At 13, I wanted to run as far away from the past several awkward years of bad haircuts, braces, and boys who didn’t merely ignore me but appeared (to my ever-sensitive self) to actively dislike me. I wanted to go on a date. I wanted to wear cool clothes. I wanted to go to art school, where I looked forward to dying my hair blue and falling in with the wrong crowd (I did go to art school; neither of those things happened. It was all pretty tame. That’s another post). I had a year of waiting, followed by a summer of daydreaming, before I turned 14 and bid adieu to my middle school years. Here’s what I listened to.
“Doo Wop (That Thing),” by Lauryn Hill
My clearest middle school memories are soundtracked by Lauryn Hill. “Every Ghetto, Every City” reminded me of apartments I grew up in, the pack of kids I ran around with, pooling spare change for melting popsicles, frying our organs as we lay on top of generators, the warm hum coupled with our screechy laughter. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” was the slow song at my bat mitzvah. “When It Hurts So Bad” and “I Used to Love Him” played as I mourned a crush and reached echelons of heartbreak that I had only encountered in teen movies.
I listened to “Doo Wop (That Thing) every night before I went to bed, for three years. Karaoke is no friend of mine, but when this song is available, I sing the hell out of it. That’s my ultimate karaoke advice: If you can’t sing, if you’re not a natural ham, be a nerdy preteen in the late 90s who’s obsessed with Lauryn Hill. Three years of practice will really calm those pre-performance nerves.
“Candy,” by Mandy Moore
“When you start dating, your dad’s going to sit in the front yard with a baseball bat.”
Around the time I hit puberty, I started hearing this a lot. It was so clearly a stock thing adults say to maturing girls for a couple of reasons: We lived in an apartment and didn’t have a front yard. I looked like a casting ideal for an indie flick about a mega-dorky Jewish kid’s adventures in misfitland. (Think “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” set in Pikesville.) I was pretty far from dating anyone.
But the main reason why this quote made no sense was because my relationship with my dad just wasn’t like that. My first date happened when I was thirteen, and my dad dropped me off for it at the mall, sans baseball bat. When I came home, I sat in the basement and cracked jokes with my dad about how lame the guy was.
Dating? That was fine. Music? That was complicated.
Music was the territory where we fought about my impending teendom. He may not have come armed when it came to my first date, but he wanted to smash my Top 40 proclivities with a baseball bat. This came to a head when we were planning the playlist for my bat mitzvah. Aside from birthday sleepovers, this was basically my first party, and I wanted to make it count. I wanted to show off the music video moves I’d been copying in my bedroom for months. I wanted to lock eyes with some mystery boy and bat my blue eyeshadowed eyes at him and turn him into my dream boyfriend. I wanted all of this to take place with a sexy, teen temptress soundtrack, featuring Mandy Moore.
My dad vetoed this soundtrack. He was DJing. There would be funk. There would be a few upbeat Grateful Dead tracks and some fun, obscure 80’s stuff. There would not be 15-year-old Mandy Moore wailing “I’m missing you like candy.” I was crushed. My list of songs was friend approved. What would they think? How were we going to dance to his music? It was the first time my dad’s music was only his. It had always been mine too.
You can read this moral however you want, but here it is: We danced our little preteen hearts out, and the tapes from that night lived on for years. I played them throughout high school and college, until I stopped owning little old cars with tape decks. I wish I still had them now. Dad: 1, Mandy Moore: 0.
“Perfect World,” by Liz Phair
I was hooked on Liz Phair from the second I heard “Polyester Bride” on 99.1 HFS. My girlfriends didn’t get it; at a sleepover, I played them the album which they said sounded like “70s witch music.” Then we had a Liz Phair fueled séance in a blanket fort. My whitechocolatespaceegg t-shirt was a magnet for cool adults, who saw the shirt as a sign to treat me like a fellow (albeit shorter) cool adult. Middle school teacher: “Oh man I saw Liz Phair last week at a show in DC. We brought a bottle of wine, my ex boyfriend was there…you know how that is.” (I did not.)
Being treated like a cool adult was basically the dream for me, since cool pre-teendom was not working out. Liz Phair became my social wing woman. I turned my nose up at the middle school boys who did not return my affections, the popular girls with their tiger stripe highlights who never said hi. One day, I was going to be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious. One day, I was going to drink wine at Liz Phair shows and run into ex boyfriends. They didn’t even know.
“All For You,” by Janet Jackson
The summer before high school I went abroad for the first time, to England and Ireland, with my aunt and uncle. I had a Walkman stocked with Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin bootlegs, and maybe a Melissa Etheridge album. And while I listened to that music constantly when I was there (Richard Thompson bootlegs were basically developed to soundtrack driving across the Irish countryside), the song that reminds me most of that trip is “All For You” by Janet Jackson. It exploded right when I got back, and in a way, so did I. That trip made me feel older, better able to shake off my mortifying middle school years and dive into my new high school self. So I did.
That summer I babysat at night, and spent the money on languorous, overly air-conditioned trips to the mall with friends where we hummed along to this song as we sifted through jeans and platform shoes, wondering what we were going to look like in a month as high schoolers. I slept over at my friend Ashley’s house and we went to parties, a novelty we never had in middle school. We wore mascara and too much jewelry, we sat in basements drinking fruit punch and rolling our eyes whenever some guy inevitably took over the stereo and blasted Eminem. I listened to this song on nights when I was home. It was hot. Things were changing. I wondered if they would play this song at the homecoming dance in the fall, and if I would go, and what I would wear.
“Jump, Jive, An’ Wail,” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Like khakis, short haircuts, and polo shirts, swing music is something so tied up in middle school angst that I can’t broach it again without an organ shifting internal shudder. I debated which mortifying middle school story to tell. The one most tied up in music takes place at the 8th grade swing dance.
Swing music was the trend du jour in late middle school. Our dance in eighth grade was an elaborate swing dance, complete with lessons and a swing themed set by the school band. In a fit of uncharacteristic bravado, I called a popular boy the week before the big night and told him that I liked him. He was unbelievably polite. Even though he was very clear that the feeling wasn’t reciprocated, the fact that he wasn’t a total ass seemed like an invitation for us to fall in love (…who taught me this stuff? Like really?) I showed up at the dance all aglow and gussied up. One of the popular girls came up to me and asked me if I liked Mr. Polite. I grinned and babbled about how cute he was, and she insisted, in a rare girlfriend-y moment, that she was going to ask him to dance with me. I was floored. Popular girl friends? Dance with popular-future-boyfriend? Okay! Let’s do this.
Popular girl went over and made a big embarrassing scene about how much I liked him, and how I had demanded that she ask him to dance to me. He said, and I quote (or more, repeat, since it was repeated to me several times over): “I don’t fucking like her. Hello? She called me and I said I don’t like you. I would never ever like you. Eww. Get with the program.” He even mimed the phone call by holding his hand up to his face like a fake telephone. For some reason that always stood out as the meanest part.
I learned a lot of lessons that night: Don’t trust people who have never previously been trustworthy and are suddenly overly interested in your personal life. DEP hair gel makes curly hair look like a frizzy turtle shell. A nice rejection is still a rejection. And whatever you do, don’t go to the swing dance. If you do, you’ll never want to listen to the Brian Setzer Orchestra again.