Summer of X
My father played a particular Dwight Yoakam cassette on repeat in his pickup truck to such an extent that for a while my little sister thought it was simply the sound of the truck itself. For my part, I was unaware for quite some time that our mother’s minivan could access any radio station other than GT-108. Their tagline was “good times, great oldies” and what exactly made an oldie an oldie was a great perplexity of a childhood full of them. I understood that oldies were what had been on the radio when my parents were growing up, and I understood that they hadn’t been called oldies back then, and that was the extent of my comprehension. Oldies hadn’t always been oldies because they hadn’t always been old, but they weren’t oldies just because they were old; some music was even older (Beethoven, Mozart, “Jingle Bells” — old as Christmas itself, I assumed) but it wasn’t oldies, but some of it was “classical,” but “classical” was not the same as “classic rock” (which my father occasionally blew my mind by changing the station to when he drove the van), but classic rock was also old-but-not-oldies even though KZ-106 played half the same songs as GT-108. I was a kid, I was more than familiar with the concept of “not being old enough,” but what made something old enough for one station and not the other was as mysterious to me as why some girls had their ears pierced since Kindergarten but I had to wait until third grade. And what about new music, which I knew existed despite not knowing how to find it on the radio — when would that be old enough to be oldies? Trick question! A true child of the late 20th century, I believed that everything that happened before my lifetime had been a practice run for the perfect present moment. The music of my childhood, whatever it was (I had no idea), would never become oldies. It would never become old. It was simply music, the music that music had always meant to be.
I can see now that the existence of a radio station in the mid-1990s playing hits from the 50s and 60s, and in turn my fixation on it, was part of a particular cultural moment: The Wonder Years was just off the air, the mud from Woodstock 94 was still wet, the Big Chill soundtrack and the Forest Gump soundtrack were the foundations of a certain kind of nascent CD collection. The target audience was Baby Boomers, who were settling down and having kids or at least feeling the creeping crush of middle age, but the nostalgia was so potent I spent a not-small amount of my childhood feeling deeply wistful on behalf of every middle-aged person in America, my parents in particular. Sometimes a song would come on GT-108 and my mom would say, “Oh, I loved this one,” and she would turn up the volume and I would listen closely for what she might have heard and try to love it in the past tense too. And then sometimes a song would come on and she would say, in just the same way, kind of dreamily, “Oh, I hated this one.” But she wouldn’t change the station, she might even turn it up — she seemed to enjoy it. Baffling! Here was a grownup with all the power in the world at her fingertips, or at least the radio dial. Why would she keep listening to a song she used to hate? I didn’t get it. I was — horror of horrors — not old enough.
Now it seems that I am. The music I once thought all music was meant to be turned out to be as wonderful and goofy as anything else. There are songs I used to loathe — songs that plagued me in their rotations on Star 98 and 96.5 The Mountain, the Chattanooga pop and alt-rock stations I moved on to from GT-108, once I learned how to work a radio dial — that I’m happier to hear now than songs I used to actually like. Not “Patches,” I can’t imagine I will ever be happy to hear “Patches.” But some songs so precisely summon a time and a place and a feeling that I am charmed by their reappearance.
I thought about all of this a lot this summer as I drove around town listening to the radio with a baby in my backseat. I say “driving” but only about half our time in the car was actually spent in motion; the other half was spent idling in the driveway while the baby finished one of her trademark thirty-minute naps, which inevitably commenced on the way back from whatever air-conditioned-but-not-our-house locale we’d gone out to visit. On a few beautiful occasions, I sat in silence and read the book I’d had the foresight to bring along, but mostly I just zoned out and listened to 99x, the local alt-rock station from the 90s and early 2000s that relaunched this year. By the time I was living and driving around Atlanta I was firmly in my iPod era, so I have no memory of the station’s original incarnation, which went off the air in 2008. But something about its return this year has felt very personal. I feel like a target audience, and therefore like a sucker for being so into it, but also: My back hurts! My knees make weird noises! The middle school fashions I never figured out how to pull off are back at Target! I’ve been simmering in secondhand middle-aged nostalgia all my life! Let me have this!!!
So I sit there, a geriatric millennial mom nap-trapped in my driveway, and they play Beck and Dead Milkmen and Spacehog, and I say, “Oh, I loved this one,” and they play Linkin Park and Alien Ant Farm and The Offspring and I say, “Oh, I hated this one!” Like everything, I wonder what the baby will make of it. Maybe 99x will be her GT-108: a sonic portal into her mother’s mysterious youth, a weird pillar of her own. Maybe she’ll fixate on the phrase “alt-rock” to the point that she has no choice but to become a music journalist and only when she burns out hard will she have any hope of loving music the way she did when she was a kid. Maybe the station will disappear again before she’s old enough to care. For now she just snores away, oblivious, until she wakes up blinking and bemused, unsure who or what she is and how the hell she got here.
Thanks for reading Vanitas, a newsletter about life, death, and other dumb stuff. If you’d like, follow me on Instagram: @by_rachaelmaddux.