Monday, October 26, 2009

The Soundtrack of My Life

There is a free podcast on iTunes called "Celebrity Playlist." Famous people are asked about their musical influences and basically choose an album's worth of music. In between each selection, they explain what they like about the song and/or the artist and how it has been influential. Unfortunately, the free podcast only gives short clips from the songs and a portion of the interview. For the cost of an iTunes album, you can download the list with the songs and commentary in their entirety.

The latest installment features Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page tag-teaming a routine that makes Wayne and Garth look like rocket scientists. I only made it through half of their (mostly) forgettable list because I couldn't stand to hear Her Raspiness (Drew) use the word "awesome" one more time. And, I'm not making this up, Ellen used the word "massive" three times in her description of a single song. A few songs excepted, their celebrity playlist more resembled all the songs they've downloaded in the last few months, or bizzaro concerts they've attended.

This made me think about what songs I would pick. Yes, yes, I could just spout the last several songs downloaded or those getting the most playtime on my iPod, but I think the exercise calls for something more. So while I've been running around tossing papers the last several mornings I've thought through the playlist that best marks my life and how music has influenced me. The memories have been tender, and it has emphasized to me just how much music affects and enhances my memories of certain events. It also has helped me to realize just how influential music has been on my ideas and even, to a degree, my personality.

Because I don't think iTunes will be calling anytime soon, I present my playlist here.

It was all country music growing up at my house. In those days, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Alabama, Dan Seals and the Judds were all new. I'm still amazed when an old Conway Twitty or Eddie Rabbit song pops up on the radio and I know every word. Our eight tracks were of artists like Glen Campbell and Charlie Pride. Dad thought the "new" country was all right, but his tastes went to the classics--Don Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash were the order of the day. But mostly, and always, there was Willie Nelson. We teased my poor father mercilessly that his love of Willie stemmed from the fact that they were both so off-key that it sounded good when my dad sang along. I was into my teens before I realized that this first pick was not about a road trip at all, but about a band. We sang it every time we hopped in the old station wagon.

Track #1: "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson

When I was able to make a few musical decisions for myself, my choices were mostly trendy and pop-y. However, I remember quite distinctly the first two tapes I bought with my own money: Bruce Springsteen's, "Born in the USA" and Cindy Lauper's, "She's so Unusual." They were on sale for $5 apiece through my mom's tape club. (You remember these? Ten free albums and then you have to buy 1000 more at jacked up prices or they take your firstborn child.) Cindy Lauper hasn't weathered too well. She was really so, like, 80's, you know. The lead track was Girls Just Want to Have Fun, and I saw the movie by the same title about 80 times. Still it is to The Boss's album that I turn for my selection. I later replaced my tape with a CD and re-discover it every three years or so, only to find it just as fresh and timeless as it was then. It truly is the consummate made-in-the-USA album. I choose a rock ballad from this great album, that you probably haven't heard unless you own it. It was never released as a single. I love a song that tells a story: "Somewhere out there on the road somewhere/you'll hear a radio playing/and you'll hear me sing this song/and when you do/please know I'm thinking of you/and all the miles in between/Now I'm just callin' one last time/not to change your mind/just to say 'I miss you baby'/Good luck/Goodbye . . . . Bobby Jean."

Track #2: "Bobby Jean" by Bruce Springsteen

I mostly avoided that mid to late 80's trap of glam and boy bands. But I think in a nod to the era, I have to choose a song that always reminds me of junior high more than any other. Some months back, Taylor Swift appeared with Def Leopard on a show called "Crossroads" that pairs country artists with unexpected artists from totally different genres. The country stars do covers, and the result is very interesting. I will say, however, for all that the lyrics of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" don't entirely make sense, I always felt that they were, somehow, really sensual. This point was brought home to me again when I saw the young Ms. Swift crooning said song to the lead singer of Def Leopard who is probably old enough to be her grandfather. Do you take sugar? One lump or two? Uh, Geritol, thanks.

Track #3: "Pour Some Sugar On Me" by Def Leopard

When my older brother got to high school, he began listening to a radio station called KJQ. The alternative bands (or was that era called post-modern?) had names like Echo and the Bunnymen, Dexy's Midnight Runners, The Mighty Lemondrops, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, The Cure, Oingo Boingo, The Dead Milkmen, Public Image Limited, Camper Van Beethoven . . . you get the idea. At first, I hated this station. The music was just so different and the mostly one-hit wonder singers were just bizarre. Then I heard a song called "Peek-a-boo" that I just couldn't get out of my head. I started listening to the station just to hear it again. And over a few weeks, I discovered that I actually LOVED this music. It was like a tiny act of rebellion for a girl that never did anything wrong. My brother and I plastered everything that would hold still with the station's cow stickers. We stayed up half the night in September of 1990 while he wrote his farewell talk. We called in the Eurythmics "Missionary Man" to the radio station and they played it for us at one o'clock in the morning. He and the music both changed in his two years away, and KJQ no longer existed when he came back. It was only when I downloaded the following song onto my iPod last year and began actually listening to the lyrics that I understood why my brother turned this one down every time Mom was in the room. Not appropriate. At. All.

Track #4: "Peek-a-boo" by Siouxsie and the Banshees

The bands I grew to love through high school weren't all one-hit wonders. I discovered U2 at this time, though it was mostly during their long break between Rattle and Hum/Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Choosing a U2 song for a playlist is like picking a favorite child. It just can't be done. The body of their work is so extensive and meaningful that their powerful presence will be felt throughout the music industry for generations to come. The Beatles of Generation X. During the spring of my senior year, my friends and I watched Rattle and Hum at least once a week and we all had a crush on some member of the band. (Being prone to crushes on muscled blond men, I was a Larry Mullin Jr. fan.) The old Hastings at five points in Ogden, now a dollar store, used to bring in a limited number of imports. It was there that I found the single CD, "All I Want Is You." There are two versions of the song on the CD as well as B-side covers of "Unchained Melody" and "Everlasting Love." It was remarkable to find an oasis of actual love songs in a genre too often about sex and lust and fleeting encounters. Bono croons, "Need you by my side/Come and be my bride/You'll never be denied everlasting love." Mr. Darcy, eat your heart out.

Track #5 "Everlasting Love" by U2

But if I loved U2, I was obsessed with Midnight Oil. When I first heard this band from Down Under, I realized that music didn't just have to tell a story or be about breakups or falling in love. Music could teach, make you angry, and inspire you to act. It was through listening to Midnight Oil that I became conscious of the environment, indigenous cultures and causes worth taking a stand about. In the 9th grade, they released an album called Blue Sky Mining that is easily one of my favorite albums of all time. Every track is perfect. I cried my eyes out when my older brother told me I was too young to come with him and his (cute) friends to their 1990 concert. I cried more when he came home and gave me the play by play of their night up at Park City and their stop at The Pie pizzaria in Salt Lake City afterward. I later met the band when I saw them play at Saltair a few years later. Lead singer Peter Garrett told me that my name was short and sweet. I hunted bargain racks at record stores for years to collect their albums from the late 70's onward. My selection here is actually from the album "Red Sails in the Sunset" which came out in the mid-80's. The cover of this album shows what Sydney would look like after a nuclear holocaust. Midnight Oil's activist efforts helped encourage government leaders to keep Australia a nuclear-free country. Peter Garrett is now the environment minister in the current government. This choice is pure Oils: pounding, relentless, lyrics rooted firmly in the land and its people. My love of this band got me in more than one door on my mission.

Track #6: "Kosciuosko" by Midnight Oil

Modern Music wasn't the only influence I had during those years. I did a lot of theater at our high school and loved the big, noisy, classic American musicals. But it was when I did a theater tour in London and saw Les Miserable, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon that I saw the modern musical as something really meaningful, that the genre had moved beyond feel-good production numbers without ever quite adopting the self-importance of opera. I cried through the entire second act of Les Miserable, but my favorite piece was a mere 20 minutes into the show. In a song so heartrendingly beautiful as to be the climax in a lesser show, Fantine's solo teaches us about music's power to help us understand in a moment what tragedy is. "But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder/As they tear your hope apart/As they turn your dream to shame/And still I dream he'll come to me/That we will live the years together/But there are dreams that cannot be/And there are storms we cannot weather . . . "

Track #7 "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserable

After this, there was a terrible black hole in my ability to hear new music. I moved to Logan where there are two radio stations--the first is a country station that considers anything recorded after 1982 to be "new" country. The second is a "pop" station that is probably better described as a cross between adult contemporary and elevator. I had a roommate who had ten year's worth of EFY tapes as the funkiest in her collection of LDS music. As much as I loved her, I just could never love the music. Another roommate had a greatest hits album by Gordon Lightfoot. Really. But it was during these few years that I fell in love with Trisha Yearwood. Okay, her music, I've never met Trisha, though I'm sure she is quite lovely. I think she could probably sing the menu from McDonalds and make it sound like a tender and heartbreaking ballad. She continues to record new music, but it is only a really devoted group of fans that remains interested. For all her remarkable talent, she doesn't have the live and entertaining stage presence of other singers, and her newest stuff hardly gets any play time on the radio. Curse the establishment. Anyway, of all the songs I could have chosen from her, I picked one about a break-up. Shocker; it is country music after all. This particular song, however, tells the strange phenomenon of seeing your ex everywhere in the aftermath of a breakup. The singer travels to various parts of the country--St. Cloud, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles--and yet she thinks she sees this person in each spot. "You chase me like a shadow/and you haunt me like a ghost/and I love you so/and I hate you so/but I miss you most." Who hasn't been there?

Track #8 "On a Bus to St. Cloud Minnesota" by Trisha Yearwood

The same roommate with the love of all things LDS-culture wanted a Grand Am. Do you remember the Pontiac Grand Ams that were everywhere in the mid-nineties? Bright blue and green with all kinds of a body details? Awful. Anyway, dear Pam thought her life would be complete with a Grand Am. So her parents bought one for her. The problem was that Pam's Grand Am was the circa 1985 model and was gold. GOLD. We named her Goldie; Pam treated her like an sweet and senile grandmother. Anyway . . . when I would go running (very occasionally), my roommates had a habit of finding me along my way, driving alongside me very slowly in Goldie, and blasting Journey's or Survivor's Greatest Hits out the window. Good times.

Track #9 "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor

Then I went on a mission. I still sometimes hear a song that I think is new and my husband informs me with a laugh that, no, it is from mid-nineties. This happens with movies occasionally too. I returned home and found that while most of the alternative music I had once loved had gone very grungy, there was a new rock sound. It was as though all the bands I had once loved had grown up--the sound was more mainstream but still edgy enough for my mother not to like it. The rock sound of the late 90's dropped the synthesizer and went back to its guitar and drum roots. Bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, Blues Traveler, Third Eye Blind and the Counting Crows became popular. It was also during this time period that I went through a break-up that would become THE break-up; you know; the worst (and maybe best!) one you've ever had, but it is only later that you can see that. This next song got so much play time on the radio in the spring and summer of 1998 that it became a bit of a mantra. Women everywhere related to it for the pathos and symbolism in each lyric. Men loved it for the gorgeous Natalie Imbruglia (a former soap star from Down Under) reminding them over and over again that she was naked. Stupid boys.

Track #10 "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia

The other band I came to love at this time was Matchbox 20. My younger brother and some friends lip-synced and danced to some of the boy-band music from the late 90's. As entertaining as they were, the music made me crazy. Though he was seven year my junior, Matchbox 20 was the one band we could agree on. One of the most fun things I did that spring was go to a concert with my brother. Matchbox 20 came with Semisonic and the dreadlocked singer of "Runaway Train." (Hm . . . . super famous song, but what WAS the name of that band?) We had a blast; one of the only grown up fun things we ever did together--he was finally 18 and I wasn't yet married. Oh, and I thought Rob Thomas was (is) gorgeous. Again, another band that it is hard to pick a single song from, but I'll defer to one of the more obscure tracks on that very first album.

Track #11 "Hang" by Matchbox 20

Then marriage happened and a change to a new city. Once again, country music seemed to be our main choice, followed closely by hip-hop stations and Latin rock. Then one night, probably in early 2005, we happened to catch an episode of Austin City Limits, and watched a singer-songwriter by the name of Keith Urban bring down the house. I realized that I recognized a song or two--songs I actually had not been that crazy about from his first album--but that his stuff from his latest album (Golden Road) was really quite incredible. Plantboy really liked it, which is a major concession about any country artist by my dear, rock-loving husband. I bought the album within a few weeks, hoping to find another singer that gave us that rare, common ground when it came to musical taste. I love nearly all of this man's music, but the selection here is based on a memory. When Plantboy and I left HoustonTexas for the last time, heading straight west and then north, we listened to this music over and over again. "I got no money in my pocket/I've got a hole in my jeans/Had a job and I lost it/But it won't get to me/Cause I'm ridin with my baby/And its a brand new day/We're on the Wings of an angel flying away. . . And the sun is shinin/and this road's still windin' . . . . I'm alive and I'm free/Who wouldn't want to be me?" It is a song of such optimism and faith. The perfect background music as we headed toward a new life filled with possibility.

Track #12 "Who Wouldn't Want to Be Me?" by Keith Urban

I know this was lengthy, but it was a wonderful exercise. I think I'm off to create my playlist on iTunes. It is raining today and the house needs cleaned, what better time to blast my favorite songs throughout the house, subtly teaching my children about who else I am besides mother. I might need to leave off "Peek-A-Boo."

So what songs make your playlist/life soundtrack? Either leave comments here, or take this exercise as your own. I hope you find it as pleasantly nostalgic as I did.


Doreen said...

Soul Asylum. :p Loved that song! Also love Matchbox 20. And Natalie Imbruglia. Oh, blast from the past (now where did I get that quote from? hehe).

Becky said...

In a massive way.

Jenny said...

oops. logged in as my sister, and forgot to re-identify myself before leaving the above massively awesome comment.

Cathy said...

I have to speak up in defense of Gordon Lightfoot (also because I grew up listening to him). There are some really great stories in some of his songs (if you leave out the ones about hookers and gambling).

FoxyJ said...

This was a great idea--I also love U2 and Midnight Oil. I just wrote a similar post on blog and it was a lot of fun. So hard to pick just a few songs!

emandtrev said...

I really love your pick for Track 3. From my head to my feet...yeeaaahhhh.

Stacia said...

I randomly clicked thru to your blog from Courtney B's and was thrilled to see someone who was obsessed with Midnight Oil as I was! The concert at Saltair was one of the highlights of my youth.

Yankee Girl said...

Love your list. I'm going to think about mine and post it. Thanks.

Being Lovely said...

I distinctly remember the first time I heard "Torn," by Natalie Imbruglia. I have always loved that song, even though my musical tastes ave changed drastically since that time.

islandgirl said...

WOW, great post, I've always wondered what the soundtrack of my life would be, and your post helped me see that, to find the stories behind them, and the different times of my life, thoughts to ponder....thanks!

PS, found your blog through Segullah, you're a great writer, I think I'll stick around, lol!