I mean #notAllSuburbia, but enough of the Eastern US along the highways was built around the same time and the same model that driving through upstate New York immediately conjures memories of driving though central North Carolina.
It feels like home. Home?
The houses with brick borders and vinyl siding in one of five pastels. The nearly identically-organized shopping center with a Michael’s, Dick’s, JoAnne’s, Marshall’s, WallMart, and Olive Garden. The half-thinned woods and the planted pear trees. If I let my sense of the present drown out in the flooding nostalgia, I could inaccurately and precisely pinpoint the location on an outdated map of my old neighborhood.
Then and now, it doesn’t seem particularly exciting, but the type of boring seems to have changed. Before, I had imagined that these mundane images were unbearably local, a terribly narrow view of the world. But now, stretched wide across unencountered space, they appear unbearably generic, a nondescript, placeless universality. Like maybe everywhere can be home, but nowhere really ever was.
Back then, when I thought about living beyond that the limits of my suburbia, I assumed that what was outside would be bigger, faster, more complicated, more sophisticated, unknown. That was a little bit true, but probably mostly false (in proportion of square-footage, anyway). If I haven’t that noticed until now, maybe it’s because I’ve fixated on little islands of flashy difference in an ocean of more of the same-ish.
I wonder if all the overhyped sea explorers of history realized that the oceans everywhere are mostly the same, when they committed their lives to sailing around the world. Or were they too caught up in their sparkly dreams of islands to see?
Placeless, familiar, unencountered, known, endless.
You could drown in it, or just keep floating.
You know that feeling when the season changes? When you’re exhausted and unhappy about being awake at 8 AM until you step outside and taste the bright, breezy, and thoroughly not freezing air. And you just start feeling things. Like hope and relief and excitement bubbling under your skin cells. You also feel your fingers, because they’re not frozen numb. So with your circulation unimpeded, you stop walking so fast and just stand there to think. And you think it’s funny how you feel so different now, even though nothing is really different. Except the weather.
And then the memories come. Every spring in your lifetime comes flooding back. Well some of them flood–the rest drip, or trickle or ooze–but it’s hard to make the distinction when you’re trying to stay afloat in the cumulative puddle. There’s some scattered images and sound bites, but mostly sensations tickling your body and head. The close touch of people you may never see again (and those you no longer want to). The warmth of places that used to be home. The pulse of old dreams. And you start to smile and cry and laugh all at the same time so that your face looks really weird and people around you wonder what’s wrong with you (and you think that’s actually a really good question). And you think it’s funny how you feel all the same things now, even though nothing is the same. Except the weather.
You know that feeling? Maybe not.
Being home for me means driving. And driving means listening to the radio. And I listen to Top 40 stations. No shame.
Maybe I should be cool enough to listen to something more hipster, or intellectual-ish enough to turn on NPR (and I do listen to those things sometimes), but particularly when I’m driving, I find myself returning to my cheesy pop music. Even when it sucks.
Sure there are always some songs that are good, but that’s not really the point. The main content is formulaic rhythms, trite lyrics, forced rhymes, problematic messages, and melodies that sound just enough like something you’ve heard before that they will stick in your head immediately. Or if it doesn’t happen immediately, it will eventually, since you will be listening to the same five songs on repeat for the next month. It’s ridiculously annoying. And yet I keep listening.
First of all, there is a difference between thinking something is good and liking it, and one can occur without the other. Despite being someone who spends a lot of time figuring out how to make good art, being weary of anything that could be considered corny, cliche, or–God forbid–commercial, I doubt that all of art’s value is tied up in it being good. Is “I Love It” an objectively well-crafted song? Probably not. Did it help me get through angry-crying sessions during the last stretch of my senior year when I was in constant tension with my parents, felt generally alone, and wasn’t sure I had much left to care about. Hell yes.
There is also something to be said about what the format of pop radio does to your mind. A small number of catchy songs repeated intensively over a relatively short time period: it creates a sort of auditory index of memories, anchoring your sense of past time and it’s accompanying feelings to periodic sets of songs permanently imprinted into your brain. Songs that are completely and unapologetically not timeless, but instead committed to a very specific and fleeting present (because last year’s songs are so last year).
That’s why I can’t listen to “California Girls” without experiencing the combination of excitement and loneliness, openness and emptiness, of summer 2010, my first few months in the Bay. Or why “So Yesterday” will always remind me of fall 2003, sitting by my school’s butterfly garden with other girls from my third grade class, believing we were the epitome of faux-teenage coolness because we could (sort of) sing all the words. Or why “Larger Than Life” takes me back to my neighborhood pool in summer 1999, when I would passionately debate the lyrics with my sister during breaks (even though we both were actually wrong).
So I’ll keep listening to stupid pop radio, letting it create a temporal framework where I can dump my emotional baggage for later use. Almost like a time capsule.
And no, I’m not going to get too smart or cool for that.