About Me

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Washington, DC, United States
I don't write here nearly as much as I should, but when I do, I'll try to make it count for something.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Musings: When Songs Change Us

So recently I had the honor of listening to Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered speak at his book launch (and by the way, if you haven’t picked it up yet, the book is called Your Song Changed My Life and it’s fantastic). During the event, he touched on what song changed him and what songs were picked by other artists he interviewed for his book and why. It made me think about myself and
what song has impacted me on that level, if any. I thought about it for a long time. Music is very important in my life and I have a very eclectic collection so picking just one song seemed daunting. I’ve spent days asking my friends what songs they would pick and I have gotten an array of answers – “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead (which was a contender for me as well); “Suedehead” by Morrissey; “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine; and even “Pony” by Ginuwine (ahem, hello sexual awakenings). But for me, I kept coming up empty. Would I choose something by Radiohead? Jeff Buckley? The Beatles? Oasis? Otis Redding? Lauryn Hill? I had no idea how to even go about deciding how to pick this one song! So many songs have meant so many different things to me. And then I had to stop thinking so hard and really just sit back and track back my musical history to a moment in time and suddenly it was very clear to me.

I was 16 years old and I was living in Lakeridge, VA – a bitter transplant from San Diego. I grew up listening to and loving my parents’ music – I didn’t rebel against it at all, I embraced it. Donna Summers? Yes! Smokey Robinson? Aye! The Mamas and the Papas? You betcha! I loved it all – so much so that by the time I reached my teens, I felt like an out-of-place weirdo. Like, why didn’t other people my age love this music as much as I loved it?

OK, let me take a step back actually. I don’t want to make it seem like I was or am above Top 40s. Definitely not the case! I owned that first Spice Girls album (and still listen to it to this day). My very first live “concert” was when I was in preschool and I saw Tiffany at the mall. The first tape I ever bought was Different Light by the Bangles (which, by the way, we will revisit by the end of this blog post). If I hear “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys, I will dance my ass off. Ace of Base – they were my spirit animals. I liked all the music that my fellow 90s kids liked…. but for the most part, it was all very superficial (as a lot of that music can be) and I never felt an emotional connection to most of it. That was reserved for the real music – my parent’s music.

At the not-so-tender age of 16, I believed that no one was really making the kind of music that could crawl into your gut and pull at your insides. I mean my older brother introduced me to the Kinks, Violent Femmes, Talking Heads, Queen, The Smiths, Joy Division…. but that still felt like HIS music – like I was just glomming onto, yet again, a better greater era that had come to an end. And hey, nothing wrong with that! I’d accepted this lot in life and I was fine with it. The music industry had given up and I would just have to be okay with the Third Eye Blinds and Jennifer Lopez’s of the world.

But then a weird and magical thing happened.

I was with a good friend of mine (one whom I have written about before and was probably the most important friendship of my life) and his birthday was coming up. His family was forcing him to celebrate it and he was dreading it because he hated his parents and they were going on a road trip to FLORIDA. Knowing how upset he was about the impending doom, I took him out to dinner – some bougie place by the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria. We had steak and spiked our Shirley Temples. It was March and still pretty chilly out so he wrapped his coat around me while we walked around the pier. We talked about the books we were reading and how we were going to live in NYC together one day and start a band. He teased me about my love of the Bangles (who, at that time, was my absolute FAVORITE BAND IN THE WHOLE WORLD) and I defended it. I serenaded him, terribly off key, with the Bangles’ “Angels Don’t Fall in Love” and he groaned and shoved me and told me he loved me even though my taste in music was total shit. And I teased him for being a pretentious prat because all he listened to was The Smiths and The Cure – and while I also loved those bands, I was more open to more kinds of music out there and he was not (or so I believed).

We got into my mom’s car (I was sober, promise) and waited for it to warm up. I flipped through my wallet of CDs and started to put that Bangles album into the player and my friend begged me not to make him listen to it again – not on his birthday. I almost reminded him that this wasn’t his car and it wasn’t ACTUALLY his birthday – it was in a week – but I let it go. I told him we could listen to whatever he wanted to listen to. He pulled this CD out of his messenger bag and the cover was this gorgeous redheaded woman lying on a dirty floor – she had on this leather jacket and her eyes were open but I wasn’t sure if she was alive or not. The band name was Neko Case & Her Boyfriends and the album was Furnace Room Lullaby. I’d heard some of it before that point – but not really. More like it would be playing in my friend’s room when I’d show up to hang out…. and I wo
uld immediately make him change it because one type of music that I refused to give a chance was country. Sure, I mean there’s like Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris but they were exceptions! But today’s country music? Nope. I did not do twang. I’d hear a couple notes from that Neko Case album and I’d make him turn it off straight away.

But this was his “birthday” and he knew that this was the moment he was going to get me to shut the fuck up and listen. Honestly, I don’t actually even think he was trying to get me to care about this album as much as he just wanted to listen to it because he loved it and this time I was finally going to be quiet and not whine over Neko Case’s singing.

I carefully pulled out of the parking space as he hit play. I remember sort of listening but not really during that first track. As I drove out of Old Town and my friend lit up a cigarette next to me and rolled down the window, I started to settle into the music more. By the third track, I was in. I was all in. The song “Porchlight” has long been one of my favorite Neko Case songs but really it was “Mood to Burn Bridges” that really struck me:

So if you want moral advice 
I suggest you just tuck it all away
'Cause my mood to burn bridges
Parallels my mood to dig ditches
Don't cross me on neither a day, baby

My mind was exploding. It was just like, “Oh shit what is this?!” The lyrics were a punch in the stomach. But more importantly the musicality of it! The album as a whole was firmly placed in the realm of country but wasn’t married to whatever pop hell modern country had supposedly devolved into. It was so expansive – one moment ethereal and the next ass-kicking. And “Mood to Burn Bridges” toed this weird line between playful and vengeful that just…. got it. I don’t know how else to say that. And what I found amazing is while this was definitely an “alternative” country album, there were so many more things happening – it was a little bit rock n roll and a little bit bluesy. And it was all weaved together in this perfect partnership of badass harmony in a way that I had never been exposed to before. It was honestly the very first time that I realized that a) there were artists today still making fucking incredible music and b) genre bending in music is, you know, a thing and it’s amazing.

After that, I started to break out of the “musical box” I had created for myself and explored what else was out there. Neko Case was my entrance into a whole new world. And that first time listening to “Mood to Burn Bridges” was the moment I saw the door to that world open up. And while Neko Case herself is firmly a Gen-Xer (and had been in the music industry already for quite some time), this was definitely MY era of music, finally. Someone who was out there NOW making music that was speaking to me. And through Neko Case, I discovered artists like the New Pornographers, AC Newman, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Evan Kane, Ryan Adams, Linda McRae, Wilco and so many others. From that moment on, my devotion to music can almost be described as religious.

I still keep a special place tucked away in my heart for bands like The Bangles and Ace of Base, but I had finally discovered my own world of emotionally intricate music that wasn’t through someone else’s generation and it felt pretty good. (Though, that being said, one of the things that I love about Neko Case’s music is how timeless it really is.) And in the end, it shaped who I am now as an appreciator of the musical arts – and really, also opened up emotional flood gates I didn’t even know I had. And what more can you even ask for?

So thank you, Neko Case – thank you for giving me a musical world that feels like mine. If it weren’t for you, I’d probably still be lost in a sea of bubblegum pop and booty-popping remixes, wishing desperately to wake up in a generation of music that understood me in any way. Keep on keeping on, you badass punk rock Patsy Cline.