Fads are often silly from the start, and yet they grow even sillier with age, some of them degrading entirely to pure nonsense (think tight-rolled jeans). One of the sillier fads I embraced as a kid was the lifeguard tank top shirt. It must’ve been about 1984, give or take a year–the start of a period which, spanning the entire second half of the eighties, I’m realizing was seminal in the development of who I am. The seeds of lifelong interests were sown in those roughly five years. Memories I have from that time rank among my favorites. There was a magic in that long corridor between ages eight and thirteen that I didn’t identify then–though I certainly felt it–that is becoming clearer with age. An innocence on the verge of experience. The mystery of girls deepened, resulting in some killer crushes. Music became a vehicle for any emotion or memory I might have had, and it did so with increasing intensity–any music I was into, in fact, from Huey Lewis and the News to 3rd Bass to Guns N’ Roses. What I now know to be a budding self-consciousness, was to me then an expansion of the horizon itself, and the awkwardness and heartbreak were as necessary as the triumphs and thrills.
At that age, I also became increasingly image-conscious, which sounds a little shallow to the present me, but at the time, it somehow fit: blissfully ignorant of social class, the idea I could wear a certain shirt and be part of a certain group held a charming simplicity. I didn’t know any better then; I see the folly of that view only in reflection. What I did know was that the world (for me) was getting bigger; that the teenage years looked exciting and grownup; that things were now either “cool” or not, and to be “cool” was everything. Even if it meant traipsing sunburnt down Panama City Beach in a tank top with the word lifeguard printed on it in red letters.
Has this ever happened to you? You associate a song or a band with a particular era in your life, and so forthwith, whenever that songs is played (and it’s almost always unexpectedly, finding you in the dentist’s chair, for example, with some old 80s ballad falling softly from the overhead speakers, reminding you of a pre-adolescent crush—something you used to hear at Thelma’s Skateland during the ritualized and awkward hand-in-hand skating segment known as “Snowball Couples,” whatever that means), you’re filled with a nostalgia so potent it drives you to seek it out. And now that we have the technology to find exactly what we want and can listen to a band’s entire discography just by paying a small monthly fee, it’s become easy to find any and all songs we might want to hear at any time.
So say you put in the minimal effort of typing a song title into your Spotify app, and then there it is. You listen, and it’s great—it takes you right back to junior high, and memories of those girls or boys you thought you couldn’t live without. You can almost feel yourself slam into the skating rink’s carpeted walls.
But then something else happens: about two-thirds of the way through, the experience falls flat. That potent nostalgia that earlier threatened to floor you completely becomes a little too sweet, a little too artificial. Like a soda made with aspartame, it just isn’t the same. It’s like the song collapses under the weight of the associations you’ve placed on it; like the memory of the song now means more than the song itself. The song has become its own obstacle. Only in the human mind can such transformations occur: old songs defeat themselves, and we remain our own biggest mystery.
Nevertheless, I still find Peter Cetera’s voice compelling, though you’ll never catch me listening to him.