My 3rd graders were really impressed that I’d heard of this guy called “Michael Jackson.”

They kept shouting out random songs and phrases to make sure I knew.

“There’s this one song called Thriller that’s really cool! And there’s this dance that goes with it, but you have to make yourself look kind of like a zombie. And when it starts, he’s in this really creepy park. And it’s dark outside and he’s walking, but you can tell that something is about to happen. And you have to move like this.”

(They get up, in order to demonstrate.)

“Oh, and have you heard of Beat It? He’s like in an alley or a parking thingy–”

“A garage?” I interrupt casually.

“Yeah– one of those parking thingies, and he has all these guys with him. And you think they’re going to start fighting because of how everybody looks and the stuff they’re wearing, but then they start dancing!”

“Oh, and….”

I smile.

They frown.

“You sure you’ve heard of him?”

I shoulda been a D.J.

It wouldn’t have worked out though, because I’d only play what I wanted to hear, regardless of the occasion, theme, tone or mood.

I’m not better than this.

I keep my CD binder in my trunk, just in case Pandora falls through.

Or in case I’m needed for a 90s’ wedding or something. You never know.

songs in the key of life

1. “Wish You Were Here” – Incubus: I dig my toes into the sand. The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket. I lean against the wind– pretend that I am weightless. And in this moment, I am happy. Happy

2. “Love Is Blind” — Eve: One of my friends in college was in an abusive relationship. She never told me because she didn’t think I would understand. A few years later, she grew alienated from her family when they found out she was bisexual. I wish I’d been there for her when she needed someone to understand.

3. “Green Eyes” — Erykah Badu: Mama’s Gun. I could listen to this album forever. When I was in college, someone I knew performed an interpretive dance from Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls, to this song. It was absolutely beautiful!

4. “In A Sentimental Mood” — Duke Ellington/ Miles Davis: I don’t have the patience or the creativity for jazz. This song strikes a chord in me anyway. It’s like somewhere I have never traveled. I don’t know what it is about you that closes and opens. Only something in me understands the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses. Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.


6. “Live Like You Were Dying” — Tim McGraw: When I was a first year teacher, I lived in a community with 5 strangers, not unlike MTV’s The Real World. There were retreats, field trips, and rats. There were arguments and accusations. There were choreographed dance moves, Karaoke performances, dry ice, hymns, and confessions of faith. We had Catholic mass, failed science projects, and car accidents. There was canoeing, country line dancing, a fifteen-passenger van, and swing dancing.

Sometimes we sang this song together.

7. “The Other Woman” — Nina Simone: I’m lucky. I’ve never found myself in this situation. I imagine it must feel completely like this.

The other woman finds time to manicure her nails. The other woman is perfect where her rival fails. And she’s never seen with pin curls in her hair anywhere.

The other woman enchants her clothes with french perfume. The other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in each room. There are never toys that’s scattered everywhere.

And when her baby comes to call, he’ll find her waiting like a lonesome queen. ‘Cause when she’s by his side, it’s such a change from old routine.
But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep. The other woman will never have his love to keep. And as the years go

by the other woman

Will spend her life alone.

You have to hear it for yourself, though. It’s absolutely spellbinding. Heart-breakingly beautiful.

8. “Umi Says” — Mos Def / Yasiin Bey: I want my people to be free, to be free, to be free. Want my people to be free, to be free, to be free. It’s as true today as it was yesterday because, unfortunately, we’re still not.

9. The Roots: 
When I was a white evangelical Christian, I hated rap. I didn’t understand it, or what those people were saying, or why they had to say it like that. The Roots gave me something to believe in.

10. PRINCE. 

11. “I Get Out” — Lauryn Hill: I didn’t like her first album. I knew I was supposed to because she was raw and vulnerable and real. But I just didn’t like it. And then came Unplugged. Hands down, best album of all time.

12. Sam Cooke: My dad used to hate it when I rummaged through his old CD collection. I was too rough, and I’d always scratch something important by mistake. I must have been 8 or 9 when I discovered Sam Cooke. When I finally saved enough money, his was the first CD I bought.

13. “Mississippi Goddamn” — Nina Simone: I went through a phrase where I only watched documentaries and read nonfiction. Just the facts, please. Just the meat and potatoes. I heard an old song of hers in the background of something I’d seen, and I remembered her voice because it was so distinctive. You can substitute the name for any other state in this country. It’d still be relevant.

14. “Treacherous” — Taylor Swift: For all the problems I have with her, this is just a really powerful, really beautiful song.


16. “Where Did My Baby Go” — John Legend: It was a Tuesday. I wanted to be at home sleeping, but I had to pick up my roommate from work. She’d taken a job at Starbucks because they offered health insurance, and she was on summer break from teaching. I’d brought a book to read, but I couldn’t focus because the music was too loud. And then THIS.

17. “Something About Us” — Daft Punk: We moved from Chicago to Texas in the height of the winter– Chicago winter. It was snowing, and it had to be no warmer than 15 or 16 degrees outside. I’d come down with a bad virus, so I was pretty weak and pretty helpless. We’d rented a moving van, and the plan was to drive it directly from Chicago to Houston that same day.

Without missing a beat, V drove the van to my place and loaded everything in (from my 2nd floor apartment). Then he drove to his apartment about 10 miles away and loaded everything in (from his 3rd floor apartment). We stopped to grab some vegan Korean BBQ sandwiches from a corner store on the way.

Then, without missing a beat, he drove the van– all by himself, the entire way– directly from Chicago to Austin, Texas. No breaks between except two stops for gas and to walk our Biscuits.

This is the song he played to pep himself up on the last leg of the journey.

18. “The Fact Is” — Jill Scott: I can pay my own light bill, baby. Put my own gas in my own car. I can buy my own shoe collection. I’ve been blessed thus far. I can kill the spider above my bed, although it’s hard because I’m scared. I can even stain and polyurethane. But some things just don’t change.

I need you

19. “Dream On” — Aerosmith: When we were in 7th grade, my best friend had a crush on Steven Tyler. She knew absolutely everything about him and required that I do the same. She led me here. Glee and Neil Patrick Harris did the rest.

20. SADE.

21. “You Can’t Hurry Love” — The Supremes: We had dance competitions in my house. Singing AND dancing, just like on The Cosby Show. My brother, sister, and I would dress up and perform brief, impromptu, choreographed dances.

This was one of our favorite songs.

22. “I Want You” — Common: It was a few years ago. He was a few weeks shy of 42, I was 31. We’d met briefly for lunch a few weeks back and then dinner a few days later. It wasn’t a relationship, but I wanted it to be. He was smart, patient, easy-going. He liked to challenge himself. He was funny. We watched Fruitvale Station on his Roku. I hummed a little diddy from Dr. Dre to be cute. It wasn’t.

23. “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Queen: Freshman year of college, my roommate owned two CDs and two CDs only: something by Queen and something by Ace of Base. It’s probably a dramatization, but I think she actually rotated them every single night for that whole year.

I saw the sign. And it opened up my eyes.

I saw the sign.

24. “Scream” — Janet and Michael Jackson: Anger is important. Without it, I don’t know how much incentive we’d have to make hard choices: to quit, to move, to leave. My most significant, formative experiences were fueled in large part by anger.


I could go on, but there’s just too much good music.

Your turn! What are your songs in the key of life? 


One thought on “I Shoulda Been A D.J. (Songs In The Key of Life)

Comments are closed.