Though I was always surrounded by music as a little girl, I never really “discovered” music until 1987, when I was nine years old and Mama got me my first cassette tape player. It was a big deal to spend any money at all on something that wasn’t essential–like clothes or food–but she did. I can’t remember if it was for an occasion or if it was just a random gift to make me happy, but it completely changed my life.
Up until then, I was surrounded by music–as we all are–but none of it was of my choosing. The neighborhood I grew up with was full of international music, R&B, and hip hop. Mexican music predominated, but sometimes, you’d hear Somali music or the lilting, ever exotic cast of Vietnamese music. As a white child, I didn’t quite appreciate it–but it nonetheless became part of my life’s soundtrack, and I’m sure it’s partially responsible for my love of lilting voices and harmony. My mother was big on Elvis and all the old country singers. Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn often found their way onto the 8 track and the record player. My appreciation for strong voices and lyrical stories surely can be traced there. And then there was the music I found on TV by default, when nothing was on in the summertime. The Monkees and Motown. I would dance in my living room, belting out all the words to these old school favorites.
The cassette player was the first thing that was really mine–that I could control–where my preferences mattered–except for books. Music became very personal to me. I was a kid who existed in a low-tech world. There were no computers. Usually, no cable. In the long, hot Denver summers, I’d get bored. And that was just unacceptable, so I learned to keep myself occupied. I’d do things like make celebrity birthday calendars off of information gleaned from Entertainment Tonight, using posters from the Big Bopper and Jane. But the biggest thing I did, besides that, writing, and playing outside, was collect music–which I mostly recorded off the radio. Casey’s Top 40 was my Sunday morning appointment. Before I moved, I had all the cassettes of all the things I recorded during that time.
For me, until cassettes were replaced by CDs in my world (which was probably much later than everyone else), it was an era of Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, George Michael, and Milli Vanilli.
I still know all the words–particularly to George Michael’s stuff. Mostly because I walked everywhere, singing it out loud, my walkman humming along with me.
9 year old me was pretty devastated when she heard the news today that her forever crush, George Michael, had passed on. To this day, his original album is my go-to happy music pick along with Kiss by Prince and Beck’s Hell Yes. I once watched a series of interviews with him, detailing all the dark things that happened to him during what was such an innocent time for me–and all I could be was grateful. Because I was a sad little girl for such a long time, and that music made me dance and sing as loud as I could. It still does.
Thank you, George, for holding my hand in the darkness. You are loved.
(And damnit, 2016, stop being an asshole).