May 29, 2023
I have a very specific memory from the summer of 1980. I was 16 years old, driving west on North Decatur Road in my 1973 Gran Torino to do some record shopping at the Wuxtry. Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” was blasting on 96 Rock. I had the windows down and the volume all the way up. I stopped at the red light at Church Street. The car to the right of me and the car in the turn lane to the left of me were both playing 96 Rock at full volume. We all looked at each other and screamed, “Check it and see!” – united by technology, generation, and a great chorus.
I can’t imagine anything like that happening today, with everyone locked in their algorithmic streams.
Nostalgia is a dirty drug. There are countless memes that will tell you that music, cars, TV shows, and culture were better “back then.” It’s a lie. There was crappy music that you conveniently forget, death trap cars that were unsafe at any speed, stupid TV shows, and a culture that rewarded the bullies and marginalized everyone else. Donald Trump’s “great” America was 1950 (as he told CNN in 2015), the peak of Jim Crow, before civil rights movements for women, gay and trans people, and Americans with disabilities. And the top song was “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Red Foley. No thanks.
The truth is the past was great and super shitty. Just like now.
I love it when Boomers yearn for the days when you could ride in the back of a pick up or ride your bike without a helmet. That’s because they are alive to yearn. A bunch of kids got bounced out of the bed of the pick up and are not yearning because they are in yearn-free graves.
So what is it about music that locks us into these powerful memories of yesteryear? Incredible research with Alzheimer’s Disease patients has demonstrated that music can activate incredibly specific memories in people who can’t even remember their spouses and family members, because music exists in a part of the brain the progressive disease can’t reach. I’m guessing 90-year old me, in 2054, might not remember you, but play “Hot Blooded” and I’ll tell you all about that day on North Decatur Road in the summer of 1980 with great clarity.
The reason for my curiosity is the mindfulness practice of being present. Buddhism warns of being lost in the past (and worrying about the future). We spend scant time being in the present. Being present allows us to see our internal state and manage our emotions. Like Ringo said, sometimes you gotta stop and take time to smell the roses. As I’ve written about in this blog, there is great value in stopping.
So, to all the people of my generation, think about how we would listen to music. I have such clear memories of going over to Doug Warringer’s house to listen to a Kiss album or going over to Ed Overstreet’s house to listen to a Clash album. And we would JUST listen. We were present in the moment of listening to the songs. There was no, “This track reminds me of when,” or “This track makes me think about what I need to do.” There was just that moment. Then, when the album was over, we would do something else. But listening was the activity.
Our songs take us to those moments when we were fully present. It’s a weird nostalgia trick about memories of the present. I write this on Memorial Day, thinking about veterans whose brains are often frozen in those traumatic battlefield experiences. I know the songs that were blasting as we raced through the Ukrainian war zone last year are still in my ears. There is a direct link that connects what was playing during our first dance and our first war, present moments sealed in amber for all time. When I was 16, I didn’t have much of a past to ruminate over and my future was wide open so it was easy to absorb the moment. All these years later, being present is handicapped by memories of what was and what could have been and concerns about the future for me and my child.
Here’s where music can help.
I’ve been kicked off of numerous “Classic Rock” Facebook pages for arguing with old timers who all think music today sucks. I remind them of what their parents had to say about AC/DC and they sound just like old people. “These kids today!” They point of youth music is that is separates young people from their parent’s generation. Then they’ll go on and on about autotuning and profanity and the “that’s not music” about the Cardi B’s of the world in rants that seem more racist than music purist. And I’ll say, there are countless new rock bands putting albums out and if you love 70s pop, have you tried Harry Styles? And bam, I’m banned again by classic rock old farts who are prisoners of their nostalgia, forever blocked out of being present with a great song.
I have the best moments with my daughter and her friends driving around with the Top 40 station (Z100 in Portland) turned all the way up, listening them sing along. I know the hits of 2023 will resonate with them the way the wonderful/horrible songs of 1973 do for me.
So here’s the assignment. If you were born in the twentieth century, I want you to go straight to the pop charts. Find a hit that speaks to you. My third grade daughter’s favorite song of the moment is “Flowers,” by Miley Cyrus (currently #3 on the charts). Listen to that song while doing nothing but listening to that song. How does that tune make you feel? Try not to get nostalgic or concerned about what’s to come. Just be in the moment. Then put it on a playlist. Make it your song for late spring 2023. Every time you hear it take a deep breath and think, I am here now.
There’s so much amazing music happening right now and so many opportunities to just stop and take in the moment. Be here now.