Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Lost Decade

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Judy and I went to see the new Charlize Theron movie, Young Adult. Early in the film, there’s a scene where Charlize pops a cassette into the car stereo and starts singing along to a plaintive indie-rock song. I’d never heard the tune before, and I figured the filmmakers had saved some money by finding an obscure song and sticking it on the soundtrack. Later, I noticed another song that I wasn’t familiar with. Then another, and another. No big deal; I didn’t think about it much. But when Judy and I were leaving the theater, she turned to me and said, “Wasn’t that great music? It was like a soundtrack to the ’90s. I hadn’t heard those songs in years!” Then it dawned on me: Those weren’t obscure songs; they were just ones that I’d never heard before—not a single one of them*. And then I realized why: They were from my Lost Decade.

It wasn’t that I fell into a coma in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was just that, for about ten years, I didn’t listen to FM radio or watch TV. My media blackout was partly intentional, and partly by accident. I had just moved into a tiny cottage after parting ways with a roommate who'd watched TV every waking moment. She’d been a good roommate, but I was tired of the constant barrage of laugh tracks and ads. So I decided to not bring a TV into my new house. And after my beloved ’67 Cougar caught on fire one too many times, my dad persuaded me to trade it in for a (safer) Pontiac that had only an AM radio—no FM and no cassette player. At the time, I had no idea that I was about to miss out on an entire decade of pop culture. And if I’d known, I wouldn’t have minded, and not just because I’d be spared having to listen to Guns N’ Roses. No, it wouldn’t have bothered me because I was about to discover two things that filled the cultural void: radio shows and big-band music. Unknowingly, I’d transported myself back to the 1940s.

Not having a television turned out to be a rocky adjustment. I spent the first few weeks of my TV-free life in a restless, disoriented funk, constantly glancing at the clock—I hadn’t realized how much my evenings had been tethered to the TV schedule. Eventually I decided it was okay to have some noise in the house a couple of evenings a week, so I turned on the radio. At first, I couldn’t fathom A Prairie Home Companion—why in the world was this corny, catatonic show so popular? But I warmed up to it eventually—maybe my brain cells just had to tune themselves to its quiet humor—and PHC became a Saturday-night staple in my little house. Then one night I found a station that played radio shows from the 1940s, like Jack Benny and The Life of Riley and Lights Out (“It…is…later…than…you…think”). Before long, I was hooked, and Mortimer Snerd from Charlie McCarthy was my hero (“When they was handin’ out ignorance, I musta got two scoops!”). Radio shows were enjoying a little renaissance right then, and even NPR got in the act with reruns of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a refurbished Doc Savage (“with Johnny Littlejohn, the fighting archaeologist, and Renny Renwick, the two-fisted engineer!”).

Meanwhile, without much to listen to in the car, I kept running across a local blue-hair station called Magic 61 that played music from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—basically, anything pre-rock, from Benny Goodman to Brenda Lee. At first, this seemed corny, too—I laughed at Perry Como gliding his way through “Papa Loves Mambo” and “Round and Round.” But there was a lot that I admired, like Hoagy Carmichael doing “Ole Buttermilk Sky” and anything by Glenn Miller, Dinah Washington, or the Mills Brothers. Magic 61 kept drawing me back, like a strange food that left a good aftertaste. And before long, I was addicted to that too, and found I was learning a storehouse of great songs like “Stardust” and “Mountain Greenery” and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” full of more poetry and puns than any of the rock music I grew up with. I was even starting to like Perry Como**.

I loved all the old radio stuff so much that I wasn’t even aware of what songs were popular at the time—I completely missed grunge, and George Michael, and Janet Jackson. So if I had to make a playlist of songs from the ’90s now, I’d be up a creek. But if you need to know the lyrics to “Up a Lazy River,” I’m your gal. I can even put a little Mills Brothers swing on it. So far, it’s been a pretty good trade.

* The song she sang to in the car: “The Concept,” by Teenage Fanclub. Never heard of it, or the band. I had to look it up.

**  “Round and Round” is now one of my favorite hiking songs: “Find a ring…and put it round, round, round / and with ties…so…strong that two hearts are bound...”

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