I can’t dance, I can only haphazardly play any instrument, and I can’t sing all that well. I can’t even read sheet music at a glance. But, despite all that, I have always had a sort of strong musical empathy. There are few things I love so much as letting a song carry me away: just leaning back and imagining some sort of narrative that ebbs and flows with the music, the drama rising, the story swelling and soaring as the song reaches its peak. Blame the prevalence of the 80s Get Shit Done montage, where months and months of training and progress are distilled into one three-minute music video, perhaps. But no words of wisdom, no last-minute terror, no simple sense of responsibility can spur me into action the way a song can. With the right sort of tempo, the right sort of chord progression, and perhaps a gratuitous key change or two, the right song can just grab me by the adrenal glands and yank.
I’m feeling somewhat nostalgic this evening, so allow me to tell the tales of a few songs that have energized me through the years.
When I was in third grade or so, I intruded into my sister’s room one day and decided to listen to her stereo. I’m not sure how I got away with this, exactly: if she just wasn’t home from school or, by then, possibly work; whether my parents were out of the house or just couldn’t hear the music; whether nobody actually minded, and it was one of those things that I thought was sneaky.
My sister was practically a decade older than me, which was more than a lifetime at that point. She was a teenager, and teenagers were the font of all coolness. (Not necessarily my own sister in specific, but teenagers in general.) Still, I knew she had some cool music – the music that wasn’t for boring old people but wasn’t stupid kid stuff, either.
I don’t exactly remember my mental state at the time, but based on the general contextual evidence of the rest of my life, it probably wasn’t all peaches and dew. Thanks to a handful of factors, some of them social, some of them biological, moody and angst-ridden adolescence came early. So I went looking for the angriest-looking cover I could find, ideally one with the black-and-white Parental Advisory: Explicit Content sticker that was as sure a sign of quality as the Nintendo Seal of Approval.
And there it was: a cover with angry blue storm clouds, a skull-fronted, streaking motorcycle, and a gigantic malevolent bat on a skyscraper. I looked closer. The biker was shirtless but for a black leather vest! He had long hair! His right hand was most assuredly NOT on the handlebars, but glowed with some mystical power! The bat had massive claws and matted fur! There was an angel tied to the top of the skyscraper! There was a swear in the title of the album! TWICE! This was it, I knew. I put the disk into the stereo, expecting rage and riot and instant damnation. My sister didn’t have any albums by Judas Priest, after all, so this would have to do.
What I heard had all the screaming guitars I could have hoped for. But more! There were backup singers! There were choirs! It reminded me of musicals, really: bombastic, orchestral, like every emotion was dialed up to 11, with a nearly Gospel fervor. It was over-the-top, precisely because it was so sincere. Love and loss and lust and anger and guitars and pianos and demons and angels and motorcycles and anger and death and caring about nothing and caring too MUCH and EVERYTHING LOUDER THAN EVERYTHING ELSE!
THAT, yes indeed, is what adolescence sounds like.
So what songs energized me during my actual adolescence? I was a little bit busy being a mopey and disaffected pseudogoth at the time, so there wasn’t a whole lot of energizing going on at all. But I could only listen to the goth-music mix tape my friend mailed me so many times, and it’s not like that music was played on local radio, or even sold in many stores. And, honestly, it’s not like I wanted to be a big sad sans-serotonin sack, so I tried to indulge myself by keeping my spirits up as much as I self-indulged in Joy Division. So I still listened to plenty of classic rock – and made time every Sunday night for The Dr. Demento Show.
I’m not sure if I could say that any one song from Dr. D energized me more than all others. The sheer fact that something that weird, that individualistic, that hilarious, that subversive, was on the air… demented it may sound, but it made the world seem like a better place. Somewhere, a man made his living playing this music. Many somewheres, hundreds and hundreds of musicians made the music he played. Some recorded in studios. Some in their basements. Some in the Cal Poly bathroom. There were bits by people who were world-famous. There were bits by people utterly unknown outside the field of Dementia. And I knew they probably had day jobs. They were office drones, or maybe they drove a taxi or something, or worked at a gas station. This was just something they did in what spare time they had, for fun, and because they damn well had a ridiculous song inside them and wanted to let it out.
I was no musician: I pecked awkwardly at my Radio Shack keyboard; I’d never been able to get the hang of a guitar; I could only make a few asthmatic sounds on the harmonica. But I did like writing, I did like trying to write parodies of things, and I did harbor a small, strange hope that I’d make something that got on Dr. Demento someday. Even just once, and never again. It hasn’t happened, of course, and probably never will, and so I’ve contented myself with the fact that the Good Doctor has played some of my requests online – including a dedication to my friends.
Still, even when I was out of the broadcast range, even when the webcasts were shut down, it’s been a comfort to know it was on the air somewhere. And, once it wasn’t on the air anywhere, it’s been a comfort to know it was online.
So there’s no one song from Dr. D’s vast archives that makes me more energized than any other – unless, of course, you count this lovely little tune right here:
Most people my age cared about sports scores, or who got voted out on their favorite reality show. I stayed up until midnight on Sundays so I could hear who was #1 on that week’s Funny Five. Who knows how much that reduced sleep might have ruined Monday’s scholasticism, but I regret nothing.
But that wasn’t the only energizing music of those years, though. When I was a junior in high school, a friend burnt me a CD-R of music. To my chagrin, it was an assortment that one of his other friends had given him, and not that most treasured and significant of gifts: the custom mix tape. But still, it was a notable thing, because it was the first digital music I’d ever owned. This was shortly after the dawn of Napster, which sounded like such science fiction at the time. Unfortunately for me, even if we’d had the kind of Internet connection that would have made downloading even a single song remotely possible, my father was so particular about the computer that he wouldn’t allow anything to be downloaded or installed at all. No music, no files, no games, not even updates to Shockwave or Flash. Or, as was the thing at the time, RealPlayer. Shudder. But we’d only had the actual Internet for all of a year at that point, so I took what I could get – and was always well aware of how meaningless and optional Internet access was to him, the person with the money, the person who made the decisions. I wasn’t about to risk breaking any rules and losing what little access I had.
But my friend thoroughly assured me that I could play the music right from the CD, nothing would end up on the computer, and nobody would be the wiser. And so I began my plan. The CD came home in its clear-fronted jewel case, tucked into a pocket of my backpack. I had an hour or so before anyone came home from work. And so I conveyed that disc to the family computer, prepared to claim it had files for a group project, should anyone get home early, see it, and ask. The hairs on my neck rose with the thrill of rebellion. I put in the disc and looked at its assortment of contents. A smattering of alternative songs, perhaps a couple Metallica tracks. To see files for actual recent songs was novel, to say the least. It made me think of a mix tape recorded off the radio. Only, CD like, you could skip from one track to another without fast-forwarding. No longer linear.
My expectations were low. I’d only heard two kinds of audio through a computer’s speakers, honestly: full-length MIDI arrangements of pop songs, and the ten-second clips of actual songs on Encarta 95. It was a good few years past ’95, at this point, making Encarta far too out-of-date to have anything currently popular, to my constant chagrin. (H2G2, I thought, had the right idea, and I was certain that it would supplant the CD-ROM encyclopedias that had were already supplanting the actual books. Close, but no cigar.) So I figured that something had to be compromised to make this possible. Maybe it would sound tinny and distorted. Or a little hollow, the way it sounded on my cheap handheld radio.
“Energized” is not an inaccurate way to describe how I felt upon hearing my first mp3 ever, The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”
I’m not going to say it sounded true as life. The sound was coming out of the factory-standard speakers of a Gateway 2000, two years after “2000” had forever stopped coding for “future.” But it sounded better than the radio did, in our particular part of the semi-suburban sticks. And not that much worse than our decades-old stereo. The thump of the bass, the swell of the strings, the ringing of the bells, it all came through clear, at least to my untrained ear. No static, no crackling, no DJ prattle.
I was, indeed, impressed.
And so I checked out another song on the disc — after being somewhat surprised that the next song didn’t just play automatically, and amused that I didn’t have to hammer a Skip button to get from Track 1 to Track 12.
That next song: Fatboy Slim, “The Rockefeller Skank.”
You talk about “energized…” This was one of the more uptempo songs I’d heard, period. The sampling was very novel to me – I hadn’t been aware, at the time, that the orchestral backing of “Bittersweet Symphony” derived from a sample, itself – and I liked how the lyrics, such as they were, became percussion in places, or just… tones. But the snappy drums throughout it all! The twanging guitar riffs! That shifting of the gears at 1:23, which I lacked (and still lack) enough music theory knowledge to describe! It wasn’t a catchy melody, it didn’t have poetic lyrics, but damned if it didn’t make you wanna move.
Regardless of the merits of the songs themselves, the whole concept of downloadable mp3s was, itself, an utter revelation. I wanted, so badly, to find some way of secretly installing Napster and gathering up all the music I wanted, from all the bands I’d heard of but never heard, and which our local stores didn’t even carry. But I abstained. If only because my parents didn’t stop having 56k AOL dialup until somewhere around 2011.
But soon high school was over, and soon graduation came. I was 18, bridging that gap between “teenager” and “adult,” and I had almost no goddamn idea what I was doing with my life. Everything about my entire existence had led up to going to college, and I had one last summer at home before my life went beyond the bounds of familiarity or easy prediction. I’d never have to deal with certain people ever again! I’d possibly never get to see certain other people ever again. The exodus was here.
And so there was one song that stuck out in my mind at that time. One song that I heard but rarely on the radio, one that I’d blare at ear-bleeding levels from my Best of The Who CD when no one was home. It was the first song I played when I arrived in my dorm room. And, when the CD cracked, when I was badly in need of some motivation, when I was full of caffeine and rebellion and possessed for the first time of a high-speed Internet connection, it was the first mp3 I ever downloaded.
The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
Sure, I could get into the music that excited me from my college years and beyond, but I like the idea of stopping it here. For one, because my later musical discoveries have been rather more broad and more strange, and the storytelling would become far more convoluted and improbable. To even establish who I heard the music from, or the context in which I heard it, or how I came into such a position in the first place… I’d need the better part of an autobiography. (Fortunately, it would be the better part of my autobiography in many more ways than one.)
But, for another, because leaving it here best highlights a certain trend – the excitement of forbidden music. In every case, the music that excited me was, in some sense, disallowed. Because it was my sister’s CD. Because I was up two hours past bedtime listening to music you’d have to be demented to put on the air. Because they were mp3s of unknown and possibly unscrupulous origin, themselves made of illegally-sampled music. Because it was an mp3 of known unscrupulous origin. (But how else was I going to replace my broken CD without buying it all over again?)
Whether I was actually right or not about how forbidden the music was, or how much trouble I’d have been in if anyone had found out, that sense of anticipation primed the pumps: with the adrenaline already flowing, the hitherto aloof neurons suddenly forced into friendship, it was perhaps all the easier for the music to be exciting. And, as I’ve readily admitted all throughout these prompts, it’s often not about the music itself: not the melody, not the lyrics, not the beat, just the utterly self-contained associations that the music evokes within my three pounds of squishy grey thinkmeat.
Still, each song was another chip out of my barriers and inhibitions. Another fleck of mortar from between the bricks of the wall. (That song, too, was exciting and anthemic once, in a way it can perhaps only be when you’re in seventh grade.) And now, somehow, not only do I have a hole in that wall, I find myself in the position where I get to chip holes in the walls of others. I get to share songs with people. Songs that make them laugh, mashups that blow their minds, songs they’ve never heard before, songs they forgot they remembered. It’s nothing but a party playlist, and yet… it’s one of the highlights of my entire week.
I’m still no musical expert. I don’t know house from EDM, I don’t know how you tell black metal and death metal apart, and I wouldn’t know shoegaze if it gave me a flying kick with cleats. But – and this is quite a momentous thing for me – I know what I think is fun, and not only do I get to have fun, I get to facilitate fun in other people. Which is absolutely incredible, and energizing beyond almost anything except for sharing the things I write. (Well, possibly moreso. Sharing what I write is still at least five times more terrifying.)
But there’s nothing quite like wrapping up a multi-hour set, possibly while the sun begins to drag itself over the horizon, and playing one last wildly uptempo hurrah.
And so, the one that’s perhaps my favorite:
I haven’t gone many places in this world, to be honest. I doubt I ever will. There’s a lot I’ll never get to see or do, because of time and work and money and pain. But this song always makes me feel like I have been on a hell of a journey, that I have come a long way through strange and varied lands, that I have owned more than could ever be summed — and that even more lay ahead. For the four minutes of that song, the world is wide, and it’s not being held up away from me, and there’s a place in it for weirdness.
And, as it ends, another little chip falls away.