Deborah Copaken’s Playlist for Her Memoir “Ladyparts”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Deborah Copaken’s Ladyparts is a fierce and captivating memoir about life in a female body.

Andrew Sean Greer wrote of the book:

“Terrifying, enraging, heartbreakingly funny–I recommend it for everyone I know, but most of all to the men. We know almost nothing about the women we love, their bodies, and their struggles. Don’t look away. Read this book.”

In her own words, here is Deborah Copaken’s Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Ladyparts:

I do not––cannot––listen to music when I write. In fact, most of the time I’m wearing Bose noise-cancelling headphones when I write my books and essays, even though they press up against the side of my glasses and eventually start to hurt.

On the other hand, I nearly always listen to music in my AirPods when I go out for my morning walks. Insofar as these walks are a key moment for me to work out both life’s kinks and my writing’s, the playlists and songs I chose to accompany both my physical and emotional meanderings during specific periods of time are time capsules: important, if only to me; slightly embarrassing; and telling, as they reveal where my head was at the moment I created those playlists. Because of Spotify, I have a record of those transitions via the playlists I made as the years rolled on.

When I look back over the decade covered by memoir Ladyparts, in other words, I can pinpoint each era by the songs I listened to on autorepeat while walking during those years of tumult. Because my memoir is broken down into body parts, I’ll break down the music I listened to as each body part was either excised or went on the fritz.

Uterus, 2011-2012: The breakdown and removal of my uterus both hastened and coincided with the breakdown of my marriage. “One” I played on auto-repeat as I was trying to decide whether or not to leave my marriage: “You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl”? These lyrics spoke to me better than my own scattered brain. Hearing “Where I Stood” for the first time was actually a watershed moment: “I don’t know who I am, who I am without you/All I know is that I should.” I realized I had to leave my marriage to save myself. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is a song I’ve been told my many I’m not supposed to love, but I don’t care: it still rocks, and it popped up on shuffle in a comic yet touching moment I describe in Ladyparts.

“One,” Mary J. Blige & U2

“Where I Stood,” Missy Higgins

“Livin’ on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi

Breast, 2013-2014: My marriage ended the same day I drove my son to college and found a lump in my breast. As we drove away from our home Harlem, where we then lived, and headed toward Chicago, my son put on Yeezus, the new Kanye West album. “Dicks and hoes? Ugh, turn that off!” I said. I found the lyrics offensive. My son found it offensive that I found the lyrics offensive. “Open your mind up to new music, Mom!” he said. I still don’t love the album, but it’s part of my history, so I’ll keep “Bound 2” in the playlist as a tribute to my kid’s urging me to keep an open mind. As soon as he fell asleep, I put on “Landslide,” allowing every version of the song to play, one after the other. Then, for whatever reason, when I got home, I became obsessed with Rory Gallagher’s live version of “Tattoo’d Lady,” which I’d play over and over again on my morning walks. It’s hard-driving rock beat spoke to my broken body and soul in some fundamental way I still don’t understand. I’d had to take in borders to be able to keep paying rent after my husband left, and we called ourselves The Commune: part joke, part reality. It was a commune, and we even had our own theme song: “Take it Easy,” which Brittany, one of our commune members, played on the uke while I strummed guitar so constantly, my daughter says she can no longer listen to the song. The Commune was located on St. Nicholas Avenue, just north of the 145th Street A train subway stop. One of our neighbors had a gorgeous red bud tree in their yard, and that spring, when it bloomed, which was just after my short breast cancer odyssey was over, I suddenly felt renewed hope for a brighter future. Hearing Knopfler’s “Red Bud Tree” made me cry, but in a good way.

“Bound 2,” Kanye West

“Landslide,” Fleetwood Mac

“Tattoo’d Lady,” Rory Gallagher

“Take it Easy,” The Eagles

“Redbud Tree,” Mark Knopfler

Heart, 2014-2015: In 2014, as my actual heart went on the fritz, I opened up my emotional heart to love. Meaning: I finally signed up for app dating. As soon as I’d match with someone, I’d check out his Spotify playlists, to see if we were at least musically compatible. The first man I dated and fell in love with didn’t work out. But his playlists were a treasure trove of songs, many of which I’d never previously heard but really dug. And maybe that’s one of the best things I got out of that relationship––so many new songs to go with both beautiful and difficult memories. All of these songs below are completely evocative of that moment in time, as are their lyrics: “I sing songs of sorrow, because you’re not around…” (November Blues); “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers…” (“Hold On”); “We were born to brave this tilted world/With our hearts laid on the line…” (“Traveling Kind”); “So, I give myself to strangers/Like I gave myself to you” (“Memoir”).

“November Blues,” Live performance, Avett Brothers

“Hold On,” Hold On, Neko Case

“Traveling Kind,” Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell

“Memoir,” Charlotte Gainsbourg

Cervix, 2016-2017: I was finally learning how to love again, finally appreciating the joys and healing balm of sex, when I was diagnosed with HPV 16/18 and pre-cancer of the cervix. This sent me on a downward health spiral that would nearly kill me. Ben Harper’s live version of “Sexual Healing” is a perfect rendition: so soulful and true. “Silver Spring” is a song I re-found and re-appreciated during this period. I listened to it constantly. It doesn’t follow the normal pattern of a song, and something about this breaking of the songwriting rules appealed to me. It just builds and builds and builds into an orgasmic crescendo before ending abruptly, which is kind of how I envisioned and wrote Ladyparts, because my life didn’t follow the normal three-act structure during this period either. “Never My Love” is another oldie I re-found during this time. “You ask me if there’ll come a time/When I grow tired of you/Never, my love…”: this is the kind of love I wanted, craved, even as I danced to the song in my living room with a man I knew could never offer me unconditional love. But I still had hope that it was out there. Somewhere.

“Sexual Healing,” Ben Harper

“Silver Springs,” Fleetwood Mac

“Never My Love,” The Association

Vagina, 2017: On the night of July 1, bleeding (literally) into the wee hours of July 2, 2017, I nearly bled out and lost my life to vaginal cuff dehiscence. This is the in medias res scene that opens my book, but I’m putting it here in its proper place in the temporal outline for the sake of the playlist. My daughter saved my life that night, insisting we head to the hospital, although I would not let her call an ambulance for fear of its cost. We ended up taking UberPool to the emergency room, where I passed out, broke a rib, and had to be rushed in for emergency surgery to save my life. “Bloody Sunday” is the song that kept playing in my head, at 3 AM Sunday morning, waiting for the surgeon to show up and wheel me in for emergency surgery. Sufjan Steven’s “Death with Dignity”––in fact, the whole Carrie & Lowell album––I listened to on auto-repeat for many weeks after my near death, as I tried to recover. “The Other Side” offered hope during this dismal period. It didn’t come out officially until 2019, but I’m friends with the singer/songwriter, and I was privy to various texted digital versions of it as it was being created.

“Bloody Sunday,” U2

“Death with Dignity,” Sufjan Stevens

“The Other Side,” Jukebox the Ghost

Brain, 2017-2019: A former Tinder boyfriend of mine offered to help me recover after the bleed out, as long as I met him in Kathmandu and gave myself over to his care and to the curative powers of Eastern medicine, where mind-over-matter is key: meditation, mindfulness, breathing. “Just breathe” was a song this man and I used to listen to, back when we were dating. Now it became a rallying cry for sitting still and getting better. “Save it for a Rainy Day,” is a song I played after we parted, once again. We knew we’d never make it as a couple from the start: the age gap between us was too large. “Don’t look so sad, Marina/There’s another part to play.” I “shook the dust off my wings” (“To Live is to Fly”) and met my current partner soon thereafter. At one point, as I write in Ladyparts, this man and I were driving up the Pacific Coast Highway when Kacey Musgraves “Oh What A World,” came on the stereo, and I burst into tears from joy. It’s basically been four years of that kind of joy ever since: love and peacefulness I appreciate every single day. “Senegal Fast Food” and “Formidable” are two songs by French-speaking artists I listened to for inspiration as I walked to work along Sunset Boulevard toward the “Emily in Paris” writers room. Yes, I walked to work in Los Angeles. It can be done.

“Just Breathe,” Pearl Jam

“Save it For a Rainy Day,” The Jayhawks

“To Live is To Fly,” Cowboy Junkies

“Oh What A World,” Kacey Musgraves

“Senegal Fast Food,” Amadou & Mariam

“Formidable,” Stromae

Lungs, 2020: I caught Covid-19 on March 18, 2020. I struggled intensely to breathe, feeling like a fish flopping on shore, worried I wouldn’t make it at a time when hospitals in New York were packed full, and no one knew anything about treating this scourge. “Don’t bother to come to the hospital,” said my GP. “You’ll have a greater chance of survival at home.” Not exactly the words you want to hear when your Sp02 level has dropped to 92, and you’re starting to panic. The only album I could listen to during this time to calm my nerves was the Grateful Dead Live at Barton Hall from 5/8/77. It’s hard to pick just three songs from that album, but the three below should get you started. I urge everyone to listen to the entire album. It’s soothing in a way nothing else––and I mean nothing else––was. It got me through. Still gets me through, whenever I need a moment of calm and beauty. The last piece I put on this playlist are the Tibetan singing bowls I mention in the book; they got me through the worst night of Covid.

“Scarlet Begonias,” Grateful Dead Live at Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 5/8/77

“Fire on the Mountain,” Grateful Dead Live at Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 5/8/77

“Morning Dew,” Grateful Dead Live at Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 5/8/77

“Tibetan Singing Bowls,” Tibetan Singing Bowls

Deborah Copaken is the bestselling author of Shutterbabe, The Red Book, and Between Here and April. An Emmy Award-winning news producer and award-winning photojournalist, she is also a columnist at The Atlantic and a screenwriter for the Netflix show Emily in Paris. Her New York Times Modern Love column, “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist,” was adapted for this TV series, and she has performed on the New York City stage multiple times. Her essays have also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Observer, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation. She lives in Brooklyn.

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