When I was a kid, I loved pop music. This was in the seventies, and at first I liked a lot of musical acts that we now think of as corny, like the Captain and Tennille and Helen Reddy, musicians who played softly and sang about innocuous things and were situated well within my comfort zone. A little later I liked some musical acts that were a tiny bit more adult, like ABBA and Donna Summers, who sang about sophisticated things and were a little less within my comfort zone. These artists would put out albums, and I would hear a single on the radio and go out and buy the records. I would bring them home and open them and listen to a few songs, and then I would immediately want to take the records back to the store and get my money back. Because music scared the hell out of me. The musicians sang about making love and going to bars and discos and breaking up and being lonely, things that I didn't want to know about then. I bought a Billy Joel album, and on one song he sang the f-word. Sometimes the records had gatefold sleeves with pictures of the musicians in fancy, skin-revealing outfits. The men wore their shirts unbuttoned to their navels, to show off their hairy, sexual chests. I bought the soundtrack to the movie Xanadu, which had some songs by the unthreatening Olivia Newton-John, but also had some songs by the completely threatening Electric Light Orchestra, and all of a sudden there were pictures in my house, in my room, of these hairy men with enormous drooping moustaches and dark sunglasses and tight, sexual pants. And I didn't want any part of that.
So I'd take the records back to Record Town or Two Guys or wherever I had bought them and try to get a refund, and the surly teenage clerks would say, we can't accept this because you've already opened it. They seemed to get great pleasure out of saying this. I bought an 8-track of ABBA's Super Trouper album at Woolworth's, and the next day I called to ask what their return policy was for tapes. "We can only take it back if it's broken," the sullen girl on the other end of the line said. "OK, thank you," I said. I stayed on the line for a few extra seconds, and I could hear her say to another sullen teen clerk as she was putting the phone down, "Now watch it break."
So I would end up stuck with these bad, sexual, adult records. I wouldn't even want to look at them. I'd put them out in the garage. And I would try not to think about them, but then maybe the next day I'd feel guilty that I had asked my parents to spend $6.99 on a record that I now didn't want, and I'd go out to the garage and I'd bring the record back in and I'd play it, and kind of get used to it, and then play it a little more, and then play it a lot, and then I'd start to love it. I'd learn all the words, and I'd sit in my room and sing along and pretend that I was a fantastically popular musician. A few weeks after I bought Super Trouper, I sat in my bedroom one early evening after dinner, playing the 8-track and drawing the floor plan for a futuristic high-rise apartment tower. The tape kept circling through the player. ABBA sang about European things, walks along the Seine and late-night phone calls from Glasgow, and the keyboards made little hoppy, plucky noises, and I was so happy that I didn't notice that night was falling outside my window, and that soon I was surrounded by darkness, working in the thin arc of light shed by my desk lamp.
It was through this process of resistance followed by surrender that I learned to like pop music. By the time I was in high school, in the eighties, I considered myself a serious music listener with discerning tastes. The records I loved — Court and Spark, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Horses, Pirates — I really, really loved. I formed very deep relationships with them. I thought that I was the only person who truly understood these albums.
More importantly, I learned from these albums. In the suburbs, at that time in my life, the people around me seemed more or less the same. But when you listened to albums, just as when you read books or watched movies, as I did, you discovered that there were actually many different kinds of people in the world. There weren't people in my suburb who were at all like the Talking Heads or Rickie Lee Jones or Patti Smith or Prince. Not even remotely — even though I would later learn that many of these very interesting people came from the suburbs too, which gave me hope. Records were a kind of invitation from the world. They said, if you venture out into the world, there's a chance you'll meet interesting people like the ones who make these albums, and have experiences like the ones they're describing in songs.
The albums were right. Those sulky Woolworth's girls, flipping their long blond hair to expose their ears to my troubled telephone calls, kept watch over the warren-like record department, the store's Pandora's box. What they let out — sex, anger, revelry, alienation, desire, disaffection, joy, all of the terrible and magnificent adult emotions you could cram onto two sides of a piece of vinyl — they weren't going to let back in. We can't give you your money back, they said. But give another listen. Stick it out a little bit longer.
÷ ÷ ÷
Peter Terzian has written for the New York Times, Slate, the Believer, Print, The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Bookforum, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Peter Terzian is the author of Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives