I have terrible taste in music. My ex-boyfriend said this and I agree. He said that part of the reason he fell in love with me was because of my great taste in literature and movies and my good judgement when it came to people and personal style. He couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong with music. I love country music, I like cover bands like Boyce Avenue, I find Prince annoying (that’s like not liking dogs or Seinfeld or Virginia Woolf). I like Celine Dion (that’s like liking black liquorice or PT cruisers or spiders).
The funny thing is, I grew up surrounded by music. My Dad worked in broadcasting, first as a DJ, then as a consultant, and eventually as a CEO. In childhood, instead of being paid to take out the garbage or vacuum the living room, I was paid to scan playlists and billboard charts, highlighting the songs I liked best. It was busy work-I knew it even then-but it beat the hell out of scrubbing the toilet bowl. The tell tale sign the house was stirring and the day beginning was the sound of my Dad’s shower radio blaring the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, The Temptations. Later when he worked for a country music station and then a pop station it would be Dwight Yokam, Garth brooks, Britney Spears, Beyonce. Alongside framed pictures of his children, the halls and countertops of my Dad’s home are dressed with pictures of himself with Janet Jackson, Donnie Osmond, Justin Timberlake. In my house, music was, and is, a big deal.
My Dad listened to almost everything, mostly with an eye towards trends and without speculating about whether or not an artist was objectively good or bad. If you manage a radio station, music that is popular is good. I’m not suggesting that this is the right way to judge music, or that there is a right way to judge music, or that music should be judged at all, but only that this is the way I listened to music growing up. Compare music to movies and think of me as the person who can appreciate Fast and the Furious 5 and movies starring Lebron James and movies that require 3-D glasses. I have a very low threshold for what constitutes good, and in some ways this is a relief. Having been an avid reader and a student of literature since toddlerhood, I have refined my taste in books to such an extent that nobody would dare get me a book for Christmas. Airport bookstores are always a disappointment. Having such defined taste in books is limiting-the joys I experience when reading are profound, but they are joys of quality and not quantity. Whereas, with music, so much sounds good.
In high school, I loved and learned my music more deeply than nowadays, but it was no less unoriginal. I compiled a mix tape of songs, using my friend Shannen’s CD’s (she wore jean jackets and Doc Martin’s and drove a cabriolet and was understated cool). The tracks were as follows:
- Blind Melon: No Rain
- Cranberries: Zombie
- Cranberries: Dreams
- Tom Petty: You don’t know how it feels
- Counting Crows: Long December
- Counting Crows: Mr.Jones
- Lisa Loeb: Stay
- The Fugees: Killing Me Softly
- Insensitive: Jan Arden
- Goo Goo Dolls: Name
- Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
- Oasis: Wonderwall
- REM: Everybody hurts
This was the soundtrack of my life during the period when I still had yet to kiss a boy. It was 1996 and I was 14. Never having kissed a boy was something I would not admit to anyone. I was deeply ashamed. Friends wanted names and I would answer “guys from other schools, you wouldn’t know them”. Even though I didn’t even know any guys from other schools. Even my best friend didn’t know my secret. The year I was 14, I spent several days penning a fake diary detailing my romantic escapades with a Chilean named Fernando who I met on vacation in the Dominican Republic (there was a Fernando, skinny, red-headed, Chilean-but we did nothing that approached kissing). I strategically placed this diary on my best friend’s bed in the hopes that she would read it. This felt like incontrevertible proof that I was normal and okay. And it felt incontreverible because who would be crazy enough to go to the trouble of writing a fake diary just to prove they had a kissed a boy? Here I was planting evidence to counter the suspicion that I had not done enough with boys. In another 12 months I would be defending myself against having done ‘too much’ with boys. It was a fine and unfair line to have to walk.
Some of the songs on my mix tape were there for appearances only. I listened to them and felt disconnected and irritable. No rain and You don’t know how it feels were two such songs. I remember feeling annoyed by the upbeat tempo of these songs-the way I feel when I hear people whistling in public places. The happy-go-lucky tempo was jarring against the lyrics, which described melancholy emotional places (“You don’t know how it feels, to be me; I don’t understand why I sleep all day, I start to complain that there’s no rain”). “Let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint”? I had smoked weed a few times in high school, out of diet coke cans, behind the kentucky fried chicken, outside in the rain from tiny roaches held up to my lips with tweezers; I wore a necklace made of braided hemp and Fimo beads and knew that people bought marijuana on the steps of the art gallery and that a joint cost approximately $5; but I certainly couldn’t relate to the impulse to ‘roll another joint’. Even then I knew I was a poser and could not bring myself to sing this part of the song out loud.
Other songs, seemed to perfectly encompass something about adolescence. Long December, for example, felt as though it was being plunked away on keys inside my heart. It captured my sense of time at 14, a period that felt painfully and incredibly slow: waiting for summer, waiting for the bell to mark the end of class and the beginning of lunch, the walk home from school along the highway and through the neighbourhoods where two-parent families lived, where kids did their homework after school and had parents who kissed and watched movies together on the couch late at night after the kids had gone to bed. Waiting for my first kiss. Lying on the grass under the stars for hours with the first boy I wanted to kiss, having no idea how to go from lying prone, two profiles next to one another, to kissing. Knowing only that there was nothing I wanted more in the world. How long a slow ballad could seem when you ran out of the gym every time they came on and stood waiting in the hallway to avoid the feeling of standing around and not being asked to dance. Or how long the song when someone did ask you to dance and you swayed awkwardly back and forth worrying you would lose the rhythm, and then when you lost it worrying you would never find it again? Calling the house of the boy you like, waiting for his parents to answer. Leaving a note in someone’s locker, waiting for a response. The time I dry humped a boy in my grade (still no kissing) on a bean bag chair in a friend’s basement and was convinced I was pregnant and had to wait an entire month to get my period before I could exhale. Time moved so slowly, and I lived inside it. Instead of beginner’s mind, we should call it teenage mind. I lived in the present and the present moment was never-ending and this felt easy.
At the same time as the present moment stretched out interminably, ecstatically, often painfully, there was a deep sense of existential angst that I have not known in my adult life. A deep understanding of the ephemerality of an entire life. This existential angst contributed to a pervasive depression during adolescence, terrifying in a way I have never found adult depression to be. This was not a once in a while kind of thing. This was every day. This was the same feeling you get when the days become shorter in the wintertime, or when you fall asleep midday and wake up to find the world dark, or when it is Sunday night and time for bed. Night time was the worst time for this feeling because it was a time when the world went to sleep and I was alone with my thoughts and a sense of my own fragility and insignificance. I loved to travel to American cities where things were open 24 hours. I felt great comfort in knowing that a 711 across the street was open all night, that people would be driving up, parking, filtering in and out. The knowledge that there was a hospital nearby, an obvious trigger for your average hypochondriac, was reassuring to me. In a hospital, people were awake and going about their business. At two am in a hospital, nobody was going to tell you it was time to turn off the light or the tv. Nobody was going to force you to delve into the abyss and confront the meaning of life. Hotels were even better than hospitals, but ultimately there was no escaping the creeping awareness of my own mortality and the fleeting nature of a life.
I am 14 and sitting in the back seat of my best friend’s mom’s car. Long December is actually playing on the radio. My entire wardrobe is from Le Chateau and was carefully selected. This is the first time I will be going to a dance as the best version of myself as opposed to as a parody of a person–typically I wear costumes and dress to comic effect. People think this is me expressing my individuality, but really it is me hiding my individuality behind glitter, fangs, capes, patterned tights and outlandish make up. Tonight, I want people to think I look good and this is a hard thing to admit. Tonight I am going to wait to see if someone will ask me to dance. I am going to allow myself to hang out there in the void, all nerves and sweaty armpits and zitty forehead, to see if something will happen. I am wearing a white spaghetti strap tank top and ribbed sky blue lycra bell bottoms. On my feet I am wearing dark brown platform boots. I had my make up done at MAC this afternoon; my eyeshadow is metallic blue and it extends from my eyelashes to my eyebrows in a thick layer. I had my hair done and it is piled like a bridesmaid atop my head, its millions of intertwining strands held firmly in place with dozens of bobby pins. I will be discovering bobby pins while washing my hair for weeks to come. The Counting Crows croon “The smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters but no pearls” as my friend’s mom gets back in the car and adjusts her seatbelt across her chest. On the contrary, we can both feel that tonight is going to be an important night. That tonight something is going to happen. And something does happen. One of the boys in my class tells me I look like Mariah Carey. Then the boy I like tells the boy that said I look like Mariah Carey that he wants to ‘suck my titties’, which my fourteen year old self interprets to mean he likes me. I have my first dance, with the boy I like who wants to suck my titties, to ‘I believe I can fly’ by R Kelly. And it’s soooooo good.
As a teenage girl, one of our favourite mottos, so painfully cliche now that I cringe every time I see it printed on the side of a pencil case, a mug, or a diary, was “Dance as if nobody is watching”. Why did those words penetrate so deeply at 14? Why did the lyrics “I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself to hold on, to these moments as they pass” resonate along the same octave in the heart? Even now these words twang. They were an acknowledgement of the dual existence of a teenager, living with one foot in the present moment and another in the existential abyss. Dance as if nobody is watching was something to counter the existential abyss. Hold on to these moments, don’t decry the slowness of time, the length of time it takes to arrive at your first kiss, to graduate from high school, for the high to wear off so that you no longer feel your tongue is getting thick and you can’t swallow. Be in those moments, because they are long and lived deeply in a way you will be hard pressed to find later on. And the adolescent mind/heart has the ability to live inside time in a way that is unique to them only. Of course, this isn’t the way I thought about these words at 14. And even if I had understood their weight, it is unlikely I could have altered my sense of the world as both spinning and stalled. It’s only looking back now, that the longness and the shortness of being an adolescent is obvious. It’s only looking back now, that I can understand how December can be long and yet filled with days that go by so fast.