I used to fancy myself a lot of things that I never turned out to be, and one of them was a connoisseur of music. We’ve all dabbled in the embarrassment of Knowing a Lot About Music, so I won’t harp on those details. But music has been in the background of almost every step of my life, and as I circle around to the end of a third decade it seems appropriate to examine the spiral, or cycle, or very crooked line that traces my musical tastes over these last 28 or so years.
As a child, a tiny child – tiny enough to sometimes not even be called a child, but instead be shoved into that strange category of “toddler,” I listened to what my parents listened to. From Dad, it was NPR’s All Things Considered or Prairie Home Companion, or a bluesy oldies station somewhat obscured by vague static. Mom listened to musicals like Les Miserables and feminist icons like Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls.
It was the early ’90s. They were artists. They were also zooming toward divorce. Anyhow, for my first few years of life, from toddling to pre-teening, it was all feminism and the blues, in one way or another.
Phase 2: TLC, the Spice Girls, Britney. These women serenaded me through the end of the ’90s and into my adolescence, presenting me with all sorts of options for how exactly I could come of age, all of which included lots of synchronized gyrating of the hips, spandex, and wacky hairstyles. They say that all little girls crave the opportunity to try on Mom’s high heels and makeup; since my mom was more into Birkenstocks and scent-free moisturizer, reenacting scenes from Spice World was my first foray into the caricature of femininity that most young women find themselves at least momentarily thrust into as they travel from Not a Girl to Not Yet a Woman.
I was young enough then to still be earnestly curious about what it would actually feel like to be A Woman. Then, around age 15, it wasn’t the smooth sounds of “Scrubs” or “Spice Up Your Life” I craved because no longer was I in need of a surrogate for my sexuality: I was done asking “What if?” and instead sought answers to “…what NOW?” Being A Woman had happened, and it sucked, and so my previous icons were now just dim glimmers of an idealism I no longer had the luxury of living within.
Instead, I was drowning in buckets of teen angst, the outlet for which was Blink 182, Brand New and other grubby pop punk that was written by unhappy boys about their feelings toward mean girls. It was lonely music, and it was music from immature minds with little experience in adversity, which was exactly the dimension of reality I’d wandered into at that point in my life. So I rode that wave straight through the end of my teens, layering in angrier and more peculiar music as I aged until, by 21, it was really a dice roll in regards to whether I’d be screaming myself raw to Winds of Plague, having a heart attack to Motorhead, or purely losing my sanity to Primus. I never bothered learned words anymore, only tempos; faster, louder, more aggressive. If it could damage my car speakers and my reputation at a red light then it was on my playlist.
This was around the time that I stopped listening to music for pleasure and listened instead so that I didn’t have to hear anything else, especially so I didn’t have to hear what was going on inside my head. This was also around the time that I finished college and found myself loosed upon a chaotic world that I was expensively and inadequately prepared to exist in. It was a low point, and a weird one. I even went through a Taylor Swift phase, dated a couple serious losers, then moved to the other side of the country, from Massachusetts to the Bay Area.
Things went silent for a few months when I got to California. I’d been listening to noise for years to distract me from hearing anything real, but this was because I was still within the womb of comfort that a hometown, or even a home state can offer. When I plugged my music back in after a month or two of being a Californian, I started to return to the roots of my musical education: the blues, and feminism. I picked up a taste in funky folk, gathering albums by the Decemberists and digging out the Fiona Apple that I had never understood why my brother liked so much back when I was still toddling and he was becoming a teenager. And I picked up the Indigo Girls, and the Les Miserables soundtrack, and even TLC and Brand New.
I spend more of my audio hours listening to podcasts and the news now, which will ultimately prove to be another avoidance technique, just a different type of ambient sound to fill the air around my ears so that I don’t have to pay to close attention to what’s going on between them. When I do listen to music, it’s hardly ever something new. In fact, it’s almost always something from long ago, that I first listened to as a means to mute whichever extreme of my life I’d been screaming through at that moment.
But my musical preferences have stopped mirroring the chaos of my life and instead have come to reflect the truths gathered from that chaos… about myself, about being calm, and about accepting that sometimes I won’t be able to stand the former or figure out how to obtain the latter. Rather than casting off a somewhat sordid history of musical tastes, I’m inviting them all back into the fold, apologetically and with open ears, to listen for the millionth time but, in many cases, for the first time to truly hear.