Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”

When: Early January 2002
Where: My father’s car on East Colorado, in view of the under-construction Sierra Madre Villa Station.
Who: My father
Weather: Cold, partly cloudy

Come one, come all, and join me for the year 2002! Since Christmas break, I had gotten into Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings films had started coming out, and I wanted to appreciate the films more. While Tolkien’s world is vivid and detailed, and the internal logic of his world barely leaves a thread hanging, his actual style of writing is dry, long-winded, and confusing.

His academic approach adds to the problem I (and many people, especially men) have with fiction: it’s hard to get a feel for that world, especially when every character has a different name in every language. Only when I started reading books about Tolkien– dictionaries, atlases, primers on classical mythology– did the original work become easier to understand. After that I read everything he wrote.

I can’t remember what it was like to watch The Fellowship of the Ring without the literary background as it’s impossible for humans to remember being unaware, but I was hooked. I’d nearly gotten through The Hobbit when this song came on the air.

I was soon to apply for private schools, and this song reminded me of yet another sense of unawareness: I couldn’t imagine a world in which I wouldn’t get in. My mother warned me, “In all likelihood you’ll be staying at Wilson,” and while I could envision such a scenario, I couldn’t picture what two more years at that hellhole would be like.

My January would be impossibly busy as school wove in and out with this other, singular determination weighing over me. It would be a cold day in hell before I let some prep-punks stop me from getting what I wanted.

Next: Some prep-punks stop me from getting what I want.

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.

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?

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.

Alicia Keys – “Fallin'”

When: August 2001
Where: My mom’s car
Who: My mom
Weather: Hot, dry

Halfway through the year, Top 40 radio became really depressing with no discernible reason. Was it the dot com bubble? The army switching to a new type of headgear? Seldom had so little happened as that month. But the radio, sure as anything, delved deeper and darker. Sometimes that was good, sometimes not. But nothing in my experience can explain this sudden onset of self-pity expressed in this and other songs to come.

Next: It wouldn’t be an autobiographical playlist if it didn’t have something you absolutely hated.

Dido – “Thank You”

When: June 2001, before dawn
Where: The TV Room
Who: My dad
Weather: Clear

I couldn’t sleep. I was up before dawn every day before dawn getting ready to graduate from Elementary school. On this day, that was perfectly fine, because I had to get ready for a hike. Not up a mountain or anything, just around Pasadena, which is a long, oddly shaped and fairly hilly city anyway.

I was listening and this song came on. Wasn’t the first time, except now it was a sample for a rap song. Several iterations followed throughout the week. At one point, I was carrying a boombox, my leg hit the power button, and this song blasted out of it. It also featured heavily on King of the Hill. For a while it didn’t seem like I could get away from it, but I did….

…Another song took its place.

¡Que generico!

Next: An unexpectedly meaningful ending to elementary school

Aerosmith – “Jaded”

When: May 2001
Where: Parking lot, Pasadena High School
Who: My mother
Weather: Warm, clear

“Looking back on it, could there possibly have been a confusing acronym for trying to stop kids from experimenting with drugs than DARE? ‘Kids, we’re here today to DARE you not to do drugs! We DARE you to accept our DARE!’

‘Officer, does that mean you want us not to do drugs, or to do drugs?'”

–Mike Birbiglia

I was really into DARE. I mean it. I believed in the program, and after a while I seemed to be the only one. (In the 9th grade Max Brown was shocked to discover that I’d never smoked pot). But in the fifth grade it was perfectly acceptable and we were invited to DARE graduation for the whole school district at PHS. It was not as formal as I’d anticipated, we never went on stage and it was really just a pep rally.

When we pulled into the parking lot, this new song by Aerosmith came on. I got my mom to keep me from getting out of the car until it was finished. It was not my finest moment song-wise. And as it was a DARE rally, it was not my finest moment life-wise.

This man is never not right. I dare you to doubt me.

Next: Dido takes over your boombox and it’s not so bad, it’s not so bad.