pop music

Exit 229. I knew the answer all along.

I was watching Jeopardy! a few days ago.  Jeopardy! and other trivia games have always been huge in my family.  I’ve told people that my hours of reading random stuff on Wikipedia, then clicking a link to something else I read that I’m curious about, and repeating that dozens of times, are just studying for being a contestant on Jeopardy! eventually.  This argument was justified a few weeks ago when something I had read following a Wikipedia rabbit trail actually showed up a day or two later as a Final Jeopardy! question.  (“In 1790 Thursday October Christian became the first child whose birth was recorded on this remote island” — I had read about said remote island on another Wikipedia distraction-fest a few years ago, so I might have still gotten it right had I not read about it again recently.  I’ll let you think about it; click here for the correct response.  It’s also tradition in my family not to give away the answer in trivia games to non-participants who might be watching and playing along.)

Anyway, that isn’t the point of this post.  Another recent Final Jeopardy! category was “Female Singers,” and the clue was “In the 1990s this New York native had 8 of her first 10 Billboard Top 40 hits reach No. 1.”  I’m sitting there trying to think of the answer, and the first thing that comes to mind is, Crap!  In the 1990s I wasn’t listening to female singers who had No. 1 hits.  I was listening to R.E.M. and Pearl Jam and Aerosmith and Toad The Wet Sprocket, and then I had my Pink Floyd phase, and then I became a Christian and listened to DC Talk and Jars of Clay and Third Day.  I might not know this one.  Who could it be… whoever it is, her music probably sucks.

I was staring at the TV, at the words “1990s” and “No. 1 hits,” and I thought of something else.  A meme, of all things, something that I saw months ago.  It said to post the song that was No. 1 on your 14th birthday, and that is the song that defines your life.  Mine was “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey.  That’s pretty much the opposite of what defines my life.  I’ve had plenty of visions of love, but unlike the song, they never come true, at least not for long.

But, back to Jeopardy!… my 14th birthday was in the summer of 1990.  Vision of Love was a No. 1 song from the 1990s by a female singer.  And it was from the start of her career, and she did have a lot of big hits in the next few years after that.  Could Mariah Carey be the correct Jeopardy! response?  I didn’t know whether or not she was a New York native, and I didn’t know exactly how many No. 1 hits she had or anything like that.  But I didn’t have a better answer.

Mariah Carey was correct.  I had the answer all along.

Literally.  I’ve literally had the answer since I was 14.  Somewhere in my parents’ attic is a cassette tape of Mariah Carey’s first album, the one with Vision of Love on it.  I haven’t listened to it since I was 15 or 16, but there was a brief time when I didn’t think that Mariah Carey sucked.  She had a strong voice with a pretty impressive range, and there were some catchy songs on that album.  Mariah lost favor with me a few years later, when she released another album with a song with banal lyrics and lots of parts where she was just shrieking at a pitch that only dogs and dolphins can hear, and by that time I was pretty much ditching pop, R&B, and hip-hop altogether in favor of classic rock.

So when I heard Alex Trebek telling the two contestants who wrote Mariah Carey that they were correct, I felt pretty proud of myself.  I thought that this question was going to be completely out of the realm of things I know about, but I knew the answer all along.  Maybe this is the case more often than I know.

Exit 225. Until it ends, there is no end.

I’m back from my hiatus.  Well, I don’t know if hiatus is the right word, considering I started a second blog during that time.  I’m not sure if I’m ready to share it yet… we’ll see.

Instead of something deep and earth-shattering, this is going to be one of those posts about a song from my past.  I rediscovered this one a couple years ago, but it just hit me recently why I like it so much.

We had this album on vinyl back when it was new (1984).  I remember my mom really liking it.  Wikipedia says that six singles were released from the album, but I really only remember four.  The first two (one, two) are very well remembered and today are considered classics of 1980s pop.  A third one I mostly remember just because I found out many years later, as an adult, that it was about masturbation.  I found this hilarious because my mother, who came from the kind of background where sex was never talked about, and who also has a tendency not to pay attention to lyrics, loved the song.  I don’t know what she thought it was about… dancing, probably.  I had no idea what it was about either, but I had an excuse because I was eight years old and knew nothing of female anatomy.  Mom, I know you read this, and I hope you don’t think I’m making fun of you or anything, but all I just did was state facts, and I believe we had this discussion years ago.

Anyway… back to All Through The Night.  This one isn’t about masturbation.  It’s a nice little song about the excitement of new love.  And unlike many pop songs about love, this is one I can relate to better than most.

Being performed by a woman doesn’t make this song harder to relate to as a man.  The lyrics work for any combination of genders and sexual orientations, and in fact the song was written and originally recorded by a man, even though Cyndi Lauper’s version is much more well known. The reason I feel like I can relate to this song more so than most pop songs about love is because I’ve been there.

As I’ve written before, I haven’t exactly had a good history with romantic relationships.  I haven’t had many of them at all, and most of the ones I’ve had were bad, leaving me with the feeling that I have experienced all of the heartache surrounding relationships but little to none of the good experiences.  But the excitement of new love… that is something I have felt.  Every relationship starts that way, full of hope and excitement and anticipation.  It’s a great feeling.

Of course, I haven’t felt that excitement and anticipation all that often over the course of my life, and most of the time it just sets up a new horrible way to be lied to, ignored, or accused of something.  But that’s life.  And going through all that crap just makes the excitement and anticipation and hope even better when it has happened.

Exit 199. Oh yes, we’ll keep on trying.

I have a lot of thoughts swimming around in my brain right now, and I’m not sure how much of it I’m ready to share at this point.  So instead, this week I’ll skip all that and write about one of my other recurring themes on this site: rediscovering a great song from an earlier time in my life.  This time the song is “Innuendo” by Queen.

Queen was a British band active from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.  I did not grow up listening to Queen.  I was vaguely aware that there was a band called Queen, and my earliest memories of hearing music on the radio as a preschooler include a song called Another One Bites The Dust, but I don’t think I connected the name Queen to that song until I started actually listening to Queen in my mid-teens.  Much of Queen’s later work was far more popular in Europe than in the USA, for a variety of reasons, so they were absent from the music that was around me in elementary school and my early teens.

Queen experienced a resurgence of popularity in the USA in the winter of 1991-92, for two reasons: lead singer Freddie Mercury’s death, and the release of the movie Wayne’s World, which featured a scene where the main characters drive around singing along to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  I was watching MTV a lot at the time, I was 15, and the channel often aired both tributes to the recently deceased Freddie Mercury and a remixed music video of Bohemian Rhapsody, combining scenes from Wayne’s World with scenes from the original 1975 music video.  Queen was one of the first bands I got into whose heyday was before my time.

Despite this, however, my knowledge of Queen does not extend deep into their catalog, beyond their two greatest hits albums and the 2005 live CD from the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour.  (In this century, after Freddie Mercury’s death, two of the original members of Queen, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, have done tours performing Queen songs with other lead singers, but they have billed themselves as “Queen + [whoever is on vocals]” rather than just Queen.)  Innuendo, the song I posted above, was on the album of the same name, the last released in Mercury’s lifetime, but not on the US version of either of the two greatest hits albums.  Until a few weeks ago, I had heard the song exactly once.  I was in the car at some point in late high school; by that time I knew enough Queen music to recognize Freddie’s voice, but this was not a song I had heard before.  A few weeks ago, I was looking up something about Queen on Wikipedia (who knows why, it’s me and it’s Wikipedia, that’s enough of a reason), and I came upon a mention of the song Innuendo, and I thought, that’s that song I remember hearing once, the one that goes “yeah, we’ll keep on fighting.”  I should go listen to it, because it’s 2018 and you can find stuff like that on the Internet.  So I did.  (And I was wrong; the song contains the lines “we’ll keep on trying,” and “we’ll keep on smiling,” but no “we’ll keep on fighting.”  It is definitely the song I was thinking of, though.)

Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related complications less than a year after this song was released.  Rumors had long circulated about Freddie having been in sexual relationships with men, and when some noticed his health declining, rumors had circulated about his having contracted AIDS.  But Freddie never said anything public about either of these topics until days before his death.  By the time Innuendo was recorded, the band knew that Freddie was dying.

And this is a really deep song, full of great quotes that can be interpreted as wisdom from one nearing the end of his life to pass on to the next generation, the kind of wisdom I need to hear these days.

While [all this variety of bad stuff happens in the world]… oh yes, we’ll keep on trying.

You can be anything you want to be.

Be free.

And whatever will be will be, till the end of time.

Thank you, Internet, for helping me unpack this song that’s been stuck in a corner of my brain for the last quarter-century.

Exit 119. What do these songs have in common?

“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” by George Jones (1980)

“Touch of Grey,” by the Grateful Dead (1987)

“Kokomo,” by the Beach Boys (1988)

“Cryin’,” Aerosmith (1993)

“It Won’t Be Like This For Long,” by Darius Rucker (2008)

“Get Back Up,” TobyMac (2010)

All of them were major hits.  Kokomo went to #1, the last of four Beach Boys songs to do so.  He Stopped Loving Her Today and It Won’t Be Like This For Long were both #1 on the country chart.  Touch of Grey, while only reaching #9, was the highest charting single in the Grateful Dead’s long career.  Cryin’, while not Aerosmith’s highest charting single, did reach #1 on the rock chart, and it seemed like it was on MTV all the time my last couple years of high school, during the era when they still played music videos for at least part of the day.  And Get Back Up, while not very well known in the mainstream, went to #1 on the Christian music chart, and it was around that time when I decided that TobyMac’s solo work wasn’t all bad like I found his early albums to be.

But there is something more significant that these songs, among others, all have in common.

They were all performed by band members and/or artists who were at the time in their 40s.

I have turned 40 since I wrote my last post.  In the months leading up to this, I was feeling a bit down about approaching 40.  Typically, fortysomethings aren’t seen as young anymore.  I have friends my age who have adult children already, and I’m nowhere close to having children.  I feel out of touch both with the people around me, who tend to be a lot younger, and with people my age, who tend to have very different lifestyles, of the sort considered to be more mature.  Sometimes I feel like life is passing me by, leaving me with nothing but regrets.

But it does not have to be this way.

I don’t have to listen to anyone telling me what I should be like at this age.  I have a lot of people who care about me; my friends at my birthday party this weekend reminded me of that through their actions, as did the students and coworkers at the school where I teach on my actual birthday.  I still have a lot of life left, and more adventures to come.  And, as demonstrated by all of the musicians above, I can still accomplish great things beyond 40.  (While researching this article, I discovered that guitarist Bob Weir was only 39 when Touch of Grey was released, but I don’t think that takes away from my point, and the other four band members were in their 40s.)

Here’s to a great upcoming year.

Exit 58. 1987 was the best year for music in my lifetime.

Ever since I was in my early 20s, when the technology to do so was new at the consumer level, I’ve made mix CDs and playlists of songs that have some common thread holding them together.  I suppose the technology itself wasn’t exactly new, since mix tapes existed for decades before mix CDs.  But my most prolific time of making mix CDs seemed to rise with the purchase of my first computer with a CD burner, in early 1999.  Some of my mix CDs are songs that were all popular during a certain time period, some of them have some lyrical theme in common related to things going on in my life at the time, some of them all fit a certain mood, and for some of them, the common thread is something much more nerdy and less related to the lyrics.  For this last group, I’m thinking specifically of a mix CD I made consisting only of songs in the key of E flat major.  But I’m getting sidetracked.

One mix CD I made in 2006, which fits into the first of the above categories, is titled “1987 Was The Best Year For Music In My Lifetime.”  This is a rather bold proclamation to be made from the title of a mix CD, but almost a decade later, I still believe this to be true.  I know I have some friends who disagree with me.  One of them in particular has challenged me on this point numerous times, with him arguing in favor of a different year, and I know that once I share this post on my Facebook, he’s going to read this and bring up his argument again.  Hi, Dave.  I never disagreed with you about the year that you say being a great year for music, but I’m going to stand by my choice of 1987.

Often, one’s choice for the best music ever is related to nostalgia for one’s past, for a simpler time full of memories.  The interesting thing about my opinion on this matter is that 1987 really was not all that good of a year for me.  I was 10 years old for the majority of the year, turning 11 in late summer.  I finished fifth grade and started sixth.  This was the year that I was pulled out of mainstream public school, away from any chance to live something resembling a normal pre-teen life, and placed in an all-day special education class for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities (I’ve explained this before).  I went from being teased and bullied constantly to being ashamed of who I was and embarrassed to talk about school.  Nostalgia is in play here to some extent, because even despite all that, life was simpler then, and childhood had its share of fun moments.  But the lack of consistently positive memories from that time period seems to suggest that the music stands on its own.  Let’s take a look at some memorable albums of the time.

  • “Bad,” Michael Jackson.  How does one follow “Thriller?”  It’s almost a lose-lose situation.  Thriller was so monumental for so many reasons that Michael Jackson was bound to face criticism no matter what came next for him.  The time between Thriller and Bad was also when revelations about his plastic surgery and bizarre personal life came to light.  I’ll admit that back then I wasn’t a fan.  I loved Thriller, I had Thriller on vinyl (well, it belonged to my dad, I think) in elementary school, and I played it often, but by the time Bad came around, I was a little sick of Michael Jackson.  The music eventually grew on me, though, and for me it has retained its timeless quality.
  • “The Joshua Tree,” U2.  Like “Bad,” I never owned this album until adulthood, but I knew many of the songs from MTV and radio.  U2 was already a household name by 1987, and this album was the finest example of the kind of music that got them to that point.  They would have one more great album a few years later (“Achtung Baby”) before getting really weird in the mid- to late 1990s, then a couple more decent albums in the early 2000s before getting really weird again.
  • “Hysteria,” Def Leppard.  One of the most familiar and memorable albums of the Hair Band era, with many hit singles.  I remember Dad having it on tape; I don’t remember if I ever listened to it all the way through.  Back then, many albums I would only listen to for the songs I knew, and I knew a lot of songs on this album, mostly from MTV.
  • And an honorable mention: “Slippery When Wet,” Bon Jovi.  This was actually released in August of 1986, but its song “Livin’ on a Prayer” went to #1 in early 1987 and is one of those songs that defined a generation, some would say.  We listened to this album on many childhood car trips, and it was one of my brother’s favorites in particular, at least the way Mom tells the story.

A number of older artists from the 1960s and 70s released new material in 1987, often for the first time in many years.  This sort of thing happens all the time, but it seemed to happen more often than usual in 1987.  Aerosmith released their “Permanent Vacation” album, the beginning of their second heyday that would last through the mid-90s.  The “Rumours”-era incarnation of Fleetwood Mac released one last album before parting ways.  The Grateful Dead released an album of songs they had been playing live through much of the 80s but had never recorded; one of these songs, “Touch of Grey,” would become their highest-charting hit ever, over two decades after the band’s formation.  George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” became the last #1 single by an ex-Beatle.  And, four years after their ugly breakup, two of the four members of Pink Floyd, with a third as a studio session musician who would later make a full return to the band, reunited to record the album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” including the beautiful hit single “Learning to Fly.”

Some bands with memorable careers had their breakthroughs in 1987.  A strange yet catchy band from Georgia known as R.E.M. had been around for a few years but first started to get mainstream attention with songs such as “The One I Love” and “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”  Guns ‘N Roses burst onto the Hair Band scene with their “Appetite for Destruction” album.  Whitesnake, a household name for almost a decade in the UK, had two very successful singles in the US: “Is This Love” and “Here I Go Again”; the latter was actually a re-recording of a 1982 song of theirs that did not get much attention on this side of the Atlantic.

The year was also full of memorable songs from artists whose careers may not have been specifically associated with anything from 1987.  “Just Like Heaven,” by the Cure.  “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” by Whitney Houston.  “La Isla Bonita,” by Madonna.  “Alone,” by Heart.  “Need You Tonight,” by INXS.  “Paper In Fire,” by John Mellencamp.  “Notorious,” by Duran Duran.  And 1987 was also full of a lot of memorable one- and two-hit wonders.  Rick Astley.  Crowded House.  Cutting Crew.  Icehouse.  And the list goes on.

I’ll just leave you with a YouTube playlist.  Join me in reliving the music of my preteens.  (The first 17 songs, up to Sweet Child O’ Mine, were the original mix CD I made in 2006.  I have added to it with songs that I did not have in my personal collection yet in 2006.  And a few of these were actually released in 1986 but reached their highest US chart position in 1987, as I’ve said before.)

Exit 5. In my dreams it’s still the same.

Fans of ’80s rock music will recognize the title of this post as a line from this song.  I came across it recently after having not heard it for probably close to 20 years.

Fans of the Disney Channel in the early ’90s, on the other hand, will recognize the title of this post as a line from this song, which until I started thinking about this post, I hadn’t heard in even longer, for well over 20 years.

In the ’80s, I listened to a lot of pop radio and watched a lot of MTV back when they still played music videos.  Somehow, though, I missed Dokken.  But I was a huge fan of the Disney Channel in the early ’90s, and I didn’t figure out that The Party’s song was a cover until a couple years later.  The Party was, as I said, a Disney project, made up of cast members of that era’s Mickey Mouse Club, of which I was a huge fan in my early teens.  They had a few other minor hits besides In My Dreams, but they didn’t really get a lot of attention beyond the Disney Channel.  The five of them took turns on lead vocals, and as far as I know they didn’t play their own instruments.

Now I’ll be making a point with all this, but first, there is something you should know about me.  In my early teens, I listened to a lot of teenybopper pop, bubblegum hip-hop (MC Hammer and clones), and whatever else the radio and MTV told me was cool.  Around age 16 (which would be 1992-93), I made a very abrupt shift and turned my back on all that and started listening to rock, both classic rock and so-called “alternative rock,” which was a word used in the early ’90s that meant absolutely nothing.  I’ll call this my Great Music Shift.  The reason for the Great Music Shift, as best as I can remember and figure, was probably growing up and outgrowing childish entertainment combined with having friends who didn’t like pop or hip-hop.  At that age, I was influenced more than I’d like to admit by what those around me thought.

As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time celebrating the nostalgia of my childhood.  I host an event at my house every few months which involves staying up really late playing old video games from my childhood while listening to music from my childhood*.  Pop culture from my generation has become sort of trendy in some circles these days.  (Now I’m starting to sound like James Halliday from Ready Player One.  I don’t have his millions of dollars, though.)  Some of the music that I abandoned after the Great Music Shift has found its way into my playlists for the sake of nostalgia.  Like this, for example.

And some of the music I hated back in the ’90s has found its way onto my playlists as well.

So all of this presents an interesting question: Despite all of this revival of what I did in my childhood, why did I not, until just a few days ago, so much as acknowledge the existence of The Party, given that I was a huge fan of theirs before the Great Music Shift?  Why have I continued to leave that fandom buried in my past, instead of putting them on my ’90s playlists?

My gut reaction is because I’m embarrassed to have been such a huge fan of a teenybopper pop group.  But the more I’ve thought about this the last couple weeks, I think that it doesn’t tell the whole story.  For one thing, it’s not like this is the only time that’s happened, and it’s not like I’ve kept all my musical guilty pleasures hidden.  I still have musical guilty pleasures today; some of my current real-life friends are probably about ready to leave a comment on this regarding Carly Rae Jepsen right now.

I think part of the reason I’ve left The Party in my past is because (in my opinion) a lot of their work really isn’t that good, or at least hasn’t stood the test of time.  In My Dreams was a great song, but Summer Vacation is just kind of cheesy now that I’m not 14 anymore.  And I kind of knew back then that not all of their songs were all that good.  So why, then, was I such a passionate fan of them at all?  I think part of it was the Hipster Effect.  Modern-day “hipsters” are often stereotyped as listening to obscure music and bragging about how they knew the early work of bands before they were cool.  And I knew of The Party before they were The Party, because I had been watching them on the Mickey Mouse Club since the show’s debut (or, technically, revival) in early 1989, over a year before they formed The Party.  And I enjoyed the Mickey Mouse Club.  It was a variety show for pre-teens and teenagers, a show just for my age group.  And it was pretty darn funny, at least as far as the sense of humor of pre-teens and young teenagers goes (although a bit cheesy at times).

I think there are two other things at work here in terms of why I’m so embarrassed about this, besides some of the songs’ lack of ability to stand the test of time.  As for exactly how embarrassed I am, I hadn’t listened to In My Dreams between 1992ish and two weeks ago after I came across Dokken’s version, and I hadn’t listened to any other The Party songs until just today when I sat down to start writing this.  Really, this has been a difficult post to share.  And what’s really funny about all this is just how these songs still come back to me instantly while listening to them for the first time in over 20 years.  Anyway, two reasons… one is that I went a little overboard with my fandom of this band.  There was a time when I knew all of their full names, dates of birth, and hometowns.  I wanted to hang out with these people, as well as the other Mickey Mouse Club cast members, probably because I didn’t have a lot of friends of my own at the time.  They were my escape from reality.  I did not obtain this information in a stalkerish way; the Disney Channel was a premium service in that time period, and they sent a magazine to all their subscribers, which often contained information about and interviews with the stars of their original programming.  But still, by adult standards, that just seems a little weird and creepy.

The other reason is my parents.  Mom and Dad made fun of these guys all the time.  Mom and Dad make fun of a lot of people, for being too fat, too skinny, too funny-looking, talking funny, having a funny name, whatever reason you can possibly think of.  And just about any individual who appears on television was fair game for them.  And this would make me self-conscious by extension.  Remember, the members of The Party were practically my imaginary friends, and Mom and Dad were always making fun of them.  Especially Damon.  For some reason, I felt ashamed to like something that Mom and Dad always made fun of.  So it was natural to leave this in the past once I stopped listening to their music.  (By the way, Mom reads this.  I’m not mad at you, I’m just writing about how I felt.  And if you try to embarrass me about anything on this post, just remember that I have plenty of embarrassing dirt on you, and I’m friends with a lot of your Facebook friends too, so hush.)

In retrospect, I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with having liked embarrassing things in your childhood.  I mean, some things really aren’t meant to stand the test of time.  Sesame Street is a classic, but it’s for kids.  I don’t know many adults who sit around watching Sesame Street on their own, when they’re not watching it with their children, and I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  Some entertainment products are meant to be consumed by children, or by teenagers, and their lack of appeal to other age groups or generations isn’t a weakness, nor is changing one’s tastes as part of the process of growing up.  It’s ok to relive parts of your childhood occasionally–the Backstreet Boys recently played live here, and while I have never been a fan of theirs, a lot of my twentysomething female friends attended that show and had a great time, good for them!–but you shouldn’t go overboard with that either, because no one was meant to be a child forever.

While thinking about this, I discovered something interesting.  The Party reunited (minus Tiffini) in 2013, now in their late 30s, and made this, and are slowly working on another album:

They aren’t embarrassed of their past either.  And this song is just as cheesy as Summer Vacation was almost a quarter-century ago!  So if they aren’t ashamed of their own work, what do I have to be ashamed of?  That’s why I decided to write this.  I have no reason to be embarrassed that I was once such a big fan of a teenybopper group.  It was music for teenagers in the early ’90s, and I was a teenager in the early ’90s.  The best way not to be embarrassed about something like this is to admit it and confront that fear.  Will I put any of their old music on my ’90s playlists?  Maybe.  Will I buy their new album, or look at any of their stuff from the ’90s from after I stopped listening to them?  Maybe.  But everyone has embarrassing stories about things they used to be in to as kids, and now I’m adding this to my collection of such stories.  I’m kind of wondering right now if any of my thirtysomething friends, or other readers of this blog, will come forward and admit that they were fans of The Party too back in the day.

And after all, I don’t exactly have room to talk about being embarrassed about listening to pop music, considering that I’m a grown man and I have a favorite Carly Rae Jepsen song that isn’t one of the 1.5** songs of hers that everyone knows.  And I’ll leave you with that.

* If you live near Sacramento and this sounds awesome, send me your contact information, and I’ll add you to the invite list for this.  Comments are moderated, so if you leave a comment with contact information, I’ll edit it before I publish it.

** “1.5” because Good Time is a duet.