I never even thought to change the radio station. Not once. No, for the whole of my childhood — and I mean, the Long Childhood (0–20) — the radios in my parents’ cars were tuned to either 88.5 or 90.5. Only.
If you’re from central Connecticut, like me, you’ll know those are the two NPR FMs. It’s not that I wasn’t aware that there were other numbers. I knew that. KISS 95.7 (iHeartRadio) implicitly DJed every middle school dance, and in carpools, 96.5 TIC-FM blasted from minivan speakers whenever show tunes didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I was too quick to accept authority. But I think the real reason I was never so brazen as to reach out and spin the dial away from Colin McEnroe, Kai Ryssdal and Lakshmi Singh was that it never bothered me that I didn’t know even the top four out of 40, or the name of the song about the apple-bottom jeans, or — honestly — who Eminem was, until, like, 7th grade. Instead of encoding those useful pieces of information, the ones with real-world applicability for both my 7- and 17-year-old selves, I was absorbing this: WEDW Stanford/Greenwich, WRLI Southampton, WPKT Meriden, WECS Willimantic and WNPR and wnpr.org (which is the sign off of every Connecticut NPR program, a piece of trivia that I have copied here from memory).
This, however, does not make me special, or cool (in some countercultural twist of logic), but I share my atypical experience because it’s what I was thinking about last Friday, after a lovely car ride back from Costco with my new buttery co-manager. I was getting to know much more about him, about specifically his taste in music. The child of immigrants, he listened his way to a musical education almost exclusively through top pop hits stations, and today, he’s still a die-hard American Idol fan, albeit a very self-aware one. That all made me think: Huh, well when I wasn’t repeating the public radio call signs in my head, I had “Yellow Submarine,” or “If I Had a Million Dollars” or “Tomorrow” (from “Annie”) stuck in it. My music taste grew up through the rocky New England soil that was my parents’ CD collection — classic jazz, The Beatles, Van Morrison, a handful of musicals (thanks, Mom) and several other white male artists (thanks, Dad). After that car ride, for the rest of that afternoon, actually, I did something that I — and I would guess many other Yalies — do not often do, which is feel thankful for being me.
I often compare myself unfavorably to my peers, to people who right now are probably eating brunch in Morse or still sleeping in the Elmhurst or already studying in Bass. We obviously all know this is easy to do in this big pond full of top dogs. But when you get beyond GPA, talent, social status — or at least when I do — you begin to realize that there’s a lot more to compare.
Like, what kind of music do I like and know, and how did I come to like and know it?
Or: How does my memory work? Long-term, short-term? Trivial, weighty? What did my brain latch onto as a little kid? Doesn’t it feel a little special to know that I may be the only one who can verbatim recite the NPR stations from my home state?
Or: How did my family shape me, for better or worse? Did my little brother have the same experience of music then, too? Did he ever feel self-conscious about not being up on the Billboard Hot 100? Do he and I have a special bond because of public radio and the Rolling Stones and the Barenaked Ladies and Ray Charles?
I like everything except country, but I know that’s just because I haven’t listened to enough of it. Most everything that my parents didn’t introduce to me was a gift from my close friends (everything from the Jonas Brothers to the New Pornographers, I credit to them). I remember almost exclusively trivial sorts of information, and I remember the negative moments of life more often, but it is the positive ones that actually transport me to another time and place. For example: sitting in a car seat in the back of a white Volvo, rocking out to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and sharing a Hershey’s Cookies ‘N’ Cream candy bar with Henry, my little brother. It was probably 2002, and definitely summer, which would make me six and him four. It was hot and melty and happy and loud. And it’s that specific melty-loud-hot happiness that I feel when my phone is on shuffle and I turn up the volume, because whenever I hear that song, I think, “Damn right, I’m the weirdo whose favorite childhood album is the original Shrek soundtrack,” because:
“Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me,
I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed … ”