Monday, October 4, 2010

Triangulating Childhood Musical Tastes

For three people growing up in the same house, my sister, brother and I occupied radically different neighborhoods on the FM dial.

Picture yourself walking into the upstairs hallway of my childhood home in the early 1980s, up a steep flight of carpeted steps that crests at a square landing.  From far down the hallway in front of you, twangy vocals and lots of slide guitar fill the air; Mac Davis, Kenny Rogers, Alabama, or whatever other mustachioed country singer was rocking the air waves in the early 1980s all played in heavy rotation on my sister’s stereo. Her early love of horses morphed, quite reasonably, into love of cowboys and all their accoutrements by the time she was in high school.

Directly to your left, behind the closed door reverberating in its frame, is my brother, who is shaking his head (and playing his drums along with) The Who. To break up the routine (and himself,) he throws on a Monty Python album now and again, but primarily it's The Who, cranked all the way up.

All that’s left to visit is my room, hung with posters of the Human League, Split Enz, Duran Duran – basically any band comprising men who wore more makeup than I was allowed to as a teenage girl.  If their hair was aerodynamically styled, they wore lady suits, and no one else had heard of them yet, I was the first in line to buy their new album at the Record Archive over in Pittsford. On this imaginary day, I am probably playing a Wham! UK import and wondering how George Michael gets his eyeliner just so. 

I realize that the normal course of action is for children to rebel against their parents' musical tastes, but my parents never seemed to listen to music. In fact, their hi-fi was so seldom turned on that its cabinets became the hiding spot – a suburban Ark of the Covenant, if you will – of the Founding Principles of the Branford Road Kids Club, written on a piece of crinkled notebook paper with pencil. These seminal documents were unearthed sometime in the late 1990s by family archeologists. Rule One: “No Budders.” Rule Two: “Don’t be freinds with Budders.” We’d tolerate a lot of things on Branford Road, but cutting ahead of someone in line, the dreaded "budding," was not one of them.

So we were comfortable with rules, and the main rule was that we had to rebel against each other. All three of us were devoted to our particular genre and more than that, to the principles of operating in opposition. It wasn’t enough for me to like New Wave , punk, and later, rap; I had to also hate rock and country. My siblings had similar interlocking opinions. Like a three legged stool we seemed to work better when keeping a bit of distance from one another – perhaps the reason my sister studied French, my brother Spanish, and me German when middle school language requirements came around. 

A good part of every family dinner was spent mocking each other's musical tastes. I think the fervor probably came from fear that otherwise, the whole house of cards - the identities we were carefully constructing for ourselves -  would fall apart. If you couldn't even be true to the soundtrack you'd chosen for your life, admitted you quietly turned down Haircut 100 whenever Baba O'Riley came on down the hall, what hope was there for the other fictions of adolescent self-invention?  

Decades later, we've managed to loosen up and settle into the deep grooves of our respective lives, at least to a point that peeking up and over them is a lot less threatening.  It was my sister, not me, who took a hip hop tour of Harlem with Kurtis Blow a few years ago, and I was the one getting all hot and bothered over a recent local bluegrass festival. My brother continues to combine the comic with the rock; he's recently decided his favorite band is  Enter the Haggis, not because he's ever heard their music, but due to the sheer genius of the name.

I suppose it was inevitable, given the fluid way that music overlaps its boundaries.  If Aerosmith and RunDMC could get together on Walk This Way and Robert Plant and Allison Krauss found common ground for Raising Sand, what's the point of all the pigeonholing?    

My brother recently came to visit and we sat down side by side for a ritualistic review of each other's iPod playlists. He had ABC's The Look of Love; I had The Who's Who's Next. We both had Little Feat's Dixie Chicken, which is about as country as it gets. I'd wager that we matched up on at least half of the songs we'd so carefully curated. But there was no way I was going to tell him that. 

"Mine's still better," I smirked.

Look: if I broke the rule and told him I liked his music, who knows what kind of wanton budding might break out next?


  1. Found myself smiling as I read your post:

    In MY late teens I listened mostly to Led Zeppelin, Rush, The Who, etc. But fortunately I went to college in Colorado and was "enlightened" by KTCL (Fort Collins) and KBCO (Boulder). Where had this alternative music been all my life?

    Anyway, I'm smiling because "Fantastic Day" (Haircut 100) is one of my favorite songs ever, and I just bought "Spanish Moon - live" (Little Feat) on iTunes last week!

    Circle completed :)

  2. Jeez, Jeff, with tastes like that you could be an honorary Davis. As long as you're not into line cutting.

    I caught Rosanne Cash at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass last weekend and found that I knew the lyrics to half her songs...thanks to my sister playing her music all those years ago. Gotta go download some of that!


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