I don’t remember why I started listening to RadioNow 93.1, Indianapolis’ Top 40 radio station, but I know exactly when. I was nine, and it was the summer after third grade. Before this, I had basically stayed away from pop culture. I didn’t really get it, or like it, and there was a girl in my school who told me she was receiving shots to delay puberty because she had watched too much Britney Spears with her older siblings and it had somehow tricked her body into pressing “skip” over the last part of her pre-preteen years. I still have no idea whether this is scientifically possible, but I believed her totally, stayed away from such things: my mother had already threatened me with the end of my own childhood, (“you’ll probably get your period around age 10,” she said to me on a summer day that I later wrote in my journal was the “saddest of my life”) and I didn’t want to get any closer to that black hole than I already was.
But at the end of that summer, I was invited perfunctorily to a pool party at the house of one of the future-popular girls. (I went to a small private school and popularity was inherited, usually from older siblings who drove big shiny cars and threw good parties.) We sat in the hot tub—I in my first ever two-piece, a red Nike tankini with shorts and black piping—and Eminem’s “Without Me,” came on. “Two trailer park girls go round the outside, round the outside, round the outside,” I rapped. The same girl whose body developed as fast as thought looked at me, shocked: “You know this song?” she smirked, hot tub bubbling around her. “I thought you only listened to, like, the Beatles.”
No, that was the old me. In that hot tub, I reinvented myself. I might not have had a huge beige-carpeted house with a pool or a stay-at-home mom but I definitely had a radio, and yeah, I knew this song. Of course I did. And I spent all of fourth and fifth grade making sure I knew every song that 93.1 played. I obsessively watched TRL and VH1 Video Jump in the mornings. I turned my back on the Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen that had formed me and listened to Chingy, J-Lo, Ashanti over and over again, until they became a part of my brain.
I’m not alone in this. We all know all of the words. We know them in the way that a collective unconscious knows archetypes; the way that a crowd, seething, knows when to turn lethal. The throwback gives us commonality with people who don’t have any idea who we are or where we came from. Someone told me once a nation is “a group of people with a shared history” but there is much of my history that I don’t share with any of you, though we live in the same country (and, on a smaller scale, attend the same school). None of you have ever been to Camp Tecumseh. None of you know about that time in high school when a freshman put his own poop in somebody else’s backpack. There are maybe 20 of you that could talk to me about what it’s like to grow up in Indiana, but we could sing “Yeah” and “Get Low” together all night long. In a way, these songs are like our own Pledges of Allegiance, words stitched into our brains, bonding us in a way that the Pledge never could.
These communal cultural experiences are more rare, now, than they used to be. We’ve been told over and over again that the Internet has changed the very fabric of our existence, but that’s especially true for how we discover, process, and enjoy culture. Everything is diversified, intensified and multiplied. There are genres and subgenres and sub-sub-genres and morph-cross genres; there’s Spotify and GrooveShark and Songza and 8tracks so everyone can listen to exactly what they like exactly how they like it. I think this is why EDM is so big: dancing and going out, in clubs (or at the Street), is the only time our generation, as the primary consumers of pop music, share a communal music-based or music-laced occasion (barring a concert, which attracts people attending purposefully for that artist). At any other time, listening to the music we like is an intensely individualized experience, bumping in our Beats or tinnily from our laptops. We have playlists for every mood, curtailed to exactly our situation. I have a “mope” playlist and a “songs that make me cry” playlists. They are very, very different. And I have no guarantee they’d make you cry, too (okay, they definitely would).
I’m not trying to say the Internet is ruining socialization. Though I don’t have a Facebook, I don’t think that a good social life and a good social media presence are mutually exclusive. But I do think, and this is nothing new, that music shared is music that means something different than music loved. Nelly is not among my favorite artists, not even close, but I would play him at a party over Leonard Cohen any day. My weird, half-folksy half-angsty taste in music is entirely my own, and nobody else digs it all that much. Don’t get me wrong—I like it that way. I am a unique flower; I sparkle like a special snowflake, and the music I listen to in isolation is all mine. But I have no problem sharing the stuff that I only like because it reminds me of a time when everyone liked it.
It took me two years to break away from pop music. It started with No Doubt, ended with Green Day. Changing my musical tastes was more of a moral choice than an an aesthetic one. Pop music was what girls who had pink-bordered whiteboards in their lockers filled with hearts and smiley faces listened to. I was deeper. I was alt. Plus weird surges of angst were starting to reach a critical mass inside of my body as puberty rolled through, and it needed a release. So I asked my mom for a subscription to Rolling Stone and quickly caught up on the canon of rock and roll, got a poster of the Clash to hang over my bed and some Ramones t-shirts to wear with my matching Converse. As middle school went on, Elle Girl convinced me that watching The OC wouldn’t mean compromising my super-alt ideals, and I clued into indie music through their really great soundtracks. Slowly but surely, I was making my way over to actually decent music, to being “hip,” to divorcing myself from a dominant culture that I felt both an ethical and social duty to avoid.
My taste in music was how I separated myself from my peers and their pink Nanos, how sixth grade me made it very clear that I was—as a friend called me once—“a punk loner loser outcast hippie rebel.” Beyond its individualizing power, I used music to judge who was cool and who wasn’t, whose aesthetic would complement my own, whose friendship was worth cultivating. Though I’ve since moved away from such shallow qualifications in choosing my friends, talking about music still carries serious weight in my closest relationships today. I only listened to indie pop and indie rock throughout high school, but hearing my friends here buzz about Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, A$AP Rocky—artists whose music sounds like the opposite of what I usually listen to—brought those songs into my rotation. I’m not complaining: they’re pretty darn good, but they’re not analogous with the immaculate persona I’d spent all of high school cultivating.
The music I love privately and passionately makes my life richer and deeper, which is what all art should do, but sitting and listening to my favorite James Blake song until I cry is not my idea of total personal fulfillment. For that, I’m going to need to be with people I love at least sometimes and I’m going to need to have a little fun with them, too. If singing “Ignition: Remix” at the top of our lungs bonds us, I’m totally down to listen to that instead of my “Mope” playlist.
That’s why I need this public music, these shared artists, from a time when the dominant culture was my culture and I could be sure that those around me were a part of it, too. It was a time when I wasn’t concerned about whether an artist was “indie” or not, whether they were “trap” or not, whether their use of cultural appropriation was ethically responsible, whether I was promoting a lifestyle I could defend morally.
Here, the throwback gives me an out. It gives me a way to like music that I shouldn’t like but do anyway, because it sounds to me like the time I started being me. It was really fun, at first, to start to be a person. I loved being a girl who went to pool parties wearing two-piece bathing suits, who could impress the cool girls with her impeccable taste. This was before it got complicated and I realized that having friends can suck if your friends suck and that having certain tastes can suck once you start thinking hard about them. That was why I needed Green Day and the Clash and the Ramones, to help me realize what was going on around me, what was going on inside of me. It’s still pretty confusing, but now I have poetry and art and philosophy and all kinds of other things to help me find my way out of that hot tub, where I realized that loving something enough to know it inside and out could change who I was.