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My music tastes have been unpredictable since day one. Most toddlers are contented with the simple, cloying loops of Sesame Street numbers and nursery rhymes. But I only wanted to listen to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. “Louinella,” I’d say, an amalgamation of both their names, pointing to the stereo with as much conviction as a drunk person on their birthday requesting their jam from the DJ.
As I entered the formative years of developing music tastes, I sought guidance from the all-knowing goddesses in my life: my friend’s older sisters. They were teenagers. They could go to the mall by themselves. They drank diet sodas — the height of sophistication in my adolescent mind — and some of them even drank coffee. They all had the same handwriting: this bubbled, large scrawl that I could never for the life of me recreate. I wanted to absorb all their knowledge. One introduced me to Spice Girls and Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. From there, I found Jennifer Lopez, who I cited as the reason I wanted to become a singer in my second grade journal.
As I hit the later years of elementary school and then the world of middle school, where listening to the coolest music officially became a form of social currency, I did what I assume most people do: I adopted the tastes of my crushes.
Well, at the time, I didn’t think of them so much as my “crushes” but as my “best friends.” When you’re a closeted little queer girl, those terms are pretty much interchangeable. With Kelsey, I didn’t have to fake it completely. She liked the same music as me: Shakira, Missy Elliott, Xtina, Alicia Keys, Ciara, Usher. The summer before sixth grade, we were obsessed with the Disney Channel Original Movie Cheetah Girls, learning not just all the songs but the original choreography from the movie, too. We once spent a week in her attic choreographing a dance to “Whenever, Wherever” by Shakira, Kelsey attempting to get my stubborn hips to sway like hers. She preferred N*SYNC and Backstreet Boys to Britney and the A-Teens, but those were differences I accepted. Her parents weren’t as strict as mine, so they let her buy the explicit versions of CDs that we’d pop into her pink boombox. The only music I pretended to like along with Kelsey was that of Eminem.
Kelsey was my first friend breakup — a story for another time — and her absence from my life took a long time to fill. Any new best friends I made didn’t seem to be as understanding as Kelsey when it came to the fact that I only ever knew the clean, radio version of the hottest songs. When Kelsey left me behind to become one of the coolest girls at school, I felt decidedly uncool for the first time in my life. I tried to keep up with music trends, but I always felt just a couple steps behind. I also started getting serious about my future Broadway and/or glamorous Hollywood film career, which meant acting, singing, and dancing classes on the regular, which meant a newfound obsession with showtunes.
Then I met Summer. Summer was a junior counselor at the Christian summer camp I went to between sixth and seventh grade. She was only a few years older, but that was enough back then for me to declare anyone immediately wise, cool, and enviable: the Older Sister pedestal I had created in my mind all those years before. I laugh now when I think of how I would react to someone like Summer if I met them today: She was a white girl with thick red hair that she often adorned with flower crowns or backwards baseball caps, and she referred to herself unironically as a hippie. I thought she was hilarious, but in retrospect I think she was just loud.
Summer wore a different band shirt almost every day: Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Led Zeppelin. She told me she loved classic rock, and without hesitating, I said “me too.” When she asked me what my favorite band was, I said U2, because it was my dad’s favorite band. Summer thankfully didn’t drop me right then and there, instead gently recommending that I expand my horizons. Her favorite band was The Beatles.
In “Louder Than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom,” Jessica Hopper writes of transforming her 14-year-old self into a grunge devotee for the sake of a crush on a 14-year-old boy. She bought all the pertinent records, DIY’d a Nirvana shirt, even changed her look to match her new persona. As I read the essay in The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, I squirmed. It was all too familiar. Hopper opened a portal to the sticky desperation of obsessive teen love, and as I gazed into it, I remembered all the things I did because of Summer.
We weren’t even friends, really. She lived in a completely different part of the state, and when camp ended, all we exchanged were AIM screen names. Still, I was determined to stay in touch with her, to absorb her knowledge. I romanticized her life in my head. At least Hopper went to school with the boy she became a poser for: Summer and I were worlds apart, which only intensified the depths of my crush.
I messaged Summer a few times a week, often late at night when I would sneak into my mom’s home office while everyone else was asleep. I became a classic rock devotee, even though to this day I’m not sure I know how to define classic rock. I started listening to all the bands Summer had advertised on her wardrobe. I bought band shirts, too, finding them on the sales racks at T.J. Maxx, including one with the Rolling Stones logo emblazoned across it in gemstones. The Beatles became my favorite band. I got a box set of their full discography for Christmas. I started journaling in a notebook with a Yellow Submarine illustration on its cover. I started taking guitar lessons in addition to dance, singing, and acting.
I grew out my hair and started wearing long skirts and skinny jeans and beaded jewelry that I made myself. I tie-dyed shit. I denounced brands and started unironically referring to myself as a “hippie” and an “old soul.” I donned this mismatched and clumsy identity as if I were trying on a new outfit. Most devastatingly, I turned my back on the fierce and complex ladies of pop music who had always been there for me, trading them in for white dudes who I could not relate to on any level and who made music I had no interest in dancing to.
My new persona carried through to high school, but one person saw through it right away. Still determined to become a famous actress (although by this point, I also had decided I would be a powerful politician in Washington simultaneous with my thriving acting career), I was accepted into the musical theater program at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology. My new high school was 35 miles south of my neighborhood, so every morning and afternoon, I took an excruciating 90-minute-long bus route to and from school. I could write entire novels about the lives we lived on those bus rides. They’re as memorable and drama-filled as any other part of my high school experience. On a daily commute that long, you’re bound to make friends (and enemies, too), and the first one I made was Julien, a tall, striking visual arts student who wanted to work in fashion (unlike me, he went on to achieve his high school dreams).
Julien was the first openly gay friend I had. We sat together on the bus every day, rolling our eyes at the annoying boy Christian who loved to remind people that as a conservative, he was a minority at our arts school. He never explicitly said it, but Julien could tell I was faking. Sometimes I wonder if he could tell I had been faking more than just my Beatles-loving, aggressively alt lifestyle, if he could tell I also was faking my interest in Ben, the energetic and forgetful boy on our bus who seemed to wear the same pair of corduroys every day. Julien subtly told me to stop wearing all my unflattering, colorful hippie clothes. Sick of listening to The Beatles on repeat on the clunky iPod that rested between us, my ear buds split between us like string tying us together, he announced that he was making me a mixtape.
In sloppy, elongated letters, Julien wrote “Now That’s What I Call Scandalous, Volume 1” (two more volumes would eventually follow it) on the disc he handed me the next day. But now I think he should have written something more like “One Day, You Will Realize You Are Gay, And Your Attachment To This Mixtape Will Suddenly Make Sense.” Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Shiny Toy Guns, and Rilo Kiley were all prominently featured, musical influences he had picked up from his impossibly cool mother. But most importantly, it provided my first introduction to Sleater-Kinney.
For the first time in a long time, I fell in love with music again. Not the fake, forced love of my Summer-induced identity crisis. This was real. I saw the layers under the lyrics. I could relate. I wanted to dance. I wanted to scream. In her essay Hopper writes of eventually discovering Bikini Kill on the Kill Rock Stars compilation she initially bought to further conversation with her crush, but something changed. “Kathleen Hanna’s rebel yell posted the bail from my teen grunge prison,” she writes. “I had found music that meant everything to me.” For me, something similar happened when I first heard Corin Tucker’s booming, otherworldly voice, snapping me out of my daze. I had been listening absentmindedly to the music that I pretended to love on some deep, intellectual level. When Tucker sang, I listened for real. I didn’t just hear the music; I felt it.
I became a fan without changing who I was, my music diet gradually shifting back to women-fronted acts, white dudes nearly disappearing from my iPod entirely. My Beatles anthology discs gathered dust. Rolling Stones lyrics started leaking out of my brain, quickly forgotten. I gave my band shirts away (presently, the only band shirts I own are a Dixie Chicks one and one for the Alanis Morissette/Barenaked Ladies Au Naturale Tour, which are much more fitting). My hair had grown so long that it was giving me headaches, so I chopped it into a long bob, shedding a superfluous part of myself.
Newly baptized by Julien’s mixtape, I felt music reverberate within me as it had in the years before my classic rock persona hijacked my life, when music was inextricably tied up in specific memories, feelings, senses. To this day, I still can’t listen to Shakira without thinking about Kelsey, about the way her attic smelled like brand new carpeting and the touch of the warm sun filtering through its small window. When I listen to Sleater-Kinney, I’m often hit with the leathery smell of a school bus. Seeking out more Sleater-Kinney on my own, and eventually finding Dig Me Out, which remains one of my favorite albums of all time, felt as natural as the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald portmanteau spilling out of my mouth when I had only just learned to talk. I wasn’t doing this for anyone else. I was doing it for me.
Though they exist in an entirely different genre, Sleater-Kinney opened the door for me to bring Britney and Christina and Jennifer and Missy back into my life. I went back to the music I loved unconditionally, to the music that made me feel like me. Bus rides to and from school were scored by a turbulent playlist of showtunes, mid-aughts Top 40 hits, riot grrrl punk, female rappers—and the occasional “Louinella” when I wanted to feel totally centered.
(Mortified by how good of a poser I was, it took me years to acknowledge the depths of my deception. But inauthenticity and intense earnestness are paradoxical, universal truths of teenagedom. Haven’t we all faked something in the name of soul-crushing, irrational love?)
My classic rock makeover attempted to distill my music tastes. “My name is Kayla, and I love classic rock.” It’s so simple and straightforward and succinct and… uncomplicated. I wanted to be easily defined, neatly packaged. Because underneath it all, I couldn’t even parse out my own wants and desires, my feelings for girls that were more confusing than they were illuminating. I allowed myself to be reduced. But I contain multitudes, and my music tastes do, too. Bubbly, optimistic pop goes unexpectedly well with punchy, complex riot grrrl rage. These different sounds fused the contradictions of girlhood for me, speaking to my young feminist, fuck-you attitude and my itching desire to be loved and easy-going and spontaneous. Embracing the depth and breadth of my musical interests eventually helped me embrace the depth and breadth of who I am.