Here it is. The big, bad truth. And I pray, be gentle, for I haven’t admitted this to anyone before.
My very first CD was Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill.
I suppose if you count the Disney soundtracks I bought from BMG Music Service’s mail-catalog, it would be my eighth or ninth album. The reality remains, however, that Pill was truly my first mainstream, “popular culture” purchase.
And thus, at the age of twelve, I ventured out into the world of radio stations and pop videos, searching for my musical identity. The sharp listener may take note of the late age. Twelve. Other pre-pubescents had already found their thing, their type, what kinda music did it for them. At a time when my peers and classmates exchanged CDs and frequently discussed Greenday, Coolio, TLC, and Seal, I had only just begun to emerge from a cocoon.
Now all you self-proclaimed music experts will understand the repercussions of such a late awakening. In our teen culture, preferred artists or bands define character and personality, clueing the outside world on who we are and what we aspire to be. By voicing our musical preferences, we young ones generously facilitate categorization of our persons.
Stereotypes, ladies and gentlemen, stereotypes yet again. In a world in which our parents judge individuals on the basis of job, visa status, and social class, it seems only logical that we teenagers should likewise employ some method of classification. And classify we do. Purely on the basis of musical preference! Not ethics, not political values, nothing of substance … but musical preference. We get locked into stereotypes; we make assumptions. We assume that those men and women who listen to Yanni are more mellow and peace-loving than those who enjoy Tommy Lee’s Motley Crue. And certainly, the persons who buy Erotica: New Age Sounds have a different take on life than those who buy tickets to see the Backstreet Boys in concert.
Christina Aguilera’s following may be more inclined to trade nail polish than would aficionados of the Smashing Pumpkins. Fans of Blink 182 may be more inclined to run around naked than those persons who actually bought Chris Cornell’s Euphoria Morning. Admirers of Cher are generally over 50. And if you liked Hanson’s first album, the world can pretty much tell you’re a lost cause.
And nobody wants to be a lost cause. We conform to meet the expectations of our peers.
Nobel Laureate André Gide once commented that, “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.” Gide apparently doesn’t recall the sixth grade. In school, I, an ignoramus in issues of popular music, was forced to smile-and-nod my way through many a conversation. What did I think of the Cranberries’s new song? Well, it was certainly better than their last one, I would comment knowingly, furrowing my brow in thought. The interrogator’s eyes would narrow, suspicion mounting. I could see my secret was soon to be divulged … and here it came. The question of all questions.
“What kind of music do you listen to anyway?”
“You know, everything,” I would answer, none too convincingly. I was a loser. I’d only listened to Hindi tapes in my mother’s van. I had nothing. I was at a loss for words.
But then one afternoon, during the summer of 1996, my father introduced his children to Alice, 97.3 FM. And I heard Alanis Morissette. And I bought her album. And my life began.
I probably should rephrase that last bit because I don’t specifically love Alanis Morissette, and she didn’t change my life. The purchase of her album, however, was a coming-of-age for me. My official entrance into society as one of the MTV generation. My first taste of an identity in the eyes of my peers.
With the Pill came a series of female artists; at age 12 I was a firm feminist and supporter of the fair sex, not about to buy into any chauvinist male group’s pop trash or rap album. For a while, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple, Joan Osborne, and Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt were welcome additions to my collections of Broadway music. I now had something to say during recess discussions. I, too, had a radio station to call my own. People would look through my CDs, and man, they knew who I was! They knew what I stood for. I didn’t have to be afraid to be classified as a “nobody.”
But then I made a discovery; Alanis Morissette wasn’t exactly the hottest stuff on the market, if you know what I mean. The real popular kids? They loved Tupac Shakur. Makaveli had become a hot topic of discussion at the lunch table. So, I got a notion to buy me some Tupac and maybe a few other rap albums while I was at it. Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Richie Rich, Ginuwine, Snoop Dogg, Dru Hill, Blackstreet, and Boyz II Men (who didn’t quite fit rap standards, but certainly had the look) filled my CD stand, wreaking havoc and terrifying poor old Beauty and the Beast. Guests would enter my room and take just one look at those Parental Advisory albums … It was clear to them; I was a bonafide rapper.
But teenagers are fickle. And when Tupac was “out,” I realized the R&B/rap combination had done terrible things to my preciously fabricated image. The New York, intellectual cousins were disgusted that their suburban, Californian prima had sunk into the aforementioned abyss of lousy beats, repeated curse words, monotonous vocals, and permed hair. “We listen to Bush,” they explained reproachfully. “And Silverchair, and Rage Against the Machine, and Metallica, and Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and Matthew Good Band, and Nirvana, and Big Wreck, and lots more Canadian bands you wouldn’t have heard of.”
Enough said. I would start my personal reformation Monday afternoon.
That fated day, after school, I walked into Wherehouse with the express purpose of buying Metallica. It didn’t matter which album, it didn’t matter how popular, how costly, how nothing. I suavely made my way over to the used CDs section, and casually thumbed through Madonna and Manson before coming across Metallica. There was one album left: mine. With Metallica checked off the list, I proceeded to buy Bush. I bought Silverchair. I bought Rage Against the Machine. Listened to each album until the lyrics and drumbeats were ingrained to my mind. Changed the setting on my radio alarm clock to hard rock alternative Live 105.3 FM. “This is it,” I told myself. “The search for your identity is over. You are gonna be a rocker like them brilliant relations. You’re going to learn to head bang. And you’re gonna learn to mosh.”
What I learned was that my CD collection had expanded to a point where I barely recognized the faces staring at me from under aging plastic covers. I had gone through a round of buy and toss and change and reform and conform.
Book-of-the-Month Club founder, Clifton Fadiman aptly noted, “For most men life is a search for the proper manila envelope in which to get themselves filed.” My life has seemed a search for the proper compact disc with which to get myself classified. Not an attitude or goal anyone would want to own up to. In the past, I’ve been afraid to lack an identity; and more specifically, I sought one that would be accepted, a musical-preference-key to some sort of pseudo-popularity. I made it easy for friends and classmates to stereotype me by creating distinct personas for myself!
After all, what happens if you like Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin and Samantha Mumba at the same time? You become an anomaly. And teens, we don’t want that. We want to sort all our friends and classmates into recognizable groups. More importantly, we want to be recognized! It’s less complicated that way.
I am embarrassed to say I have bought into this attitude one hundred percent.
In conforming and developing musical preferences based on the norm, we compromise ourselves, and in the worst way. As the saying goes, “Only dead fish go with the flow.” And yes, if we’re talking dead fish, I’ve been as stinky as they come.
I have conformed … but I have learned, and I have come full circle. I set out on a quest to establish my musical identity. And what I discovered was that there is no definitive identity to be found. No one category is any better, any cooler than the other is. Musical preference is meant to alter as we grow as individuals, as the times move, as moods sway, as the charts change. How easily we’ve turned musical preference, something personal, and intimate and special, into just another mechanism for stereotyping, for classification and for generalizations. I did an injustice in molding myself to match TRL’s countdown. It’s not worth it! Janis Joplin, a great folk legend, says it true, “Never compromise yourself … It is all you got.”