Because I spend most of my time writing about writing and bitching about TV shows, you wouldn’t know from this blog that I’m a massive music fan. Though I don’t follow music as closely as I used to and probably listen to more podcasts than albums these days, music has played, and continues to play, an integral role in my life.
A lot of writers, particularly YA writers, turned to books as teens. Books became their escape, their source of comfort and redemption, their way of connecting to something outside their sometimes-suffocating lives. Books helped them make sense of the world. I liked reading, but it was music that met all those needs for teen me.
Most of my teenhood (at least the parts that I remember like they were yesterday) was spent in the second half of the nineties, a strange, dark time for music and pop culture in general. I’ve talked about this before in another post, but let me summarize: All the beautiful, slacker-y yet hopeful alt-rock and political hip hop of the early nineties gave way to a gazillion carefully-manufactured boy bands and pop divas, some vapid rappers obsessed with Benjamins and bling, and too many angry white boys to count who seemed content to aim their rage at women and girls, all of whom they saw as either prudes or sluts.
These are some of the many reasons why I turned to old-school hip hop and late-70s punk as a teenager. But here and there, a few contemporary gems glowed through the darkness and I’m going to focus on those in this post. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, I think these artists and songs had the deepest impact on me when I was at my most self-conscious, neurotic, confused and at odds with everyone and everything around me.
1. The Smashing Pumpkins – Bullet With Butterfly Wings. No one likes a rock star with a Jesus complex and, like most double albums, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was hit or miss for me. But there was a handful of songs like this one that were so, soooo good that I was willing to declare The Pumpkins one of my favorite bands. At one point I’m pretty sure I told someone I wanted a tattoo that read “the world is a vampire” encircling my ankle. Really glad I ultimately decided against that, but The Pumpkins still hold a special place in my heart. By the time Mellon Collie came out, they were already a relic of the alt-rock heyday, yet they seemed poised to guide us into a sharper, smarter, glam-tinged era. That worked out about as well as that awful tattoo probably would’ve, but lines like despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage turned my angst into a poetic battle cry. They wormed their way into my guts, and I’m not alone—just check out Car Seat Headrest’s clever Twitter bio.
2. DJ Shadow – Midnight in a Perfect World. I loved the ragey rage of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” but I could just as easily be charmed by gorgeous noisescapes as long as they felt deep. And this song, really all of Endtroducing…, felt like being pulled down a rabbit hole into a sparsely-populated netherworld of snow-blanketed streets, graffiti murals, and dusty, crackly vinyl. It was a perfect escape because it didn’t feel empty. It was pretty and mathy and wide-eyed and made me think. And Shadow was like a gateway to all the fantastic hip hop that no one gave the time of day in a world where Puff Daddy / P. Diddy dominated MTV (remember MTV?). Shadow led me to the Soulsides/Quannum crew, Jurassic 5, Styles of Beyond, People Under the Stairs, Prince Paul, Dan the Automator, Company Flow, Anticon, Peanut Butter Wolf, Antipop Consortium, Cannibal Ox…too many hip hop weirdos to name here. For all of that, I’m forever grateful.
3. Fiona Apple – Limp. Poor nineteen-year-old Fiona got a lot of shit from a lot of people when her debut album was released (including Janeane Garofalo—what gives Janeane?). But I loved everything about her, including her “This world is bullshit…” speech at the MTV Video Music Awards (preach, Fiona). And I loved When the Pawn… even more than Tidal, in part because the songcraft is mindblowing and in part because it was like a gigantic middle finger to all the haters who thought she’d choke on her sophomore album. It still amazes me that a twenty-two-year-old could write songs like this one, with its super catchy melody, angry-funny lyrics and ridiculously cool arrangement (those little horn bursts!). All hail the mighty Apple.
4. Sleater-Kinney – Turn It On. True story: Despite all the critical acclaim Dig Me Out garnered, it wasn’t easy to track down a copy of it in my neck of the woods. (I swear to god I actually asked one record store clerk about it and he said, “What kind of music is it?” and I said, “Indie rock, I guess,” and I shit you not he said, “Indian rock?” I mean, what the fuck was he even doing at a record store when he clearly didn’t like or know anything about music?) Eventually I resorted to buying this online, which was kind of a new thing at the time. When my copy arrived, a fellow teenage music fan took a look at the cover, which features three cool little photos of the band members, and said, “Those girls are so fucking ugly.”
Seriously, that happened. And that moment seared its way into my mind because of the thought-explosion it brought on. I thought, “But, um, those girls kinda look like me and also like most of the girls I know.” Then I heard “Turn It On” and realized Sleater-Kinney didn’t give a flying fuck about teenage boys who’d been brainwashed by airbrushed magazines and video vixens. They were too busy writing feminist lyrics and rocking everyone’s face off. And if Sleater-Kinney didn’t give a flying fuck about that kind of soul-crushing bullshit, then neither should I. (In case the guy who was that teenage boy ever reads this, I should note that though this wasn’t his finest moment, we had many conversations about music and he clearly respected my opinions, which was a huge and much-needed confidence boost at the time. And I’m pretty sure I said several truly dumb things to him that are just as cringeworthy as declaring the women of Sleater-Kinney “fucking ugly.” Saying cringeworthy things is part of the business of being a teenager.)
5. Deftones – Change (In the House of Flies). As noted above, the late-nineties, with all their disaffection and backlash, were a breeding ground for angry white boys. And I must confess, as an angry teenage girl, some of these wounded manchildren sucked me right in with all their screaming and moaning and whining. But sometime between Jonathan Davis growling, “fuck you titty suckin’ two balled bitch with a fat green clit,” and Fred Durst claiming he “did it all for the nookie” and Papa Roach throwing cold cuts at naked groupies, I realized this music was not for me. As a teenage girl, I was either invisible to these dudes or, worse, an object to be obsessed over and ridiculed. In their eyes, there was no happy medium in which I could exist as an actual human being.
And then there was the Deftones. Though they were typically lumped in with the nu-metal crowd and regularly rubbed elbows with the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit, they somehow seemed to exist above it all. They were smarter, artier, punkier, and sadder, and half of them were people of color. They understood subtlety and made music that spoke to a broad range of people and experiences. And just before I graduated from high school, they released White Pony, a rock statement to be reckoned with that transcended nu-metal by leaps and bounds. It was everything I’d ever wanted from them and hoped they could be. They were a band I could take with me even as I was more than ready to leave those other bands behind.
It should be no surprise that while all those other nu-metalheads faded into obscurity or started Christian rock bands or became mediocre filmmakers banned from Ukraine, the Deftones are still making rock that will liquify your skull. Their latest album, Gore, came out earlier this year.
In my next post, I’ll tackle five songs I wish had existed when I was a teen. In the meantime, let me know what songs defined your teenhood.