and personal identity crisis, I realized all I wanted was to sing love songs and for us all to try to get along.