Friday, November 27, 2015

What music means to children of the 90s and why Gen Z will never understand

Just tonight in the throws of settling my four and five-year-old children to bed, I did what most responsible parents do. I put on a few dubstep songs. There's nothing quite like a Skrillex song to settle young kids I find. After defusing the disapproving looks and comments from my darling wife, I wanted to start calming the mood for real, so I changed the beat to a bit of Chemical Brothers. Soon enough it was way past bed time and I started to search for something a bit more soothing.
   I'm not too sure why the next thing happened. You see, my brain sometimes likes to take me to places I haven't been to for a while, just to jog the memories, to reach deep deep down into the bucket and pull something out that reinvigorates my life and reminds me how awesome it was to be young.  On this particular occasion we (my brain and I) went back to a time, in 1998, when I had some trouble getting to sleep for quite some time during my late adolescents. Nothing drastic, but it went on for quite some time. Luckily I found a solution that did the trick.
   In 1996, there was this little band called Pearl Jam who released their fourth album simply called No Code. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, Pearl Jam was born in the early 90s and along with the likes of Nirvana and Soundgarden, created the sounds and melodies of what was to become the golden age of grunge mainly out of Seattle. They ushered in a rock-based, heavy guitar and drum driven alternative to the mainstream pop music of the time. While the conforming majority of the world was listening intently to Ace of Base, Toni Braxton, Spice Girls and Savage Garden, a growing minority began reaching out for new alternative sounds and grunge provided. Ripped shorts and shirts, slurred lyrics, fast drums and guitar riffs akin to yelling, the sound was raw, edgy, new, and for me, heaven to my ears.
   Pearl Jam had released three albums prior to No Code. Ten was their first album which was followed up by Vitalogy and Vs, all exceptionally brilliant, critically acclaimed albums showcasing the band's talents and catering very nicely to the angst-driven teenagers craving something different. Around came 1996 and No Code was released mid way through the year.
   I know it's cliched, but I still remember the day like it was yesterday. We were in Year 11 Art and as luck would have it, we had an awesome art teacher who, while we were working on our masterpieces, always put the radio on for us to enjoy some tunes. Among the usual fare, I suddenly heard something unfamiliar to my ears. Now, I knew Pearl Jam was about to release a new album and as soon as I heard Eddie start singing, I just knew that this was it. But funnily, this song was not the Pearl Jam I knew. The song was Who You Are, the first of what was to become three songs released from the album as singles.
   Who You Are was a massive move away from the sound of the first two albums. While previously the music was mainly thrashy and pure rock, this song was mellow, almost tribal. A more 'sensible' Pearl Jam. Later I found out that there were a lot of disgruntled fans out there who did not approve. I however, loved every second of it.
   It's hard to explain the effect this had on a 17 year old boy in 1996. Music was very different back then and in particular the way we consumed music might as well have been from a different planet. My family watched 'Rage' religiously in those days, an Australian music program with a count down type of Top 50 vibe. I grew up with Rage as did many many Aussies. But there was an issue. Rage relied on music videos and Pearl Jam wasn't, and continue to not be, too fussed at making video clips to go with their awesome songs. As such, Pearl Jam remained the sole domain of radio and CDs. So that faithful afternoon when Pearl Jam came on in that art class, a new song, it was like winning the lottery. I'm not sure my peers took much notice, but I was smiling like a Cheshire cat, absorbing the sounds, the melody, the vibe of this new sound from my favourite band.
    Within a few days the album was released and I couldn't wait to get down to my local music shop. There was a HMV (music store) at a shopping center around half an hour's drive from my house and when my mum went shopping, I had a chance to sneak away for half an hour or so. Into HMV I went and asked for No Code to be put onto the listening post. Please. Back in those day, before you purchased a CD, you could ask for the store to put it into a player and you would stand next to the wall with a hard-mounted boxy contraption where you could fast forward, rewind, skip forward and back for the CD of your request. Countless hours were spent at these listening posts by my friends and I as we sampled the good and bad of music. This was the time when Discmans (which played CDs) were starting to replace walkmans (cassettes) and most CDs had to be taken home and played on massive boom boxes or stereo players. That half an hour was not enough of course to finish the album so I got out my wallet. Take my money.
   In effect, music stores to me were like going on an expedition into the unknown. It's difficult to explain the excitement for example when in a 'record store' in Brisbane's CBD I found an alternative American version to Nine Inch Nails's Down the Spiral, or listening to experimental jungle tunes almost popping the headphones with its deep bass. No MP3s, no iPhones, no downloads.
   I digress. No Code was also responsible for one other significant moment in my life which resulted in another song, the second one release from that album becoming my favourite song of all time. Hail Hail was released as a way to perhaps recoup some of the lost fans after Who You Are and saw a return to the much more rock style we came to expect from the band. In Australia however, this song saw very little radio time and only reached No.31 on the charts, but, again, because of the no video clip, we never really got to 'see' this song.
   One night at a party though, this was all about to change. It was about midnight and, as 16/17 year olds do, we were getting drunk and speaking shit. I had laid down in front of the tv, my head spinning from the Southern Comfort. David Letterman was on and lo and behold, Pearl Jam were the special guests! They belted out Hail Hail, Eddie at his usual weird self, the band rocking hard and making the live performance sound even better than the studio version. This is one of those memories that will stay with me forever. Midnight, drunk, watching my favourite band perform live on tv at a party, at a time when music from Pearl Jam on television was like stumbling across a four leaf clover. At Antarctica.
   So you could say that this album had a profound influence on me as a teenager growing up. As Pearl Jam changed their sound, so did I as a human being. We became a little bit older, wiser, more self-reflective and experiential. By the time Yield was released a few years later in 1998, I had become a uni student and again, that album became the soundtrack to that part of my life, although a new favourite also came along which suited my attitudes at the time, but that's another story.
   To this day I sometimes bump into other Pearl Jam fans, you know, people around my age who remember these years as fondly as I do. Every time, EVERY TIME, the obligatory question of which album is my favourite comes up. I always know their answer. If they're slightly older, they'll say Ten, but the most common answer is Vitalogy, closely followed by Vs. When I then tell them mine is No Code their jaw drops in amazement. I proceed to inform that my second is Yield and they almost spit at me in disbelief.  
   So back to tonight. No Code has a number of slower songs which helped me to get to sleep and I wanted to play some of these for my little darlings to settle them. What I used to do is put on my CD and program in Sometimes, Who You Are, Off He Goes, I'm Open and Around the Bend. I'd put these onto infinite loop but most of the time I would be asleep by I'm Open. Tonight, I flicked on the YouTube app on my smart television, typed in one of those songs and hit play. Times have changed. Needless to say, it had the desired effect.
  Although I'm trying, I think it's difficult to explain the effect music had on me and continues to have on all of us. It means so many different things to so many different people. In years from now, someone might be writing a similar piece on Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. Will their experience be similar? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Music is now so accessible, so out there that it's hard to keep up with it all. There are too many songs, mixed in cross-genres and catering for so many diverse tastes that the mind boggles. If I want to listen to Tay Tay, I can get all her songs in a few key strokes. There is no searching in record stores, no moments of incidentally hearing a song for the first time on radio and waiting ages to hear it again. Unfortunately the main element that Gen Z will miss out on is the influence of a new clearly defined genre of their time. For me and those in their mid 30s, it was grunge if you so chose, but what is it for these youngens? I would like to stay dubstep, but I have met so many who are opposed that it can't be it. Pop and rap is not new. So in some sense, I feel really sad for the current generation of teenagers, the ones who will not have the chance to taste the introduction of a new genre of music to attach these great memories.
   One thing is for sure, music is a great way to reminisce. We will all have those great songs which we turn to for fond memories of youth.  

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