Three things happened in the last few weeks that brought me here, to this crumbling, twitchy, wide-leg jeans and baby doll tee-clad state. One, I was asked to be in a wedding in Vermont this fall. Two, my husband got me “Daria: The Complete Series” for Mother’s Day. And three, 2birds1blog published her middle-school song hit list, effectively launching her readership into simultaneous squee-gasms and PTSD nightmares to 1997, +/-3 years in either direction. Holy jumping Jesus, if you had Maced me square in the eyes with a bottle of original recipe Bath and Body Works Freesia Body Spray and used my twitching form as a model for layered spaghetti strap tanks and Jane makeup, you could not have landed me more firmly in the center of my own junior high flashback. Memories rang with tones of Third Eye Blind and the monotone musings of Daria Morgendorffer with a background of Dawson Leery repeating “Soulmate. Soulmate. Soulmate.” on an endless loop.
Certainly, my husband has aged magnificently and gets handsomer and more confident by the year and I consider every year further away from being 13 in 1997 an achievement of Effexor and sheer repressed memory. But the flight from Honolulu to Boston is a long one, compounded by hours in the car on the way to the wedding site in Vermont. In the spirit of facing one’s fears head-on, I decided to make the ultimate immersion therapy playlist: The ’94-’99 Jncos ‘n Platform Shoes Time Machine: A Refreshing Blast of Clinique Happy with top notes of Jamiroquai; or, Virtual Insanity in Six Acts.
Not since college have I tackled a project with so much research. I owned a few songs that I had downloaded here and there back on my college network, but I needed to go deeper. What wasn’t I remembering? What was lurking in the shadows? I reviewed Billboard Top 100 lists. I took it to Twitter, asking what songs brought the memory of 1994-1999? I looked at the VH1 Top Songs of the Nineties; I found the liner notes to “Now That’s What I Call Music: VOLUME MOTHERFUCKING 1-4.” (Emphasis mine.)
What I never expected was to become so thoroughly entrenched in that time period. In fourth grade in 1994, I was just starting to become cognizant of music beyond the oldies my mom favored in the car. In 1995, I used my Christmas and pocket money to buy my first CD/AM-FM boombox. 1999 was the end of the century and my freshman year of high school; it was the year I stopped using my cassette deck record button to tape songs off the radio to make mixes. Not long after, I had the first version of Napster, plugging away at half-length song versions on a 56-baud dial-up modem accessing the internet through AOL Version 8.
Before that was a purer time, a time when I was just discovering what I liked, what made me happy. It was Sunday nights spent listening to the radio after bedtime as Rick Dees ticked off the Weekly Top 40. It was the rush of picking up a CD (or cassette if I didn’t have enough babysitting cash for a disc) with an “E” for Explicit Content, knowing it would be met with frowning stares and disapproval by the parents. As an adult, I’m not what you would call a true music lover. Tom is; Tom seeks out new music constantly and I coast along on his indie cred and listen to his suggestions, but usually I’m happy singing along with the radio. Chris Rock says that whatever you were listening to when you got laid the first few times is the music you would love forever, and that’s certainly true (and explains my otherwise inexplicable love of country music–don’t ask) but for me it’s the music I chose for myself the first time I had the opportunity to choose, and I found myself enjoying the process even as I dug deeper into years that for many reasons I would rather not remember too closely.
But getting to that revelation was…a revelation. The list got huge. It got unwieldly. It revealed massive gaps in my education. How do you define six years of music? Nigh on impossible, it is, especially when a song you think of as essential to your mix was made between 1990-93 (“Real Love,” any song I ever liked by The Cranberries) or even in the 80s and you had no damn idea because you’re dumb (“Jane Says”).
For me, it’s shockingly, appallingly, awesomely bad pop music that will put a smile in my heart and a spring in my step every damn time, so that’s what this list is. I combed through some really awful songs in my collection (“Fly” by Sugar Ray) and meticulously sorted them by year. I faced some very unpleasant truths about how many Sarah McLachlan and McLachlan-esque songs I had, not to mention my vast catalogue of Smashing Pumpkins. I downloaded singles from NKOTB solo careers for this list and looked for old clips of “Say What Karaoke!” hosted by the long-suffering Matt Pinfield during MTV Spring Break 1999. I thought about watching “TRL” with Carson Kressley, then realized I had confused Kressley with Carson Daly, and wasn’t that a surreal trip.
What followed is six years worth of some of the most incredible and incredibly awful music to have ever closed out a decade and a Proustian aural sledgehammer of memories: bullying, being bullied, starting junior high, first dances, first kisses, having a locker and a homeroom and no friends and then a lot of friends, of feeling grown up enough to conquer the world yet not possessing a driver’s license or even a permit just by singing along to the listener-selected Number 1 hit of the day, banana clip in hair and mini-backpack on my shoulders.
In summary: This is not just a traveling playlist. This is my opus.
Starting next Monday, once I complete the downloads and arrange the tracks to my liking, I’ll be publishing each yearly segment with some commentary and how I selected the tracks (er, capriciously, for the most part). Maybe it will take you to a desperately uncomfortable place (not like the back of a Volkswagen) or maybe it will make you smile fondly and recall what you were doing 15 years ago. Maybe it will just make you think “Holy crackers, she has terrible taste in music.” (And you’d be right!)
But really, I only hope it will make you smile…and keep you entertained between takeoff and touchdown.