Chuck Klosterman once wrote something to the effect of, “Our favorite music will always be the music from our youth.” (Unfortunately, I can’t find the piece he wrote this in, so I’m paraphrasing). As I remember it, he reasoned that there’s a certain sentimentality we associate with the music from our youth that simply cannot be matched by current music. Right or wrong, as teenagers and young “adults,” every life detail feels bigger and more important than it does later in life: the big party this weekend, the way that pretty girl from Sociology smiled at you, the big game that your favorite team won or lost (as a Minnesota fan, definitely lost). The music from our youth cannot be matched because it brings us back to a time that we’ll never experience again, a time of innocent irresponsibility and naiveté that is nearly impossible to recapture once we’ve graduated into the world of having to actually earn money to pay for everything we consume.
The first co-ed party I went to was in seventh grade. I had played on the same flag football team for two years with the guy who was hosting, who also happened to be my second cousin and “neighbor” (in rural Minnesota, anybody within three miles was my neighbor). He also happened to be an eighth-grader. This gave me an “in” that none of the other seventh graders had; it was my first experience climbing the social ladder. The eighth-grade girls, who, in terms of being intimidating to me, were a mix of Beyonce and aliens, were apparently interested in helping young romances kindle, so they invited the girlfriends and made sure I invited the only other seventh-grade boy who had a girlfriend at the time, too. After school that Friday, my buddy-with-a-girlfriend came over to my house and we were stealthily enjoying some conveniently-concealed Victoria Secret catalogs when my dad yelled up the stairs that I needed to have some shooting practice. The next day was to be my first day as a deer hunter. I had never held a shotgun before.
It was a cold late November day in Minnesota. We piled into our old red Chevy truck and went out to our sand pit. My dad propped up some haggard piece of plywood as a makeshift target. I remember him handing me the shotgun for the first time. It was heavy as a brick and felt completely foreign in my amateur hands. It didn’t help that I was woefully under-dressed. The icy gunmetal burned the nerve endings in my fingertips. With my friend watching, I pretended I knew what I was doing and hoisted the gun to my right shoulder, but the barrel was so long and heavy I could barely hold it up. I experimented with putting the butt of the gun on top of my shoulder in order to bring the end of the barrel closer to me, but that didn’t feel right, either. As four eyes stared holes through my back, I awkwardly shifted the gun around, trying to figure out how to balance the damn thing without killing myself. Mercifully, my dad finally intervened, shoving the gun butt against my shoulder and clicking off the safety.
I clumsily felt around the underside of the gun for the trigger. By this point, my fingers were anti-dextrous. As I half-heartedly took aim, the barrel bobbed in the wind like a life preserver in the choppy sea. In gun safety class, they had talked about “kickback,” and the bigger the gun was, the bigger the kickback was going to be. With the size of this shotgun, I was expecting to get kickbacked straight to my ass. I squinted into the frosty air, eyes watering, fearful for everyone’s life within a ten mile radius. At some point, the gun exploded. The barrel shot toward the sky. Stunned, ears ringing and eyes blurry with cold-wind-fear-tears, I lowered the gun and looked around. My dad and friend stared back at me. Nobody was dead, as far as I could tell. The bullet went God-knows-where, but the kickback wasn’t too bad, really. I was still standing, and my shoulder didn’t hurt. I shot a few more rounds and even managed to hit the target a couple of times.
I was going to my first party, and I knew how to shoot a shotgun.
I tried to find something not completely stupid-looking to wear to the party. Problem was, I had never been to a party before, and my entire wardrobe consisted of free wrestling t-shirts, Minnesota sports t-shirts, and one random neon pink long sleeve shirt with Michael Jordan’s face on it. I don’t even know what I ended up wearing, but suffice it to say, the brief boost of confidence from target practice was quickly replaced with paralyzing social anxiety.
The year was 2006, and Bush had just released their second album, “Razorblade Suitcase.” Their debut album, “Sixteen Stone,” had been a huge success, and knowing more than just one or two songs from the record gained you instant access to a respect from the older cool kids that was otherwise impossible to obtain. Sure, most people knew “Machinehead,” and “Glycerine” was that slow-song-that-every-guy-could-like-without-making-himself-vulnerable-to-bullying-because-it-was-still-a-rock-song, but if you also knew “Everything Zen,” “Comedown,” and “Little Things,” you had it made within a certain group of people.
In hindsight, “Sixteen Stone” is one of those shining examples of the way social groups use certain artists or albums as a barrier to entry. For a broad example, there’s the group of people who love pop music (loosely described as fans of Katy Perry and American Idol), and those people can never gain entry into any indie-music-loving group, and vice versa. I’d give an example of an acceptable indie band, but as soon as I did that, this group would deem that band un-Indie and exclude it from the group of cool artists. Basically, this is the group of people that liked Haim pre-Saturday Night Live, but post-SNL, Haim was no longer anonymous enough to be chic, even though their SNL performance was fantastic. (I mean, if the girl on the right doesn’t freak you out – in a good way – with her bizarro facial expressions, and the girl on the left doesn’t make you smile with her sheer “I’m so happy to be here” enthusiasm at the end, I don’t know what to tell you).
Then there’s the group of people who believe that the rock music from the ’70s is untouchable and anything post ’70s is crap. These are the people who will ask you to list the names of all of Led Zeppelin’s albums, and if you can’t, you’re dead to them (I actually had this happen to me at my first summer “legal” job. Needless to say, I failed and spent the next three months trying to gain respect). There are the girls who love music from Grease and Dirty Dancing, and then there are the aforementioned guys who love ’90s grunge rock, to say nothing of rap aficionados, EDM-lovers, the country music cult, etc. etc. etc. Genres of music are basically high school cliques. I mean, sure, I can probably still be “friends” with people who haven’t memorized Nirvana’s entire discography, erected a permanent memorial to Kurt Cobain, and put together a Courtney Love voodoo doll, but why would I want to be?
In the months and weeks leading up to the party, my two eighth grade neighbor-friends and I would watch a late-night music-video TV show produced by the only good alternative rock music station in the State of Minnesota, “93.7 The Edge” (which died a premature death in 1997 after three brief but glorious years on the airwaves). For thirty minutes, we sat enraptured in front of the TV, watching the music videos from our favorite songs, the songs that came to define our childhood: Superdrag’s “Who Sucked Out the Feeling?” Spacehog’s “In the Meantime,” anything and everything by The Smashing Pumpkins, etc. But for whatever reason, Bush always seemed better, somehow cooler. To a barely-teenage boy who didn’t have cable (and therefore, no MTV music videos), that half-hour was like crack cocaine. And Bush’s lead singer, Gavin Rossdale, was my drug dealer.
The party was a Beginner’s Guide to Awkwardness. At first I sat by my friends, quiet, trying not to be seen by anyone, but before long, the Beyonce-aliens forced me to sit by my then-girlfriend, and later actually physically took our hands and clasped them together (in stereotypical middle-school fashion, my girlfriend and I never, ever, ever talked). And later, they pulled the old “Hey, you should go downstairs” trick, and when I turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs, she was sitting there. Alone. In the Dark. The only light was the faint glow of the TV. I was a nervous wreck. My heart was thumping in my chest like a bass drum. By the time I forced my newly-paralyzed legs to walk over and sit down next to her, the lump in my throat was borderline choking me.
Miraculously, my friend and host of the party had received Razorblade Suitcase as a birthday gift. I don’t know if it was just a coincidence or if he was conscious of the pain I was going through, but he did exactly what I needed him to do. Insert disc. Select track 3. Press Repeat.
I don’t know how long we sat there, not talking, not moving, not breathing. It could have been 30 minutes, 3 hours, or 3 days. I’d believe anything. But through it all, “Swallowed” was there for me, blasting from the CD player over and over and over and over again. Every time it repeated – “Warm sun, feed me up/I’m leery, loaded up,” I somehow liked it even more. After it spun back for the 75th time (probably a gross underestimation), I finally built up the courage for my first kiss. That song, and that song alone, got me through one of the most painfully nervous moments of my life, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful to it.
Music is really weird, when you think about it. Its power to change our emotions, to cause hordes of people to abandon any and all sense of personal space, hygiene, and inhibition, and its sheer level of addictiveness make it so similar to a drug that it’s actually harder to find differences between music and drugs than it is to find similarities (and if you don’t believe music is addictive, haven’t you ever had a song “stuck in your head?”). Actually, that would be a fun philosophical conversation to have while you’re under the influence and listening to music late one night with your friends: How are music and drugs different? Drugs are ingested physically, sure, but how is ingesting music through your ears any different? Music can certainly change the chemical balance of your brain (haven’t we all heard listening to classical music makes us smarter?). Perhaps that’s why music and drugs have always gone so well together.
And if you’re wondering what odd and obscure songs/artists I use to gain entry into my non-existent social clique, here’s one. Happy Friday, everyone.