It’s early March, and there’s not much positive to report on these days. Unemployment’s high and rising, and the ice caps are melting. It’s a great time to talk about something really serious, like music, for instance. I’ve often discussed how music has provided an emotional boost for me during the worst of times. This time is no exception. Except that with iPod and iTunes, I don’t have to just conjure up the music or wait for a few days to hear a song in rotation at a music station, like I did in the days before I owned a Walkman. I can span thirty years of music awareness, sometimes all at once, just by pressing play.
This does cause some dissonance, though, especially if I were to roll down the windows in our Honda Element. That’s likely because playing Elton John, Isley Brothers, Coldplay, Soundgarden, Eminem, Brenda Russell, Sam Cooke and Celine Dion in sequence would stop the average person in their tracks. And living in the DC area, I’ve gotten some weird looks out of pedestrians and other drivers with my music pouring out of the car (I really don’t have it that loud!).
So on a really warm first weekend in March, at least on the East Coast, I’ve decided to go in sequence to discuss some of my songs of early March over the years. These aren’t necessarily my favorite songs, at least not overall. But they do provide a sense, I think, of the changes I’ve gone through since I was nine years old.
1. “This Is It” – Kenny Loggins. After Michael Jackson’s frightful press conference in London this week, I should maybe refrain from mentioning this song. We can still wipe this one clean from the dethroned King of Pop’s stains, though. I first heard this song in March ’79 during my self-appointed exile from playing outside (after being grounded for six weeks over the holidays for running away from home). Its combination of jazz and pop rhythms, not to mention Michael McDonald on background vocals, is what attracted me to the songs, even though I didn’t know that at the time.
It sounded good, it reflected my mood, and it introduced me to “White music” in a way that wasn’t filtered by my mother, stepfather or by my neighbors. I had many adjustments to make. My mother’s second marriage to my idiot stepfather. My mother’s pregnancy, ending my monopoly on her time (it ended two years earlier, but the pregnancy confirmed it). This internal need to be academically on point. I became a somewhat serious learner for the first time.
2. “As” – Stevie Wonder. I’d been introduced to his all-time great Songs In The Key of Life through vinyl and radio for years by the time March ’82 rolled around. We all have, actually. I was five or six listening to this music at one of my mother’s parties or off the radio. I’ve only come to appreciate Wonder’s genius more as time has passed. But with the magic of my first true and real crush twenty-seven years ago, “As,” a song I’d only heard a few times before, became my theme song off and on for the next few months. Nine years later, March ’91, I borrowed Songs In The Key of Life from a Pitt friend whom I was attracted to at the time. “As” didn’t become my theme song for that crush. It reintroduced me to an album that I hope survives this age.
3. “Africa” – Toto. “Hmm,” I’m sure you’re wondering, why Toto, and why “Africa,” with all of its potential racial implications? Because the song’s about the lusts of people who in their attempts to stereotype a continent, they end up stereotyping themselves, part of an interesting theme in pop culture’s treatment of Africa in the ’80s, wouldn’t you say? That said, there’s some real context here that isn’t academic or theoretical. My first crush had ended, the end of ’82 and early ’83 left me and my family a shambles financially and otherwise. And the best music on at the time was early New Edition (gag me with a spoon), Rick Springfield, and The Time? Given my range of choices, it wasn’t hard to like Toto or “Africa.” I did, and I still do. It served as musical grist for my mental mill. It was a channeling of energies for the goal of academic excellence and remaining on an even keel at home, even as we fell into welfare poverty.
4. “Kyrie” – Mr Mister. It was the beginning of March ’86 that this not-so-great song by this not-so-great duo reached #1 on Billboard’s Top 40 for pop music. I liked the song for obvious reasons, at least to me. I could relate to the lyrics, as those last few years in my life had been pretty rough. While not completely reflected in my grades, I realized that if I wanted to go to college on a scholarship, I’d need to raise my game at least one more notch. “Kyrie” became my theme music for that.
If anyone cares to remember, most pop music on either side of the racial divide was about as serious as a five-year-old after drinking orange soda and eating a Snickers bar (I’m talking about me, not Noah – I would NEVER do that to my son ;)). So a pop song about a higher power watching over me through every step I’d take, well as a Christian without a country, I couldn’t ask for anything more. It helped that I actually liked the guitar riffs and could run to it.
5. “Piano In The Dark” – Brenda Russell. Part of being me is to be eclectic, which was why even I was surprised when I found myself liking this song. It was such a serious song during such silly times in music. I was a semester and a half into my Pitt years, and already I found my music tastes changing. The channeled anger from my crash and burn with crush # 2 that had sustained me for the first few weeks of the Spring had dissipated by early March ’88. With the warmer weather of that first Spring Break came also some sense of sweetness. I felt better enough about myself by then. Between Richard Marx, Michael Bolton, Michael Jackson (yeah, well, what can I say), Anita Baker, Salt ‘n Pepa, Kenny G, and others, I found myself beginning to find my self, my voice again. Some of that voice is contained in Russell’s “Piano In The Dark.”
6. “You Can’t Deny It” – Lisa Stansfield. By March ’90, with my first CD system (it was a boom box with high speed dubbing), I understood myself to be eclectic, and so did my friends. I no longer felt weird about the wide variety of music I liked, even when occasionally clowned about it. The ’90s finally had arrived, and with it came more and, in my opinion, better music to listen to and consume. Lisa Stansfield was the first “new” artist of the decade for me, and even though some of my female friends played her ad nauseum, I fell in love with this song because it was so fresh and different from much of the music from the late ’80s.
7. “Beautiful Day” – U2. I skipped over most of the ’90s because most of my musical discoveries in that decade didn’t occur in March. Plus, once I started grad school, I was constantly inundated with different kinds of music. By the end of the decade, I was so consumed with work and writing and a new marriage that I didn’t pay as much attention to music as I should. I knew full well that U2 had released a new album in October ’00. But I didn’t snap up the new CD, wasn’t listening much to the radio, and was working upwards of 120 hours a week while finding a new job. Luckily I “discovered” “Beautiful Day” before it was too late to enjoy it.
It reminded me of all of the hopes and dreams of my past, my past crushes, my heartbreak and my deepest joys. It reminded me to remain hopeful about the future, even if things do look bleak at the moment. God knows we need that more than anything right now.