The habit started in May of 2009, the summer after my dad had bought me noise-canceling headphones for Christmas, while I was on a plane traveling to Beijing for a shitty summer internship. The plane hit a particularly bad patch of turbulence, and, as a pocket of air suddenly decided to just not be there anymore, the plane dropped what must’ve been about 20 feet before catching itself.
My iPod at the time was on a ’90s music shuffle, and I realized I was listening to Akinyele’s “Put It in Your Mouth.”
Once my heart started beating again, I thought to myself, “What if that was it? What if I had fallen from the sky and the last thing I ever heard was, “Well you can lick it you can suck it you can taste it, I’m talkin’ every drip drop don’t you waste it, baby slurp it up”?
Two months later, after a truly horrendous internship, I was desperate to get home, so it seemed karmically inevitable that my return flight would, at some point, burst into flames. So before the plane took off, I selected a song on my iPod (yes, I broke the cabin rule about turning off electric devices…LADIES). If the plane started going down, I would flip on this song and listen to it as I plummeted to my death.
I believe, for this first flight, it was “There, There,” by Radiohead. It was a sad and comforting song, and I thought it would be a nice thing to die to.
Since then, it’s become something of a tradition when I get on the plane to pick out the song that I’ll have a few clicks away at any second, in case the plane goes into a dive. I’ve been told it’s a morbid practice, but I still recommend it to anyone I fly with (which makes me the worst person to sit next to on a flight).
But think about it: When you get on a plane, you are basically ceding all control of your life to a possibly drunk airline pilot, an autopilot robot who might also be drunk, and an aluminum tube that has been hurtling through the stratosphere every day since 1982.
An engineer friend of mine once told me, “I’ve studied aerodynamics, and seriously, I still don’t understand how planes stay in the air.” With this in mind, at the very least you should have control over the soundtrack to your own death.
Another reason it is particularly nice is that you will probably be sitting next to a stranger. As the plane goes into a dive, they will want to start holding you as they now realize, too late, that what separates us from our fellow humans is an illusory wall of apathy and socially constructed atomism, and that we, as social creatures, must live and die together to truly thrive.
But fuck them, they’ve been hogging the armrest for the entire goddamn flight. They can die alone. The noise-canceling headphones and blasting tunes — you’ll need to turn it up all the way — will be your excuse for ignoring their pleas.
The next step, of course, is choosing the song. This can’t be a universal, consistent song. You can’t just say, “Brett Dennen’s ‘When I Go’ is the way I wanna go out always.” You have to pick it based on context: If you’re sitting next to the love of your life, for example, the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is an excellent choice. If you’re hungover — and if you’re on a long flight, you should be — I recommend Flogging Molly’s “What’s Left of the Flag.”
Now, to be clear, there are plenty of scenarios where you won’t actually survive to hear the song you’re playing. The fuselage could split in half, like in Lost, which would probably result in you being sucked out into the sky, or at least passing out due to the pressure change. Point is, you’d probably die instantly, like we all wish the characters on Lost had. The plane could also just blow up, or catch on fire, which will kill you faster than dying once you hit the ground.
Regardless, plane crashes are not long, drawn-out affairs (unless you’re being hijacked, in which case take off your fucking headphones and TACKLE that asshole). I’m not sure exactly how long it takes to fall from 30,000 feet, but my guess is it’s just a couple of minutes. So choose accordingly. Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone,” for example, is a great song to die to, but in the movie of your life, it would play during the crash and over the montage of your funeral. You probably wouldn’t hear anything past the intro.
So I’d say pick something that’ll take about 2 or 3 minutes. That means Dave Matthews is basically out, which is a shame, because if Dave Matthews is the thing you want to hear as you die, I’m glad you’re dying. The best band in the short song category, I think, is the Pixies, though Fight Club made “Where Is My Mind?” a bit cliche. You could always go with “Break My Body,” but I am personally of the belief that your last few minutes should not be spent contemplating what’s about to happen to you (Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” also fits into our time limit, as does Tom Petty’s classic “Free Fallin’,” but you’ll just hit the ground annoyed and, in the case of the Springsteen song, a little horny). So maybe side with “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” or Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
If you’re an atheist like me though, hearing about heaven as you die is probably not going to be much comfort. If that’s the case, just play “Aeroplane Blues” by the Black Keys, and think to yourself, “Shoulda taken the fucking train.”