The difference between a house and a home is how much you love living there. LaunchPad explores the innovative technologies that help you care for your space more effectively.
My dad was the music man. A gifted guitarist who played in a band for longer than I’ve been alive, he would take my sister and me on Saturday afternoon trips to Best Buy, back when people still bought CDs. Together we would scour the aisles for new albums he’d read about in Rolling Stone; back in the car, he would roll down the windows and turn the volume way up.
At home, he was the master of our stereo system — an intimidating collection of blocky receivers, tangled wires, and a 300-slot disc changer that no one else was allowed to touch. He schooled me in the ABCs of classic rock, how to finger pick the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and the many virtues of Joni Mitchell. In short, my dad taught me how to appreciate music.
But it was my mom who showed me how to feel it.
I remember her vacuuming in the early ‘90s, wearing gem-toned aerobic attire, pushing the heavy machine back and forth to the beat of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?” Mom hosted full-throated, one-woman singalongs while folding laundry. She sang along to the Pretenders, The Jackson 5, Tammy Wynette, whatever was on the radio. My dad may have been the bandleader, but my mom has perfect pitch and a keen memory for lyrics. I can hear her now, standing in the kitchen of my childhood home, cooking dinner and giving Prince a run for his money, even on the high notes.
Then my parents got divorced. My dad moved out, and with him went the extensive music collection and stereo. They agreed that was fair. But after years of Dad curating their listening mix and running the sound system, suddenly the house went silent. One of the saddest things I have ever heard my mom say is that, after my dad left, all the music she’d loved was gone with him.
Over the years, little by little, Mom tried to create a new roster of artists and albums. We’d give her the latest Dixie Chicks for Mother’s Day, or she’d come across a box of dusty CDs at a garage sale containing the best of Motown. The closest she got to replacing the house-wide stereo was a portable boombox.
Unfortunately, in the years after their split, my parents didn’t have the kind of relationship that would have had my dad burning a bunch of “their” favorite albums for her. Besides, since he hasbeen the one buying the music, my mom mostly didn’t know specific artist or album names. She wouldn’t have even known what to ask for.
When Pandora came out in 2000, her music situation started to marginally improve. She would set the station to the name of an artist she knew — Tommy James and the Shondells, Tina Turner — and that would lead her to ones she had forgotten about.
I would also scribble lists of song titles and artists on the pad of scratch paper we kept in the junk drawer. A particular song would come on and Mom would suddenly be up dancing. (That’s how I got my moves: it’s the reason my signature is, now and forever, the pony.) It helped.
Still, Mom was at the whim of an algorithm, and she could almost never get to the thing she wanted at the moment she wanted it. After the advent of the first iPod, she was working full-time and in a newly-started Masters program. She had little time on her hands, and less interest in buying music on iTunes than making sure we had money for lunch. I started driving and stopped singing along with her in the car. Random dance parties dwindled. Mom still grooved out while she made dinner, though less than before. Her pitch was still perfect. But her voice was quieter.
Eventually, I left town, went to college, then Los Angeles, and finally landed in Brooklyn. Music technology evolved a lot over that time; a stuff-eschewing millennial, I don’t own a single CD, and my entire music library exists entirely on Spotify. My husband-to-be is the music man in our house, the keeper of the speakers and the emcee of new artists and albums. In more than one way — some of them excellent, some less so — I have turned into my mother.
Last summer, when I was visiting the Midwest, Mom and I went to Best Buy. We were browsing the store, which is now mostly absent of CDs, when I came across a display for the Amazon Alexa. I swear: Anyone watching would have seen a lightbulb flare above my head.
I took it to the checkout and handed over my credit card. Once I explained how the voice technology worked, Mom was overjoyed to bring Alexa home. I set the speaker up while she read through the manual and my step-dad, reading a magazine on the couch, looked on with mild amusement. Then we fired the speaker up.
“Alexa,” said my mom, “please play The Beach Boys.” Alexa gladly obliged.
“Louder please,” said my mom. The volume went up. “Louder!” The sound grew to fill the room.
We shimmied to “Barbara Ann” and bounced on the balls of our feet to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” with Mom on melody while I did my best to harmonize. We danced and sang our way through the afternoon: Donna Summer, Chris Isaak, Carole King, Cream, vintage Madonna. At some point, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen my mother so thoroughly herself in a long time.
For a lot of very good reasons, technology that hears us — that listens — gets a bad rap. But for someone like my mom, who missed the first wave of digital music technology and never completely caught up, it is in many ways wonderful. Alexa may not be able to help my mom recover the music — or the time — that she lost. But she can help her find what she’s looking for right now. And that’s the type of technology that actually delivers on what it’s supposed to do: make our lives better.
It’s been almost a year since we got Alexa. Since then, she’s become a soundtrack to my mom’s days. Al Green in the morning, a little Lou Reed in the late afternoon; Frank Sinatra after dinner; music for cleaning, for cooking, for watching the sun go down. Sometimes, Mom will ask Alexa to play songs from a certain decade, which helps her rediscover artists she might have forgotten, and which Amazon Music conveniently tracks — no more notepad scribbles necessary.
Not long ago, we were on the phone, and a tune came on in the background. “Who is that,” I asked my mom. She knew exactly — turns out, it was from her collection. It was something she had loved, and then saved.
Elizabeth Kiefer is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work regularly appears in Glamour, InStyle, Marie Claire, Refinery29, Bustle, and beyond. When not furiously typing, she is probably on the hunt for a perfect cup of coffee.