Squinting into the glare of noontime gridlock on the Hollywood Freeway, I turn on the radio. Flock of Seagulls swoops through the car and now I am driving through scrubby pines on the flatlands of the South Carolina coast, headed for Myrtle Beach, where my best friend is working for the summer. We're 18, maybe 19, and will spend the next two weeks getting perilously tan, subsisting on air-popped popcorn and Michelob Light and having huge arguments about whether it's OK to make out with cute guys when their dates are in the bathroom. (Eighteen years and two marriages later, I concede: The answer is "no.")
Suddenly the freeway is my friend and I am left pondering the miracle of pop music. As a writer, I'd like to argue that it's the penetrating insights of the lyrics that transform a song into a personal talisman, a portal through time and space. But I must admit that even having heard "I Ran" no less than 7 zillion times, I could not recite the lyrics on a bet. And the music, while bouncily haunting, is not exactly on par with, say, Mozart's Requiem, in terms of emotional sophistication. In fact, I very much doubt that anyone else has quite the reaction I do to this song, because it wasn't the song so much as the circumstance that imprinted it forever in my psyche.
That South Carolina moment is crystalline in my memory--the first faint ocean breezes ruffling the humidity; the exaltation of having driven through three states all alone to another, temporary life; the premonition that life was indeed just beginning.
I only wish the musical touchstones for these moments of personal illumination were more, well, memorable.
I was born in 1963, which makes me (besides just about too old to be making such proclamations in print) on the cusp between the boomers and Gen X. My generation, or rather step-generation, has a lot of problems with self-esteem and I think the music is to blame. Our music stank. Yes, there was Bruce. And Blondie. And the Police.
But whereas my boomer friends are always saying things like: "I remember seeing Janis open for Jefferson Airplane," or falling into reverie every time they hear "Strawberry Fields," I am forced to have my wires tripped by the Go-Go's and Billy Joel, by the Doobie Brothers and Chicago, by, oh dear God, Air Supply.
My older, and younger, friends sneer, but what am I supposed to say? I was not a cool kid, I didn't know from the Ramones. Eventually, I found the Talking Heads, but that was years later. I listened to the radio. We all listened to the radio. So can I really help it if the first time I kissed a boy, Styx was what happened to be playing? I recognize the genius of Pete Townshend, but it's the Commodores who conjure that sweet pain of waiting for someone to ask me to slow dance. I was young, I was from a small town, surely I can be forgiven for thinking Dan Fogelberg was soulful, Duran Duran sexy, Men Without Hats avant-garde.
In my college years, it only got worse. My first real boyfriend turned me onto Traffic, Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Carole King. But his favorite band was Supertramp. Yes, Supertramp. So I've got that programmed into the hard drive too. Take the long way home ....
As I've gotten older, popular music has lost much of its impact, mainly because I don't listen to it all that much. Except during times of great heartache when suddenly one remembers that the only true wisdom, the only people who really understand, are to be found on FM radio. My husband and I don't have "a song" although I can't hear Aaron Copland without thinking of him. Neither will I forget the night I danced with 2-year-old Danny Mac to "String of Pearls" as we waited in line for the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. And Enya's "China Roses" soothed the infant Fiona to sleep in my arms so many times I'll probably send it with her to college, to keep the mean reds at bay.
This, I suppose, is one of the benefits of adulthood--you cannot choose the moments that will alter your life forever, but you do have a bit more control over the background music. And that's something.