How I Missed 18 Years of Pop Music

When I was 12 years old, my mother threw away a cassette tape of George Michael’s leather-jacketed masterpiece, Faith.

The tape did not, in fact, belong to me. It belonged to a friend. I foolishly left it on my dresser and once my mother saw “I Want Your Sex,” it was all over but the screaming (mine). She not only threw it away, she pulled the ribbon apart with such savagery that no amount of pencil twirling would fix it.

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It was a massacre.

In our house, we weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. For the non-religious, that means Music of the World, or That Which Shall Not Be Played Lest We Burn in Hell. In other words, normal music.

We did have an approved list of secular music that was deemed appropriate, for reasons that were never fully explained. The Approved Secular Music List, in no particular order:

  • Neil Diamond
  • Alabama
  • The Carpenters
  • John Denver
  • U2 (I think my mom has a weird crush on Bono)
  • Chicago
  • Oldies (50s, 60s & 70s)
  • Big Band
  • Movie soundtracks (subject to scrutiny—Grease didn’t make the cut)

So while my peers were listening to Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Guns & Roses, I was stuck with the above list or —shudder—80s Christian rock. If you don’t know what that sounds like, imagine 80s rock, then strip away all the cool stuff and add super-cheesy lyrics about loving Jesus.

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It’s the musical equivalent of whatever this is.

To be clear, I have no problem with the sentiment of loving Jesus, it was the musical execution I objected to.­­ I just found it painful and embarrassing to listen to songs that sounded like love songs but were not. At all.

It was almost impossible to even sneak a listen to normal music because my parents (especially my mother) had a highly tuned ear for shenanigans. Any time my radio dial turned to our local Top 40s station, she would suddenly pop around the corner like a disapproving Jack-in-the Box.

So where did that leave me? An 80s and 90s adolescent who had no idea who Boy George and Kurt Cobain were but could sing the entire Music Man soundtrack.

But looking back with the blurry vision of my adult self (I’m too chicken for LASIK), that restriction sort of…freed me?

Because once I turned 18, I joined the once-great enterprise of Columbia Record Club and bought about 50 CDs for a penny (or whatever honeypot they used to lure music fans into their sticky web of Too Good to Be True). But unlike 99% of members, I actually came back and purchased full-price CDs every month until…they went out of business, I guess??*

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If you listen closely, you can still hear Debi in Accounting chortling with glee.

This was the 90-iest time of the entire decade and I wanted it all: TLC. Nirvana. Jewel. Paula Cole. Sarah McLaughlin. Live. Offspring. Green Day. Beck. Bjork. Alanis Morisette.  Salt-N-Pepa. Blues Travelers. Mazzy Star. Rusted Root. Dave Matthews Band. Weezer. Tori Amos. Toni Braxton.

I bought countless CDs, from every genre.

So when people dismiss certain genres or musicians with a sneer worthy of Elvis Presley (whom my mother also disliked), I can’t understand it. Or when people hate an artist just because they’re mainstream.

And it’s not because I’m an old grouch, shaking my fist about kids today and whatnot. I mean, I am. But my bafflement comes from 18 years of being left out of everything mainstream. Of everyone talking about New Kids on the Block when I’d only kind of heard one of their songs. Slumber parties were a nightmare. Do you know how hard it is to fake-sing lyrics in a roomful of 11-year old girls?

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As if tween girls singing “Pour Some Sugar on Me” isn’t awkward enough.

However, being forced to listen to her parents’ favorite music doesn’t mean she can’t learn to appreciate it.

Because (twist!), I love musicals. I love oldies music. Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans” is one of my favorite songs. Chicago is one of the greatest bands of all time. Anyone who’s ever heard Karen Carpenter’s rich contralto vocals must admit her voice is like a cozy blanket for your ears. And it’s kind of cool (?) that I’m one of the few Gen X-ers who can sing a Skeeter Davis song in its entirety.

While I’m still bitter about missing the popular music of my childhood, I have to admit my expanded musical tastes would never have happened otherwise.

But don’t tell my parents that.

*Apparently Columbia Records didn’t go out of business until 2009. Props for long outstaying their welcome, like an elderly aunt who can’t read social cues.

2 thoughts on “How I Missed 18 Years of Pop Music

  1. I’m dying!! I’m a little bit younger, so I mostly missed out on the music of the 90’s but for the same reasons. When I was in middle school, I borrowed a Christina Aguilera CD from a friend and hid it in my room. Well, my dad found it and I was forced to read aloud (from the insert, of course) the lyrics to Genie in a Bottle. It wasn’t actually until that moment that I had any clue there might be a meaning other than the literal one. Good job, dad. YOU are responsible for rotting my mind LOL

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