I started at tony St. Louis liberal arts college Washington University in 1995, fresh from an upper-middle class St. Paul, Minnesota upbringing where I'd spun alt-country like The Jayhawks. But I had no idea this anachronistic, melancholy music would soundtrack my formative years -- when I lost my virginity, found my calling, tried drugs, and otherwise engaged in growing up awkwardly.
My freshman year music dork conversations focused on local alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo, who broke up in 1994. Everyone was forced to choose a splinter act -- Wilco or Son Volt. I took Son Volt, of course, as Jeff Tweedy's new outfit sounded too much like the Replacements, and was too concerned with catchy tunes. As if those were bad things.
It was 2010 and I was pulling out of our family's driveway, headed to my summer job at a grocery store. My dad was coming home from his nine-to-five. We pulled up next to each other and rolled our windows down. With the succinctness of a weather report, he informed me that he and my mother were getting a divorce. I stared at him for a beat too long, drove off, and began playing Every Time I Die's New Junk Aesthetic as loud as I could.
You may not have heard of the Buffalo-born band, nor of New Junk Aesthetic, but it was like my personal In Utero: Brutal, whip-smart discontent to a metalcore soundtrack, full of breakneck drumming, blistering guitars and larynx-shredding screams. It sounded like how I felt in these years, before and after my dad's announcement, when I was hundreds of miles away at college at the University of Arizona. Every time I returned home, my familial life had disintegrated even further. There were more cracks in the foundation.
The Northern Tennessee breeze was crisp that December afternoon as I rode shotgun with my stepfather toward Hardee's when Twista's "Slow Jamz" came on the radio. What may seem like a pithy couplet from a guest on the song -- "She got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson, got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson" -- nonetheless hooked me. At the tender age of 12, I was ready to join team Kanye West. But I wasn't yet truly moved by his gospel.
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When I was in fourth grade my family lived in a small apartment a block from the ocean in Hermosa Beach. At night we kept the windows open and I would often fall asleep to the sound of the ocean crashing softly onshore. One night, however, some music from the living room kept me up, and the next morning my mother showed me the CD case: Bob Marley and The Wailer's Legend. She told me that Marley was a man from Jamaica who wanted everyone to be kinder to each other. From then on she played Legend for me every night while I fell asleep.
Legend is a compilation album released in 1984, three years after Marley's death and six years before my birth. Every one of its 14 songs has become a standard, from "Three Little Birds" to "Redemption Song."
When I was a junior in high school in 2001, my boyfriend took me to see Almost Famous. As the credits rolled, he opined that it was "pretty good" -- I knew then things wouldn't work out between us.
To me, Almost Famous was the life I aspired to, full of great music, groupies, glamour, good vibes, and rock hedonism. I wanted to be a rock star; I wanted to be a Band-Aid, but mostly, like the film's hero William Miller, I wanted to be a music journalist.
But wait, was I too late? "It's over," the Lester Bangs character tells Miller, about rock music generally. "You got here just in time for the death rattle."
Fast forward to college where, naturally, the people who loved me encouraged me to study something different than journalism. I took their advice, as the internet was clearly killing both the music and journalism industries. But then, in 2003, The White Stripes' Elephant came out.