Gen-X Teen Alone in the Wild World
How this 80s and 90s Music Soundtrack Made Sense of it All
The year was 1987, my excitement could easily be seen by anyone who cared to notice that I was officially, at least in my mind, grown-up; a 'teen-ager' at last. Teen years are when childish innocence seems to be naturally abandoned for more important things such as social interactions and a budding awareness of more than the personal space around one's self. These years are when one becomes aware of the world and the inconsistencies with all the innocent and simple rules children learn; be nice to others and always - always treat others as you'd like to be treated - "The Golden Rule".
My innocence ended in 1987 when I entered my teenage years and became acutely aware that many if not most the adults around me and the world in general did not practice that most simple of rules taught to all children, but rather there were more complex social norms that existed in this new grown-up world that I was transitioning into. I believe the angst and confusion that exists within teens stems from that one simple disappointment, that adults are contradicting and hypocritical in their actions compared to the things they teach and expect out of children and youth; at least that was how I felt once I was in my teens and rebelling against an adult world that I blamed for ruining my youthful innocence while at the same time not living up to the expectations that were placed on me and all kids.
I found in music, nothing better at describing and reinforcing how I felt about my confusion with the world I was growing up into. The digital age did not yet exist for those of us in Gen-X and just like many I found myself a slave to the radio with blank cassette tapes inserted just waiting for those favorite songs that moved me to come on so I could capture it for my replaying pleasure when ever I wanted; always cursing the DJ when they talked too long and it bled into the song's beginning making it a shitty dub. In 1983 CD's began hitting the music industry and by the time I was well into my teens the cassette tape went the way of the Dodo; making music more readily available and eliminating the days of waiting to hear your favorite songs on America's Top 40, if they were played there at all. I had a very diverse and eclectic taste in music for someone from my generation so the songs I raged to mostly were not played on normal radio.
A child of divorce most of my teen years were spent with time split between my father in the city and my mother in the rural country. These experiences greatly shaped the music I rebelled to as well as it's diversity of genres. When I was with my father I became a product of the city with exposure to punk, rock, and rap; however, when I was with my mother I was exposed to the likes of Dylan, The Beatles, Classic Rock, and Outlaw Country. Needless to say I was just as confused by my diversity in music and who do identify with as what my identity in the world was, as well as who and what was worth believing in.
The following music spans my teen years from 1987 to 1993 making this the soundtrack for the spot in time where I learned about the world and who I was in it. Some of these songs predate my teen years but it wasn't until I was a teen and either introduced to them by others or discovered them on CD myself, that I heard them and was moved by their power; leaving a permanent impression on my life.
First up gets right to the core of my confusion with the world in XTC's song "Dear God". I found myself believing in non-belief, growing up and witnessing many atrocities committed by daycare members who were church affiliated. At five-years old I witnessed my sisters forced to sit on couches and pee their pants because they were told they were being ungodly. At the same age or a year older, I experienced another day care provider, who also were foster parents, chastise me for saying the word penis when I ran down from their upstairs to inform them that one of their older foster kids was making very young daycare kids touch his penis. They were more upset with me for saying that word, and actually thought I was lying about the whole incident. They kicked me outside of the house until my mother arrived, but until then I turned on their garden hose and stuck it in their flower beds making them a sloppy muddy mess, of which I made into nice mud-balls and threw up against their bright white house. My mother was informed that evening to never bring my two younger sisters or me back there ever again because I was the devil; our mother was pissed at me. She needed the cheap daycare to finish her schooling to better support us as a single mother; however, I couldn't let us be subject to that torture. Needless to say by the time I reached my teen years this song by XTC really spoke to me and rang true.
Next up is a band that became my favorite throughout my early teen years with many powerful hit songs that covered social issues. The vocals of Bono and the guitar riffs from the Edge were very powerful for me and I loved just about any song from U2, but none more than "Pride". As a young 4th grader it was my turn to live with my mother for the year and she remarried a man who's family was from Alabama. I went to a rural school with only four black kids, one named Cory with whom I made friends with. We would like to hang out after school, the first few times were at his house, I really though it be cool to invite him to our farm so he could be introduced to our horses, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, and rabbits; as his family lived in a subdivision these things were all foreign to him. Unfortunately I learned upon the day I brought him home that racism exists and adults use the color of one's skin to judge them and discriminate. I was told he needed to leave because he was black. I felt so much adult-sized shame when I had to face Cory and his parents after that incident. This may be one of the biggest events in my young life that shaped me into a critical thinker and always question authoritarian adults. This moved me to fall in love with the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. as I grew older in school. Ultimately in my eighth grade year, I did a presentation to my entire school on the life, beliefs, and dreams of equality King had for all people. Researching my encyclopedias for all the information I could find on Dr. King (the internet and Google didn't exist) I came across U2's song Pride. I immediately fell in love with it for the powerful message they sang. I felt very out of place as a young white boy that felt very strongly, at least inside myself, that the unfair treatment of black people was an embarrassment and tragedy; especially with relatives who were both covertly and overtly racist. It's still one of my all-time favorites until this very day.
Fueled by my disappointment with how contradicting and unfair the adult world seemed to be when it came to honesty and equality I found myself immersed in the punk-world of skateboarding and was introduced to the like of the Sex Pistols, who really put my angst and rebellion into overdrive. The adult world didn't understand our passion for boarding and skate-ragz clothing so they deemed the sub-culture a threat to society. I loved the noise and nonsense created by the Sex Pistol's sound, it was anarchy in a can and they opened it for every song they played but none more for me than Anarchy in the UK. The leading lyrics of being an anti-Christ only reinforced my disgust with the church and then followed with I'm and anarchist in conjunction with the punk riffs sealed the deal for me and I was feeling their words every day when I thought of the grown-up world and my displeasure with it. Skating the streets fast and hard while thrashing the establishment felt very cool to do at the time especially with the pistols jamming on the boom-box or in the discman.
While rebelling against the entire system and feeling too cool for the rules of adults or their adult-sized expectations that I witnessed they themselves not living up to, I was introduced to the Rap/ Rock trio of The Beastie Boys and their song, "You Have to Fight for Your Right to Party" Being a relatively young teenager, but a mature enough young man in my own mind I decided at an adult fourth of July party to empty cans of soda only to go to the beer tap and refill them with beer then my buddies and I would wander shallowly into the woods and chug the beers with no idea of what was going to be the outcome of doing this repeatedly; my estimate is six beers at Thirteen to Fourteen years old. This was all motivated by an amped up session of the Beastie Boys before we unleashed ourselves into the world of drinking. We definitely fought for our right to party that night and earned the sever amount of sickness and hang-over that followed. I was throwing up from my mother's backseat with the door open directly onto the rapidly passing pavement. This following song by the Beastie Boys will forever live in infamy in my youthful right of passage from sober to drunk
I found during my teenage years that my parents were vacant in their mentorship or were just taking a really hands off approach, whatever the ultimate reasons for it were, I became heavily influenced by the older siblings of the friends I hung out with. Once such influence was an older brother of a neighbor friend that was always listening to classic rock as he was a good ten years older than us. One day while visiting my friend I overheard some music that really quietly moved me, to which I sheepishly asked, "who is that you're listening too?" "Aerosmith" my friend's brother replied. I was hooked by their hard bluesy waling on the guitar matched with Steven Tyler's new and improved version of Mick Jager's style. This was the day my world opened to classic rock and the hard hitting riffs that stirred me emotionally more than the words. The ambient sound was very powerful and made me feel invincible to the world. Dream on had me feeling like a clairvoyant gypsy and looking into the future with mystery.
Growing up in Southeastern Wisconsin gave me a front row to this next band and I spent many nights as a teen listening to their CD on repeat as I would fall to sleep. I loved their strange and almost nonsensical lyrics that all seemed to be coming from some deeply rooted pain; to which I could relate to as I felt the same deep pain and frustration as a kid that was bounced around from house to house and parent to parent; never really feeling a sense of safety or security. The anxiousness created in my from my nomadic existence as a teen really connected with The Violent Femmes and their song "Blister in the Sun". I was too young to really understand the lyrics fully, but having a father addicted to drugs and alcohol I wasn't completely unaware of the song's lyrics eluding to drug use and being strung out. I really felt more like the blister that was over-exposed to the sun and just ready to explode.
Attention and affection from another person can really change the emotional state of a person, between the ages of fourteen and fifteen I had my first serious girlfriend and I was introduced to the softer side of music and life. If felt good to think about something and someone else in a positive way which led me to really enjoy the Outfield and all of their songs off of the album, Play Deep. However, one song in particular really was my favorite, due to the fact my girlfriend and I would slow-dance to it during school socials. The song was "All the Love in the World", which also turned into the torturous song I had to listen to on repeat after we broke up; silly how kids believe that first relationship will never end.
The first real experience of heartache changed my taste in music as I prepared to enter high school. I no longer wanted to feel any self sorrow from the events or conditions of my life so I turned to REM and felt moved by the greater social issues they based their songs on, allowing me to not feel so introspective anymore; which usually led to sadness and frustration. In their song Orange Crush I found a sense of powerful wonderment from the lyrics and power of the instruments during the chorus. This is the song that peaked my curiosity and determination to explore the world. I wanted to see and know of the horrors we committed around the world.
I finally found a sense of normalcy if not security once I entered high school, with the decision to live with my mother for the rest of my teen school years. This would have a profound impact on the type of music I would begin listening to as well as lead to my experimenting with cannabis and drinking alcohol at house parties out in the country. My next inter-generational music influence after Aerosmith, was the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While the rest of my generation was falling down over The New Kids on the Block and pop-rock music, I was getting into trippy music from the past. My favorite song to sit in my room and listen to while I contemplate how much I wanted to be somewhere fun was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
The high school class boredom and strange days that followed completely changed my taste in music. I had no interest in listening to the current popular chart topping songs anymore. I wanted to listen to things that I believed had a deeper meaning and really addressed peoples feelings as they related to social issues. I never was an amazing student in school; however, I always had big thoughts that seemed to be pacified or at least addressed by the big meanings I found in the music I now gravitated to.
My mother being a huge Bob Dylan Fan had a big influence on my taking to his music. I fell in love with his entire Highway 61 Revisited Album and considered it to be a sort of an Adult adaptation of Dr. Seuss in song. My favorite amongst an album of favorites was the song after the Album's namesake, Highway 61 Revisited. I loved the clever imagination of his lyrics that seemed to make a good time out of the confusion in the world and inside my mind.
The security of living with one parent seemed to help settle down the natural angst that teens feel and as the prospect of college loomed in my future and high school boredom was coming to an end. Grunge music hit the scene and It seemed to be the exact music my soul was dying to feel. With so many great bands hailing from Seattle during the first years of the 90s, it is almost impossible to pick just one band and just one of their songs that should make it on to the soundtrack of my youth.
I absolutely loved Pearl Jams album 10; however, my first experiences with Grunge came from the likes of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. To put an exclamation point on my teen years would be these amazing bands and songs hitting the scene that were so powerful and were nothing like the classic rock of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. They contained personal aggression but powerfully socially relatable lyrics as well. The Grunge sound just seemed to sum up the exact feeling and put a sound definition to teenage angst.
Chris Cornell's sound blew me away in Rusty Cage and it was my favorite song until Pearl Jam hit the scene. The two bands collaboration on Temple of the Dog is another great album that has a place on this soundtrack as well. These songs shaped the end of my teenage years and helped me grow into college and adulthood because they made me realize that their are other people out their thinking and feeling just like me, and they just put those thoughts and feelings into music.
Turning some of Cornell's rage down a bit the song Hunger Strike that is a compilation of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam just as Eddie Vedder became the lead singer of the PJ was on loop many nights during my dock job at the local department store. The feelings REM stirred up inside me during my earlier teen years was reignited and set ablaze with this song. I would shortly leave Wisconsin for college and never again look back to that small place in the world that I came from. This song helped me to understand that inequality existed in the world and my problems were nothing in comparison.
I don't think a member of Generation X can truly describe teen angst or put a soundtrack to the feelings behind the phenomenon without referring to and including the song "Jeremy" from Pearl Jam. This is the ultimate in songs inspired by teen angst, not to mention they are one of the greatest bands to be born the X-generation, and can arguably be considered amongst the best of all-time.
There are so many more bands and songs that filled in the gaps of my teen years that helped shape the teen I was and ultimately the man I have become. Each one of those bands and songs at a moment in time moved me, even if it didn't ultimately make the soundtrack of songs that still to this day resonate inside of my spine and move me to think more deeply about life, myself, the world, and our place in it. The angst never leaves, it just matures.