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One Song. Two People. A Lifetime of “What If?”

One Song. Two People. A Lifetime of “What If?”

  • Culture
  • Life
Tone Deaf is a column where we discuss music. From personal stories to cultural analysis; from lyrics and instrumentation to music videos and live performances, we put it all under the microscope to understand how we experience music through our everyday lives.


(Images: Unsplash) 

I never thought I’d ever be the guy who’d fall in love with someone while in a relationship with someone else.

Growing up, I believed I had relationships all figured out. The songs I sang along with and listened to on the radio made it sound so easy: boy meets girl. Girl likes boy. They fall in love and live happily ever after. I memorised the damn steps. What those ballads don’t tell you, however, is that you can still stumble upon love even after you’ve found it.

Z was a girl I met online. Not through Facebook, LinkedIn, or—god forbid—Tinder. Predictably, in this day and age, it was Instagram.

We got to know each other, hit it off, and over time, the friendship blossomed into something more. She changed my life—even though she’s not in it anymore. I miss her every day.


I’m your stereotypical guy—abysmal in terms of expressing emotions, and even less adept when it comes to talking about them. Stuff like that just doesn’t come naturally to me. And though I might not know much about love, the one thing in life I’ve always been able to understand is music. So I’m going to use the song Yesterday Once More, to help put words to my feelings.

More specifically, the remastered version of the timeless classic by American brother-sister duo, Karen and Richard Carpenter (better known as the ‘Carpenters’). 45 years after the song’s debut, in December 2018, Richard breathed new life into a couple of his hits with the help of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

This version, in particular, is a masterpiece brimming with nuance. Though the lyrics remain unchanged, and the melodic lines are largely untouched, the inclusion of orchestra adds another layer of incredible depth. Not unlike Z—the girl I loved, lost, and yet never got to call my own; my eternal, “What if?”

“So … you’re using a song written about the nostalgic power of music to talk about the memories you have of me? sO mEtA,” is probably what she’d say if we were still talking.


(Image: ST)

Let’s start at the very beginning.   

Bored and thumbing through the explore page one afternoon, I chanced upon one of Z’s pictures. It was a picture of … a sock. It wasn’t even a nice sock. It was a ratty, beat-up, grey sock which I later found out, through a brilliantly-worded caption, was supposed to be a metaphor for her life at that point.   

Colour me intrigued. On a platform governed by the laws of vanity and exhibitionism, here was this girl who waxed lyrical about one of life’s most mundane items. Her quirkiness captivated me.

A couple of days later, Z replied to the ‘hello’ I sent. And that was it: a spark. We discovered we could talk about anything. It was always effortless, innocent, and most of all, gentle. Listen to the first verse of the song and you’ll understand the exact feeling I’m trying to describe.

Before the first words of Yesterday Once More are even sung, the dreamy introductory notes (courtesy of a harp) set the scene. Following this, Karen’s warm, contralto voice accompanied by only the piano proceeds to invoke a sense of astounding serenity. Like a mother cooing to her new-born, she hits the notes with such tenderness that it’s like a light, aural kiss. In fact, ‘hits’ is probably too harsh of a word. It’s more like a brush and you can’t help but be swept away by the melancholy.

In an interview with co-songwriter, John Bettis, he described Karen’s uncanny ability to hit the right intonation only to slide away after because she knew that “emotionally, it was the way to get to the next note”.

Listen closely to the third line in the song, when Karen sings, ‘when they played I’d sing along’. Depending on the music score you refer to, the highest note in that phrase (right at the 15-second mark) is either a high G or A. But no matter what it’s denoted as on the staff, she very briefly caresses that high note before moving on, eventually holding an ever-so-slight vibrato on “along” and a steadier one on “smile”.

Everything adds up to a feeling that’s best described as being wrapped tightly in all that’s good in the world. Like a warm hug on a cold, rainy day; like the sound of a child’s laughter; like opening presents on Christmas day. 

Z had the same effect on me.


After months of conversing via text, Z asked me out. Though my introverted-self was deathly afraid of meeting someone new—not to mention terrified of awkward silences—I agreed. 

2 minutes after meeting her, worries about falling short of any preconceived notion she had of me evaporated. Offline, the conversation was even easier. 

That evening, I learnt why hazelnut milk tea with a 75% sugar level is a bloody poor choice of Koi order. I lost an argument on why a Pilot G-Tec-C4 is a far superior pen compared to the Uni-ball Signo UM-151. Everything felt easy. Natural. Right.

I could be myself, idiosyncrasies be damned. If you’ve ever had that feeling, you know you will always remember it.

When Karen sings the chorus about every “sha-la-la-la”, “woah-o-woah-o”, and “shing-a-ling-a-ling” still shining, she’s undoubtedly referring to the lyrics used in songs of old (ala Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison), and how listening to them years later still triggers the same feelings of joy. It’s the same with the memories I have of/with Z. They exist in a world of their own, etched deeply into every corner of my brain.

Z and I met a couple more times after that night. Sometimes, it was just for a walk/cycle in the park. Sometimes, we went for dinner. Once, she brought me to her secret spot—where she went for a bit of peace whenever life seemed like too much. It was always good; always pure, always that respectful distance between us.

It wasn’t long before feelings started creeping into what had started out as platonic friendship. But Z wasn’t sure if I felt the way she did. How could she? She was the one who did most of the talking whenever we went out. “Enough about me,” I’d always say. Surely, there wasn’t anything interesting I could bring to the table. 

Eventually, Z asked point-blank if I had any non-platonic feelings for her. She told me she did. I said I did too.

Then everything went downhill. 


“In that case, shouldn’t it be simple?” you asked.

I didn’t know how to tell you there was somebody else. I didn’t know how to tell you I kept you at arm’s length for a reason. I didn’t know how to tell you that despite that, I had fallen in love.

There are 3 lines in Yesterday Once More that perfectly encapsulate what I felt: that moment when Karen sings about heartbreak right after the first chorus.

While the drums keep steady time throughout the rest of the piece, staying largely in the background, the toms and crash cymbals are thrown into the mix, adding a whole other layer underneath the smooth vocals of those 3 lines.

The result is convoluted; bordering on violent, even, at least when compared to how delicate the melody in the verses is. The tension is deafening.

But this isn’t even where the drums are first introduced to the piece. Playing it back, you’ll find that the percussive outburst which immediately follows the chorus is mirrored—no, foreshadowed—right before it.

At 0:37, the percussion announces itself. The crash is hit 3 times to emphasise 3 words: “but”, “they’re” and “back”, referring to the return of happier times. Here, the song drops its tenderness and turns cruel. I can almost hear it taunting me with the ghost of you that’s back to haunt. At the same time, the strings do a quick 5-note run, adding yet another layer of emotional depth that makes you feel uneasy.

Z never understood why things weren’t quite the same after that. There were just too many unanswered questions. The conversation petered out and after a while, we stopped talking altogether. 

In her absence, I thought about a lot of things. I didn’t know what to do. On one hand, there was nothing wrong with my relationship. On the other, here was the potential for something amazing. But I had unknowingly written myself into a corner. Because I kept her at arm’s length when all I wanted to do was pull her closer, there was so much of her I didn’t know—if we’d actually be good together or if there were any red flags.

It tore me up inside.

A few months after her last message, my phone lit up with another text from Z. In it, she said that even though she didn’t understand what had happened, or what went/was going through my head, it was okay. We could still be friends. 

That was it. The inner turmoil never really went away but that text turned the volume knob on the conflicting voices in head way up. They didn’t whisper anymore. They shouted. She deserved to know. 

Finally, I told Z why I held back. And she was furious. She told me what a rotten human being I was. I remember being on a bus when I read those messages. I missed my stop. I never even apologised. It’s not that I wasn’t sorry. I just knew the words would never be enough. I let her walk away.

After the dust settled, I was dead to her.


On my desk is a book she got me during a holiday. I’ve read a few chapters, but I don’t think I’ll ever finish it. In my wallet, 3 folded $2 notes are tucked away—Z’s share of our TOTO winnings from when we won 10 bucks. 

A bottle cap from the Snapple we once shared is still in my bag. I don’t carry it around because I’m afraid I’ll forget kangaroos can jump 30 feet. 

All these things are reminders of the clichés that have run through my head:

Would I try to make it up to her? Would I actually go and try to get her? (For the moment at least, no). What if I can’t? What if nothing I say or do will ever be enough? What if things between Z and me can never go back to the way they were? Just like that book on my table, I’m not ready to deal with the finality of turning that last page. I don’t want to know how our story ends. 

People often think there’s a right or wrong thing to do in situations like these. There isn’t. There is only a choice to be made. And, of course, the consequences of that decision; the things you have to live with.

These are mine: 

If I had to choose between living in a world in where Z and I will definitely remain strangers, and one where there’s even the slightest possibility that we could go back to being at least friends, I’m picking the latter every day of the week. Even if it means I may not ever truly be happy.

Right now, my life is essentially one continuous loop of Yesterday Once More—melancholic; haunting; and most of all, an ode to something beautiful that once existed. 

And maybe. Just maybe, someday it’ll be yesterday once more.


What songs hold special meanings and memories to you? Tell us: 



Justin Vanderstraaten Staff writer