Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2020
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COURTESY OF ISABEL RIOS-PULGAR

Rios-Pulgar reflects on the power of music in her life.

If you ever saw me on campus, you saw me with my headphones on. It’s just a law of nature, like gravity. I’m always listening to music. I can’t help it. The headphones come on, and everything else in the world goes silent. No more incoming texts, no more assignments, no more stress and no more worries. 

When I think of my earliest musical memories, two come to mind. One is of my first concert, when my parents took the whole family to see Shakira at the American Airlines Arena in Miami. Honestly, the one thing I remember about that concert isn’t even Shakira — it’s my mother’s face. 

I was in so much disbelief that a childhood icon of mine was right in front of me that I couldn’t even get myself to look at the stage. So I just looked at my mom. I remember the stage lights reflecting off the very same eyes that would tuck me in at night. She held my hand the whole night and kept insisting that I look at the stage. But I just stayed focused on my mom. It was still one of the best concerts of my life. 

The other musical memory is one of my family road trips when I was little. I couldn’t tell you where we were headed or how old I was, but I do remember it was one of those moments in the car when my parents begged my brother and me to unplug from our Nintendo DS consoles and look out the window. Endless fields of grass surrounded us, and the sunset illuminated the sky with clusters of pink, orange and yellow. Cotton candy clouds danced as “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles played on the stereo, and I remember wondering how my dad could still see beyond the blinding sun beams hitting the car head-first. Next thing I knew, I was falling asleep to George Harrison’s strum, knowing well that my dad knew the way. He always does. 

Then I reached my weird top 40 pop boy band phase that blended with my love for alternative pop-rock like Arctic Monkeys, the 1975 and Twenty One Pilots. I was lucky enough to get to see One Direction and Fifth Harmony in person, and my parents dealt with pictures of Zayn Malik and Harry Styles on my pre-teen walls. At the same time, Alex Turner’s croons on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not echoed into the living room from my speakers. 

As I grew older, I became obsessed with memorizing and analyzing music. In art class, they taught us that every brush stroke on a painting is done with a purpose. I took this idea and applied it to music. I was obsessed with what every lyric meant, in the context of the artist’s life and in general. I wanted to know what songs were sampled, to recognize the phrasing style of each artist, to understand how the music gave off the same emotion as the lyrics. And I wanted to know why, in some cases, the music completely contrasted the emotion in the lyrics. I ate up every song that graced my ears, researching and really listening to everything and anything I could. It was almost meditative, how much I learned about the production, the melody or the verse structure of a song.

So, of course, music was my best friend in college as well. But the irony falls in that my latest genres of choice have become reggaeton, salsa and bachata. On campus, I am even known for knowing all of Bad Bunny’s lyrics (sorry, Mom). The same music I despised while growing up in Miami now makes up the entirety of my longest Spotify playlist, lasting over 34 hours. The music I would refuse to listen to now reminds me of home.

Music has been there for me since day one. I put on my headphones and all the doubts and overwhelming thoughts melt away. It fills the silence and transports me back home to Miami. I go back to the times when my dad would play salsa and invite me to dance (even though I’m always too shy to say yes). I go back to the times when life was simple and I had no idea what a Zoom breakout room was. We have all been through the thick of it this year, with COVID-19 separating us from loved ones, racial injustice on every news outlet and the stress of the presidential election. I have no idea what the future holds, and if this year proves anything, it’s that anything can happen. All I know is that, whatever happens, wherever I end up, I’ll be listening to music. 

Isabel Rios-Pulgar is a senior studying neuroscience and psychology from Miami, FL. In her column, she discusses her intersecting identities and how they play a role in her college experience.

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