Lenny Kravitz – “Again”

When: 15 December 2001
Where: My Dad’s car
Who: My Dad
Weather: Cold

I don’t remember where we were going, but we were headed east. The song came on, and it reminded me of the girl I ever had a crush on.

Mind you, that crush was still going on after more than two years, and seemingly impossible to stop, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. For all it’s pomp and seeming prestige, Wilson Middle School was a disaster area. Serious ass-kicking and vandalism were rampant. A janitor repeatedly picked on me. Worst of all, I kept being confused for a guy named Tyler, who apparently looked just like me and was in constant danger of being expelled. No matter how many times I showed my ID to the security guards, they refused to believe I wasn’t him and was sent to the Principal’s, who understandingly cleared me. Then I’d catch the eye of the guard and the beautiful cycle began again. Tyler and I met exactly once, and neither of us thought we looked anything alike.*

Why was this good news? My best friend Bryce was getting the hell out next semester, and if he could do it so could I. I knew people who went to High Point academy up on the hill, but my Mom was shooting for Barnhart in Arcadia, which I’d never heard of. Then someone told me that that inescapable redhead went there, and I made it my mission to get in.

So what can we say about 2001? The music definitely says something about when I heard it: a bland, unconfident period followed by the utmost terror. They say if you don’t like what people are saying about you, change the subject. Well, if you don’t like what you hear on the radio, change the station. 2002 Awaits!

*Tyler was blond and blue-eyed but otherwise looked like me, I think, but it’s hard to remember when you’ve only seen them once.

Let me call my good friend Lenny Kravitz. He's only half-urban!

Next: Background Music picks up again December 1; in the meantime I’ll post some other stories on a slightly less frequent basis.

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Usher – “U Got It Bad”

When: December 2001
Where: Parking lot, Smiser Scout Center
Who: My mom
Weather: Cool, clear

What a phenomenally depressing song! What few deciduous trees we had were losing their leaves, it was the big three-month anniversary of 9/11, less sunlight, colder, and this song to go along with it all! My connection to this song was never close, I’d been listening to KIIS-FM for a year and a half and I was starting to get tired of hearing the same songs over and over every hour.

Next: Lenny Kravitz and the things we fight for.

J. Lo – “I’m Real (Murder remix feat. Ja Rule)”

When: November 2001
Where: Somewhere in Monterey Park
Who: My Bubby
Weather: Cool, overcast

This was at the peak of Jennifer Lopez’s career. She started as a dancer on In Living Color, and now she was singing, and acting, and nobody really cared but she was getting by on her ass. So like Icarus, she flew too close to the sun by thinking she could refer to “[her] niggers” in a song, because she’s Puerto Rican, right?

The movie Gigli saved us a lot of trouble.

Next: Toni Braxton before Greendale

OutKast – “Ms. Jackson”

When: October 2001
Where: Del Mar Boulevard
Who: My mother
Weather: Cold, overcast

Rick Dees gets mad at a caller because she said “shit” on the radio as my mother pulls over to drop me off. I want to stop so I can finish listening to this song, but she has to go to work and pushes me out.

Next: Since when does Jennifer Lopez have N-word privileges?

U2 – “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”

My dad woke me up with a strange question: “You know the World Trade Center?”

I creakily replied yes. “It’s on fire.”

I rush out of bed and spend an hour in front of the TV. My mom was already gone, but she kept calling back. The Pentagon, Pennsylvania, then they were gone. The fact that America’s 2nd and 3rd tallest buildings, which had long replaced the Empire State Building as media shorthand for “New York,” just weren’t there. She worried that maybe I shouldn’t go to school. So many questions.

My Dad took me to middle school this one time; we were listening to NPR– a booming voice was calling out, slightly garbled, “We will topple your cities, destroy your churches and slaughter your children.” I get out, and the rest of the day was spent talking about what was going on. It was the second day of school.

My main teacher (and future political football), Ms. Jaeger, tried to keep us calm by playing some music. She seemed to have brought a mix CD, I don’t know why or when she prepared it, but this was the one song I remembered. The whole day was spent wondering: Who did this? They hit the Statue of Liberty? Where is the fifth plane? We kept waiting for a fifth plane to hit, the assumption that there was such a thing went hand in hand with the assumption that this would keep happening every day, and maybe they would start hitting schools. This was how we were going to live now.

On the way home I picked up one of those American flags for our car window.

“Why they hate us” never came into the picture. The first time I heard that question was on CNN, because from our perspective it didn’t matter. And if it happened now, it still wouldn’t.

Next: America’s musical depression gets worse, but the result isn’t all bad.

Blu Cantrell – “Hit ‘Em Up Style”

When: 1 September 2001
Where: Wilson Middle School
Who: My mother
Weather: Hot, dry

At a certain point developing this playlist, I realized a problem: I only had songs that I liked, or at least tolerated. The whole point of this project was to evoke an emotional connection to days past, to relive, almost like an index in the back of a book. And I realized I couldn’t do that if I didn’t include clear memories of songs I completely and absolutely hated. Not just the sound of her voice, but the mean-spiritedness of the lyrics. So I added it. And it made the playlist better.

At the time I tolerated “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” but it wore on me after hearing it for the first time. The second time we were here, pulling up to my fancy new middle school, a baccalaureate program! School didn’t start for nine more days; we were here to get my textbooks. It was hot in there, schools in Pasadena didn’t have air conditioning. We got in and got out, and it was only a matter of time before we had to hear Blu again.

Next: A day in the life, our sense of purpose, and the solemn descent into the darkness of the 2000s.