The Soundtrack of Our Lives

It’s become a common enough experience in my life that I notice it: something notable happens regarding a particular musical artist whose stardom arrived during my younger years (sadly, it’s often a death, but not always), and as discussion about that particular artist revs up, a phrase gets used a lot: “the soundtrack of our lives”. This is used to describe either the ubiquity of that artist’s music, or the degree to which that artist’s work shaped the music we heard on a daily basis.

What I’ve also noticed is how frequently the artist in question was not a major part of my youthful music life.

An example: Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things is now in its fourth season, which was released a few weeks ago. One episode features a song by Kate Bush in a major way (the song actually figures into the plot, as well as making a major appearance on the soundtrack). The song is “Running Up That Hill”. As people watched through the episodes, social media started to explode with people my age (or maybe a bit younger, or maybe a bit older) reacting with delight at the re-emergence of that song into collective musical consciousness, thirty-seven years after its release. Kate Bush and “Running Up That Hill” were part of “the soundtrack of our lives”.

Only…for me, it wasn’t. I can honestly say that my first full hearing of that song might well have come just a few days before we watched the Stranger Things episode, because I looked it up online out of curiosity. (It’s a good song, by the way.)

This morning, I read a new post by John Scalzi, who has been writing a series of posts exploring specific songs and what they have meant to him at various points in his life. This particular post is talking about a Madonna song (a song with which I am not familiar, while I’m quite familiar with Madonna in general), but at the outset, Scalzi says this:

For nearly all Gen-Xers, there are three artists who can reasonably be said to have been universal experiences, i.e., they were in the soundtrack to your life whether you went out of your way to listen to them or not: Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. They were everywhere, the musical air that one breathed, there in the malls, in the schools, on MTV and radio. Even if you dove deep into heavy metal, goth or rap to escape their presence, sooner or later they were there, leaving you flabbergasted that, somehow, they found you.

This interests me because for me it’s only two-thirds right. Jackson? Sure. Madonna? Again, absolutely. But Prince?

For me, no. Not really. Prince was never a big part of my musical soundscape, intended or not; the only song of his I could have identified off the top of my head for years was “Let’s Go Crazy”. Prince was never a universal part of my musical life. I was aware of his existence, I knew he had fans, and…that’s about it. I never explored him much while he was alive because his music simply did not present itself to me in anything like the same ubiquitous way that Michael Jackson or Madonna did.

I don’t note this to pick on Mr. Scalzi’s point, because I suspect that far more people would agree with his summation than with mine. But it always fascinates me to consider the degree to which my movements in the cultural landscape have always been my own, and that while there were a lot of intersections between my landscape and the wider one, there are always large gaps. This leads to voids in conversations that I find awkward at times, as people enthusiastically discuss music with which I am almost completely unfamiliar. Or I find myself unaffected on those sad instances when prominent figures die, and I just don’t have that connection.

Why did I miss out on Prince? Kate Bush? All manner of other stuff? I can guarantee none of it was because of snobbery or distaste for “pop” music. I would hope that my years of musical writings on this site would make that clear! I did watch a lot of MTV in the 80s, but I also headed off to my room to listen to music on my own, and this was almost exclusively (almost, not quite, but almost) classical. This continued into my college years, with the additions of New Age and Celtic; I tried being a jazz listener for a time as well. If anything, my college years were an even bigger retreat from the “pop culture” world for me; if it was popular between 1989 and 1993, I very likely did not know about it. And it went on a bit into the 90s, leading me to mostly miss out entirely on grunge. Nirvana? Stone Temple Pilots? Smashing Pumpkins? All names to me. All talented. All major touchstones in recent music history. And all artists whose music passed me by. And I didn’t do much catching up after college, because in the late 90s and into the 2000s I went deeper into classical as well as into film music, which is one of the tiniest of musical niches.

I’ve never been able to work out just how I feel about all this. I do feel at times like I missed out, and many times I’ve found real enrichment and enjoyment when I take time to explore music now that I missed the first time around. Music is wonderful like that: you can come to it any time, much like books and movies–all art, actually. We focus too much on the new, don’t we? But at the same time, there is always a feeling of something I’ve missed, some shared context that I won’t be able to engage no matter how much I come to love a particular piece or song or work.

And others won’t have my context…lying in bed in the dark with a cassette in my Walkman after I’ve turned the lights out, but in my case it’s not Prince or Kate Bush but rather Berlioz or Wagner…in any event, my life had a different soundtrack than a lot of other people, and there are times I feel a real disconnect from others because of that.

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2 Responses to The Soundtrack of Our Lives

  1. Kate Bush made the Billboard Top 10 this week. I know the song,liked it, but never owned it btw, Prince and Nirvana were on the soundtrack of my life but so is Mozart, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Johnny Cash

  2. Anne says:

    I have similar holes in the cultural background of my youth, partly because I spent 4 years at boarding school in rural New England – without contemporary radio, movies or TV, and partly because I too listened to a lot of classical. I paid more attention to pop music in all its forms when i was in college but mainly via the radio. When I went looking for music, it was almost always classical.

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