a thanksgiving family ritual (with help from spotify)
Yesterday, someone tried to convince me that Thanksgiving is the worst holiday, and, well…suffice it to say that words were had. (This someone also happened to be my professor. Goodbye, participation grade.) See, I love Thanksgiving. I love that it presages the magical month leading up to Christmas (a disappointment once it arrives, but a pleasure to wait for). I love seeing my weird coterie of distant cousins come crawling out of the woodwork to eat creamed onions and brown sugar sweet potatoes. I love having a few too many afternoon drinks in my cousin’s bedroom to prepare for the inevitably strained conversation that’ll take place at the dinner table later on. I love fielding the barbed queries from the family’s Breitbart adherents about how “things are going at”—coughs with disgust—“Brown.” I genuinely love observing this weird menagerie: my wealthy, suit-wearing cousin carefully placing gilt name cards (printed on premium ivory cardstock) at the seats of the table, my ex-restaurateur uncle presiding over the kitchen with the mien of a mob boss, my grandfather pouring all of himself (and about five sticks of butter) into a massive vat of mac and cheese.
But my favorite part of Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the always-amusing pretentions toward family unity, or even pecan pie (and that’s saying something because—and hear you me—I fucking love pecan pie). As with most experiences, my favorite part of Thanksgiving is the music. And no, it’s not that my aforementioned mob-boss uncle is bumping the latest Danny Brown while he roasts veggies (if only). All the music on Thanksgiving happens during the long, gray, cramped car ride from Boston to the Cape with only my immediate family and the game we play on the way down: music roulette.
That kind of makes it sound like we’ve created a kick-ass master playlist of 11 incredible songs and then thrown in one “Stand” by R.E.M., but the real crux of the activity has more to do with a wheel than a bullet. It’s pretty straightforward, really: The five of us (me, my mom, my stepdad Keith, my brother Noah, and my sister Keira) take turns requesting a song we’d like to hear, and the rest of us are obligated to listen and evaluate. You’re not allowed to skip. Sometimes, we decide you’re not even allowed to talk while someone else’s song is playing. You’ve simply got to absorb.
There are times when these rules have been almost impossibly annoying (even more annoying than “Stand” by R.E.M.). They have it so that Keith, progressive rock super-nerd (and frequent invoker of “driver’s privilege”) gets to hear a nine-minute song by Porcupine Tree or a lesser-known cut off of Tool’s Lateralus. Then there was a dark period from about 2015 to 2018 when all seven-to-ten-year-old Keira wanted to listen to was Taylor Swift — and I actually kind of like Taylor Swift, but there are only so many times you can hear “Out of the Woods” before something snaps. I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a Pavlovian response to the phrase; a mere mention awakens in me the nausea of being trapped in the back middle seat of an overcrowded Nissan Altima. One time Noah’s choices consisted exclusively of (currently incarcerated) shock-rapper 6ix9ine. If you’re reading this, Noah, I hope you’ve matured; I really don’t think I can handle another four minutes—four!—of “BEBE.”
But these moments seem, somehow, like a fair price to pay. I suppose if I were more critical I could point out that getting control of the aux cord and forcing my entire family to listen to Deftones, or Basic Channel, or even Vampire Weekend (take my word for it when I tell you that my stepdad, an avowed metalhead who looks a little bit like a French-Canadian Varg Vikernes, cuts an amusing figure listening to “Horchata”) functions as a bit of a power trip. But I don’t think it’s so. In fact, the two most delightful parts of music roulette for me are decidedly wholesome.
The first bit is that I love showing people music that ends up being impactful to them. Back in 2016, I turned Noah on to the sweet stylings of John Darnielle, frontman of the Mountain Goats. Now, almost every time he sees me, we talk about his most recent discovery in their discography. I’ve taken Mom’s love of Prince and Michael Jackson and leveraged it to develop her appreciation for UGK, Kendrick, and 21 Savage. One time I forced Keith, an avowed critic of any and all post-punk, to listen to “Lucretia My Reflection” by the Sisters of Mercy. Watching him button-mash that little Spotify heart and add it to his music library was nothing short of life-affirming. And I’ve learned that Keira has a mix on her phone called “Griffin songs,” which melts my frozen heart. More than sharing the music I love with my family, it’s receiving love in return that makes me feel fuzzy all over. Call it the holiday spirit.
The flip side of this is that I love seeing my family members do the same. I love when my hard-rocking stepdad pulls out a classical guitar composition or an Elliott Smith deep cut to share with all of us. I love when Noah, after hours upon hours trawling through the SoundCloud back catalog, finds some obscure hip-hop or house track that he thinks goes hard. I love when Mom—mild-mannered Mom who doesn’t let us swear in the house—shocks us all and starts bumping some Snoop Dogg. And more than anything (sap alert), I love watching my little sister grow up through her evolving music taste, richer and more diverse every year. We’re a long way now from Taylor Swift power hour, and watching her branch out into uncharted musical territory…well, it’s simply awesome.
I’m not sure music roulette would work for every family. If your mother appears exclusively interested in listening to Journey, it might be best to keep your ideas about family music time to yourself. But this year—perhaps my final year living in their immediate proximity—I guess I want to tell my family that I’m thankful for them, for their interests and the time they spend sharing them with me. I’m thankful for having listened to all of that 6ix9i—wait, actually, scratch that. But all those long hours we’ve spent together in transit, getting to know each other better through our music? I’m definitely thankful for those.