26 February 2008

"Music is My Boyriend"

There was a commercial on TV this past spring featuring an annoying ditty spouting the lyrics “Music is my boyfriend/ Music is my girlfriend.” I think the commercial was for some sort of music device, probably an MP3 player, and the point was meant to emphasize how much music meant to the obscure non-U.S. or U.K. band who wrote the song. While many people I knew tolerated this song pretty well, it rankled me every time I heard it. While it’s not easy to see now, there was a time when music was my girlfriend, my best friend, and sometimes, my only friend.
My earliest memories of music having any impact on me are from when I was about five or so. The memory is of driving around in a maroon Plymouth Voyager eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with my dad. We were driving in Apple Valley, probably heading to Rosemount, and we were listening to the Door’s “Greatest Hits” album. I remember hearing the words to “Riders on the Storm,” and I was able to put together the murder scenario implied in the whispering subtexts. It was the first time in my life I really heard a song. There were other groups I remember hearing; Bob Marley and the Wailers singing “Buffalo Soldier,” Diana Ross singing “Love Hangover,” The old man had (and still has) good musical tastes, and they rubbed off on me.
The first record I ever bought was a vinyl LP of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” one of the best-selling albums of all time. I remember buying it at Burnsville Center, and my dad asking me if this was the album I really wanted. I nodded enthusiastically. I’m not sure how I even knew it existed; I think my neighbor had the single for “Beat It.” Later that day, when that same neighbor was over, we had a Michael Jackson party, and when my mom came into my bedroom to say it was time for dinner, I got so mad about my friend having to leave that I went over to the record player and swatted the needle across the record while it was playing. So, side two of my copy of “Thriller” had a deep gouge in it, and would always scratch. It served as a reminder of my impetuous temper as a child. “Thriller” got a lot of use, as did my LP of the cast of “The Dukes of Hazard” singing various cash-in songs loosely connected to the series.
As I grew older, my tastes expanded. I spent a lot of time listening to Top 40, and kept a close eye on which song was doing well and which wasn’t. As someone who wasn’t popular and had sub-par hygiene, I had to be good for something. It got to the point in seventh-grade when I would chart the rise and fall of various songs on the nightly Top 10. In 1993, I managed to get a classmate of mine to copy Dr. Dre’s album “The Chronic,” and spent the next year and a half listening to it on a daily basis. I loved that album – not so much for the music itself, but the implications that went with it. I wanted to be callous and powerful, as the muttering thugs on the songs were. I wanted to be feared – and by listening to this and letting other people know about it, I wanted to be loved. It was a strange dichotomy, and it never really worked. But “The Chronic” did something to my head. It showed me the power that anger in music could carry. I was on the bottom rung of popularity in the social hierarchy. I was bullied, and the unseen wounds of that experience carried me for years. People could never understand how I ended up being so angry at the world – but to me, it made perfect sense.
In high school, things reached their peak. I grew more and more depressed with each passing year, realizing that things hadn’t really changed. I was the same loser I’d been in grade school. Around this time, I began to tune into the rumbling underground of manicured noise. Kurt Cobain had fascinated me not because of his music, but because I sensed in him a kindred spirit. I knew the pain he felt when he sang about being misunderstood. Nirvana made some great music – but at that point, people were still too busy mourning the loss of someone they probably never really understood in the first place. I dug deeper in my search for alien music to soothe my nerves. In sophomore year, I sat near a kid named Colin Simmons in one of my math classes. Colin was a rail-thin, tall skater-type with spiky hair and a great music collection. For some reason, he took pity and actually conversed with me. One day, I asked him for some punk rock out of curiosity. I gave him a Memorex tape, and he returned a few days later with a smörgåsbord of new music. That tape had the Misfits, the Sex Pistols, some early Nirvana, and most importantly, the Germs. The Germs were and are one of my favorite bands of all time – and their influence was to have consequences on my life.
Picture a nihilistic kid who contemplates suicide on a regular basis. Match him up with some of the most negative music ever recorded (Black Flag, the Misfits, the Circle Jerks, FEAR, etc.) and you’ve got a recipe for a bad relationship. It’s like the relationship between my anxiety disorder and caffeine: just keep the two separated and things should work out fine. My life spiraled out of control. I failed out of school. My mental quirks drove away potential friends. I was angry at the world and not afraid to show it. I defined myself by my noise of choice, as teenagers have done since rock and roll was first invented. I thought people who didn't understand my music were not worth knowing. Looking back, the best thing in the world for my 19-year-old self would have been some sort of musical intervention. I can picture it now.
Group spokesperson: Joe, we love you, and all of us are here because we’re worried about you. You’re so angry. Where’s the Joe we know and love? The creative, funny guy who seems to have been buried beneath the leather and spikes? This isn’t your true self, Joe; this isn’t who you really are. And you know that.
Me: Does this mean I can’t listen to Black Flag anymore?
That could have averted potential heartache. It never happened, of course; eventually, the anger and hatred burned itself out through sheer intensity. One random Tuesday, I took $200 and went to Old Navy and never looked back. I came out prep, and the punk stuff went into a box in the attic. I'd learned about the emptiness of the gospel of punk rock. It’s not liberation; it merely replaces one set of expectations with another. Instead of wearing nice clothes, you wear darker ones. Instead of listening to all types of music and having an open mind, you close off on hardcore, or things your punk buddies might like. It’s constriction – and that’s something it took me a long time to realize.
I was left with numbness, a void that eventually filled over time. For a while, I was really lost. For so many years, the sounds in my ears had preached a seductive message of anger and hatred against an unseen oppressor, and now, there was silence. I’ve learned a lot from that experience.
I don’t blame the music I listened to. I blame myself for internalizing the negative messages within it when I knew better than to do so. I’ve learned that music is more powerful than any sort of mere entertainment. Music can be my boyfriend, music can be my girlfriend – but like any relationship, there is potential for harm. Maybe that’s why the song bothers me so much.

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