As I stopped at the gas station on my drive in to work this afternoon, the k.d. lang song “Sweet Surrender” was playing over the loudspeaker system. To my surprise, I suddenly found I could taste Mountain Dew and cigarettes. It makes an odd sort of sense, if you are me and you know what I know.
The summer that “Sweet Surrender” was in heavy rotation I was working at a movie theater. Taking tickets in the box office, an opportunity to really see people at their gape-mouth worst, I might add. (I tried to focus on the positive, even then — tried to smile at the kids and the happy couples and the geeks and ignore the bickering and the aggressive masculinity that shows up at 9:30 on a Friday night.) Bus schedules being what they were, I often got to the mall early. I’d stop in the food court for some Taco Bell (with Mountain Dew) and take my lunch to the smoking section of the food court. (My goodness this was a long time ago.) I’d eat and chain smoke before the start of my shift and … listen to “Sweet Surrender” at least once, maybe twice, as the mall’s music broadcast looped back on itself.
Forty-or so shifts over the summer of doing that exact same thing, and, well, I hear the song in a gas station parking lot in Farmington, MN, and taste cigarettes.
I don’t think of myself as a music person. I’ve lived with a lot of music people, people who know lyrics and who can name composers, people who can identify instruments in rock, jazz, or classical arrangements. I can sing along with the hook and maybe the chorus, and find each time I play the video game Rock Band to be a complete enlightenment as to actual lyrics. To wit, last night while singing “Sister Christian” I discovered that the line is “Motoring, what’s your price for flight / for finding mister right,” not “Modoren wassyorp ryes forfly / for finden mess torye.” (Sometimes, I think that my trouble with lyrics is that rather than not hearing the words, I hear the actual sounds the musicians are singing all too well. But I digress.)
I don’t think of myself as a music person. Yet, clearly, music means a lot to me. It has huge emotional impact, it matters to me, even though I can listen to a song fifteen times before noticing, say, there’s a horn section, for instance. I spent a particularly trying month of my high school career listening to Information Society’s “I Want to Know / Pure Energy” over and over and over again, on repeat on my Walkman. Ten years later I bought the cd at Cheapo Music and put it on in my car. I pulled over into a nearby parking lot because I felt so sick, so shaking and nauseated ten years later. I had put all of that godawful month into the song, winding the feelings around and through the music until the opening chords made my heart race in remembered adrenaline. (I later on listened to that song over and over and over again, driving to and from work, for weeks, until the edge of anxiety had ground down into vague memory.)
This week I was reminded of and bought the Book of Love song “Tubular Bells.” This is, for those who don’t know it, the theme from The Exorcist remixed with one lyric added. The line added to the song is “Mother, make it stop.” After leaving the gas station and its k.d. lang this afternoon, I put “Tubular Bells” on in my car for the rest of the drive to work.
Ah. Yes. Well. This is apparently another song I must have listened to during some traumatic week or month of high school. My goodness, the body-memory is bracing.
Fortunately, it’s not just the bad experiences that latch themselves to some song or another in my sympathetic nervous system. Last night, again during Rock Band, I was singing along to Pat Benatar’s “Invincible.” For those who don’t know, “Invincible” is the song Benatar and her band did for the movie The Legend of Billie Jean, a not-spectacularly-good (yet HIGHLY influential on Sigrid) film from the 80s starring Helen Slater, Peter Coyote, and Christian Slater. Anyhoo. The song is … faintly ridiculous. Melodramatic. Passionate and overwrought and desperate, proclaiming a determination to fight all comers. I love this song madly. It is, in my head, the quintessential X-Men song.
When “Invincible” comes on my mp3 player while I’m driving, I sing it as loudly as I can, pitch and key be dammed. I wave my hands, I make faces, I mug like a mad mugging thing. So we play it in Rock Band. Heh. I did not, as it turns out, wave my hands about. Nor did I sing as loudly as possible, seeing as how the children were in bed. But pitch was … less important to me than emoting, let’s say. (It was in karaoke mode, so I didn’t cost The Starjammers (our band in Rock Band) any points. No worries.)
When I fell in love with “Invincible” I was a moody, asocial fifteen-year-old. I wore the same denim jacket everywhere because I needed the armor. I looked at the world through the hair I constantly pulled over my eyes. I did not know how to talk to people I didn’t already know, and talking to authority figures such as teachers made me inexplicably burst into tears. I loved “Invincible,” I believed in its lyrics with all my X-Men-loving soul. When I listened to this song on endless repeat on my Walkman, pacing laps around IMSA’s school building and dorms as the sun set over the soccer fields, I felt it to be true. We could be invincible, me and mine. We could be, maybe, if we tried hard enough.
Twenty-three years later I feel benevolent fondness for who I used to be. I now think the lyrics are, as I said, emo and overwrought and faintly ridiculous. Moreover, invincibility is not an option for anyone, and I think that the reality of this fact makes human beings stronger than they might otherwise be. But when the opening chords and drum riff come out of the speakers of my tv, when Cavorter and Kalikanzera squint and scowl at the little colored bars of musical notation on the screen, I grab the plastic microphone and I lean into the first line, all anticipation and goofy, grinning optimism. My body remembers the emotion of youth wed to this song.
I think, overall, that maybe I am a music person. Whether or not I am, though, I think I’d do a kick-ass, ridiculous, overwrought, goofy, entirely heart-felt rendition of Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” at karaoke. Perhaps at a forthcoming convention I might give it a try.