Monday, May 25, 2009

Music to My Ears

My friend Robrt Pela and I have a theory that the music you loved when you were between the ages of 12 - 14 is the music that will continue to mean the most to you throughout the rest of your life. You may not admit this, as some of that music can be deeply embarrassing, but it's true. This is the music you're most likely to sing along to when it comes on the radio, the music you secretly listen to on your iPod, the music that pops up in your head for absolutely no reason.

I was born in 1968, so my formative musical years are roughly 1980 - 1982. I don't care what anyone says, these were excellent years for music. Disco was still lingering around (remember KISS's attempt to cash in on it with "I Was Made for Lovin' You"? Brilliance.), New Wave was sitting in the back row looking cool (the Cars were the best band in the world), and bands like the Thompson Twins, Berlin, the Motels, and Missing Persons were bringing a shiny new sound to the airwaves.

But what was best about this time was that there were all kinds of music on the radio. Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt, and Juice Newton shared the airwaves with Joan Jett, Styx, and Ozzy. We didn't think about things in terms of "country" or "rock" or "pop." It was just music. And music was a big deal to me, as we lived in the middle of nowhere, didn't have cable television, and certainly didn't have anything like MTV. The radio was pretty much it.

Today I was thinking about this because of the iTunes Genius function. If you don't know about this, you're totally missing out. I didn't even know it was there until my friend Jill pointed it out. Now I can't live without it. See, you select a song in your library, hit the Genius button in the lower right corner (it's the thing that looks like an atom), and it magically creates a playlist of other songs in your library that will go well with the song you've started with. I don't know how it does it, and I don't care. All I know is that it's, well, genius.

Today I started with the Eurythmics' "Love is a Stranger." Annie Lennnox made a huge impression on me when she burst onto the scene, and this is my favorite of her songs. I hit the Genius button and voila, a list of 100 songs that pair nicely with "LiaS" appeared. And it's a good list, containing songs by the Go-Gos, David Bowie, Billy Idol, Cheap Trick, Gary Numan, Blondie, Foreigner, Prince, Culture Club, Heart, and so on. Not a clunker in the bunch.

As I listened to these songs, it brought back all kinds of memories: the day the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) cassette arrived from Columbia House just in time for me to play it endlessly on a family road trip, trying to memorize the words to "Half-Penny, Two-Penny" from the Styx album Paradise Theatre (which our school's insane drama teacher had decided to turn into a musical, and in which I was supposed to sing that awful song until I conveniently broke my arm), looking at the tour dates listed on the album jacket for Fleetwood Mac's Live album and thinking that San Francisco's Cow Palace must be the most marvelous place on earth (it isn't, by the way).

I also recalled sitting in the back of the schoolbus playing Van Halen on a tinny portable tape player, watching Solid Gold to see my favorite bands lip sync their latest hits, and staring at a picture of a shirtless Freddy Mercury wondering why it was so appealing. Oh, and crouching by the stereo waiting for Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" to come on so I could tape it through the speakers (a process made impossible by my cousin Kris's insistence on talking during it just to be a bitch).

It makes sense that the music from these years of our lives makes such an impression. At 12, 13, and 14 we're starting to figure out who we are. Too old to be children and too young to really be teenagers, we're stuck in an in-between place filled with acne, self-doubt, and perpetual erections (for the boys) and whatever it is that happens to you girls at that point. The point being, it's all very dramatic, and every drama needs a soundtrack.

To further test the theory, I looked up the Billboard Year-End Charts for 1980 - 1983. Out of the 300 songs on the combined lists, I have just about half of them (146) in my iTunes library. An additional 50 or so will probably join them shortly now that I've been reminded of them. The remaining 104 I either don't like (sorry, Air Supply) or simply can't remember (Charlie Dore's "Pilot of the Airwaves"? "Goin' Down" by Greg Guidry?)

I no longer listen to the radio (does anyone?), and I buy very little new music. Robrt and I have another theory that our brains can hold only so much pop culture, and that at some point there's just no more room for new stuff. Occasionally I discover something current that I like (most recently The Killers and Modest Mouse), but mostly I stick with my old friends. Or, as if I've developed musical Alzheimer's, I go backwards and get into bands whose heydey was slightly before my time (the New York Dolls, Sweet, the Sex Pistols, the Stones).

Just for fun, look up the Billboard charts for the years you were 12 - 14. I bet you'll find a lot there that makes you go, "Oh, yeah! That was great!" Play them loud and sing along. I guarantee it will make you feel better. Because Sister Christian, your time has come.

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