I’ve come to the realization that I have a distorted perception of how old I am, and, like one of those devices, the ones with the shiny metal balls that hang from thin metal rods and perpetually clank and swing from left to right, I too, seesaw between feeling much younger and older than my numeric age.
I’ve had this flip-floppy tendency to feel alternately like an awkward teenager and a bitter old man for a while now. I tell fart jokes and follow them up with bad puns. I avoid eye contact and then stare accusingly. It’s a quality that keeps me from having to manually thin out the throngs of adoring fans. I’ve come to realize, though, that these personas are not necessarily opposites. That what both of these sides of myself have in common is an almost reverential relationship to complaining. The main difference is that the 17 year old complains mostly about himself. I’m so awkward! I’m so shy! No girls would ever be interested in me! Whereas the pepto-bismol chugging complainer aims his barbs outward. Kids these days! With their goddamned devices permanently stuck to their faces, what with the Instagrams and the SnapChats and the Twitters. I’d like to see any one of them build a fire to keep them warm when all the power goes out!
The fact that I will be turning 50 in a little more than three months is more than a little mind boggling. It feels like some sort of elaborate prank, like maybe my high school friends had locked me away in some sort of cryogenic tank, and they’d accidentally lost the key and 30 years later the latch rusted out and here I am, balder and fatter, but still an 18 year old virgin, excited to see the new John Hughes movie, wondering if Justine Bateman, my celebrity crush, replied to the letter I’d sent to her through her fan club.
But this doesn’t take into account my other dominant self, my easily annoyed curmudgeonly side. The time machine is an illusion; apparently I have traipsed through this world through the better part of 6 decades; apparently I graduated college, got married, have a career, own a home, and have begun to receive notices from AARP.
I do feel pulled in two directions though, feeling like I’m still a part of the zeitgeist, of the popular culture, while at the same time counting the days until I can retire, buy an RV and cruise the backcountry roads of the US of A.
It almost feels like a game, a contest of sorts to see if I can come up with new ways of blaming The Millennials for all the world’s ills. But half the time I think: I’m a millennial. It’s disorienting. I regularly visit the music sites Pitchfork.com and HypeMachine.com. I subscribe to music podcasts that feature new bands I’ve never heard of. I try and keep up. Certainly not to the extent that I used to, but old habits are hard to break. I want to find something to connect with in the new music I hear, but it all sounds so banal and derivative, lacking in urgency and rebellion. The truth, I have come to realize, though I struggle to accept it, is that modern music isn’t meant for me. It’s meant for the kids. And I am no longer longer one of them.
So, I suppose I don’t really feel like a millennial. At least not a millennial as defined by today’s standards. I see myself more like what the millennial equivalent would have been in 1986. Before cell phones and the internet. When streaming technology meant you were lounging by the side of a lake with a boombox, blasting the new Wang Chung album.
it’s not the millennials I should be blaming for my age-istential disorientation. This 80’s musical vortex I find myself spinning round and round in is entirely the fault of Sirius XM satellite radio.
When I bought my car 5 years ago, it came with a 3 month free subscription to Sirius XM, which to an eclectic music geek like myself, was like giving a tweaker a 90 day supply of meth and saying, “OK, trial period is over, now you’ll have to pay for it.” So I did, and even though the audio fidelity leaves something to be desired, I can’t see ever quitting. It’s like having every FM radio station that ever existed, all at once, with no commercials. There are hundreds of stations, covering most every genre, save for the styles of music that never had radio equivalents to begin with.
I get 24 presets, in 4 groups of 6 that I can toggle through and I’ve divided them up into 4 categories: modern-classic (alternative rock, hip hop, 60s/70s rock) talk (NPR, BBC), eclectic (honky tonk, electronic, ambient, garage) and 80s. The 80s grouping gets the majority of the attention in my car. There’s the 80s New Wave channel (First Wave), the cheesy 80s hits (80s on 8), Backspin (Old Skool HipHop), Ozzy’s Boneyard (Hard Rock/Heavy Metal), Hair Nation (Glam Metal) and Groove (Soul/R&B). Most of these channels have DJs that come on between songs, much like terrestrial radio. These DJs are the same folks I grew up listening to in L.A and on MTV. Jim Ladd (KMET), Richard Blade, The Swedish Egil (KROQ), Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood. Those last three, if you grew up during the early days of MTV, you probably recognize as the original VJs. So you can see why it takes a glimpse of my face in the rearview mirror to remind me that I don’t sport a mullet and parachute pants, that 30 years have indeed passed since all this amazing music came out. But for the few minutes on the way to work, the hours when I’m on a road trip, these songs, these iconic DJs voices, give away no clues that are in their 50s and 60s, have gained weight, lost hair, sport wrinkles and have had plastic surgery.
And even though the technology has changed, the experience hasn’t much. It’s still listening to music in the car. For me, it’s not Old School, it’s not Classic. It’s what is, and what matters. And it brings me back to that time, an era when music thrilled me, surprised me, scared me, confounded me, seduced me. When a song like Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” could be followed by an instrumental, jazzy, break-dance anthem like Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It.”
Which is what started this whole rant in the first place. Instead of a song lyric spinning over and over in my head, I awoke to the record-scratching, forward and back chugga-chuggas of this 1983 (dare I use the word?) classic. It leads me to wonder, what other instrumental songs (other than Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” and Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme”) have been big hits? Anything since 1990? Discuss amongst yourselves and let me know in the comments.