“I want to know what this means,” he said.
We sat in the driveway with the car in park, and he turned up the radio.
“Who is this?”
My dad told me he liked the band and that he’d heard the song so many times before and liked the music. Now he wanted to know more about the words.
In the passenger seat, I squirmed. Even though I could have shared the answer I’d read in online articles and music magazines, I told him I didn’t know.
Before turning off the ignition and going into the house, he told me he’d started listening to music a little closer.
I’d noticed. Within the past couple of years, he had obsessed over music he experienced for the first time. Anyone in his path could be held for at least 20 minutes listening to Pink Floyd on laser disk or whatever Christian goth metal spin-off was on the radio at the time. If he turned up the volume just loud enough, he might be able to surround you with his feelings so that you might understand and share the experience. On a trip to Nashville, Dad beat the steering wheel and dashboard so emphatically to a song that he scared my boyfriend, who was used to playing and listening to music very loudly.
Dad was either 61 or 62 when he started asking questions that may have come 15 years too late.
From the backseat, I watched my mother shrink. My dad was laughing at the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After because it was whiny and droning and meaningless to him. She didn’t defend herself, and I don’t remember if she removed the tape from the deck. I think she let the song play.
So badly I wanted to stand up for her, but I was six or seven. He wasn’t there in the Suburban when we drove all over town running errands with that tape flipping from A to B to A again. He didn’t watch her pick it out at Wal-Mart and buy one thing for herself.
But the full car was quiet.
Years later, after my parents divorced, my dad and I would take long drives and listen to music together. For once, he had no advice to give and he didn’t feel the need to fill silence. He remained quiet for minutes. Every time R.E.M. came on the radio, he would turn it up. Every time, he asked me who was playing. Eventually, he learned that he loved R.E.M., even if he didn’t know what they were singing about.
Before he died, he questioned and listened more than I ever remembered him doing as I was growing up.
I didn’t tell my dad that “Losing My Religion” is about pining, and I didn’t tell him he should have been having conversations about music with my mother in the front seat of our car.
Despite spending most of her time raising five kids in the early 1990s, my mom engaged in pop culture. She was, after all, only in her early 30s, the age of many of the performers and those part of the grunge scene at the time. When she listened to the radio, she asked herself the meaning. Joan Osbourne’s “What If God Was One of Us” stumped her. She wanted to know if it stripped the deity from God altogether, or if it had another purpose. We talked about it in a bowling alley parking lot when I asked her what she thought about it when I was nine years old. Mom said she was unsure but she interpreted it to mean something akin to Hebrews 13:2 warning us to be hospitable to all people for we may have “entertained angels unawares.”
Although no one ever talked about pop culture directly when I was a kid, I knew music occupied vital space in life. Moreover, I knew music was for everybody—not just young people or rebels. Even my super straight-laced dad prized his collection of stereo equipment. He taught us all how to use the different speeds on the record player and explained the counter on the tape deck so we would be less likely to break it when we played our music on it. My mom had an Aiwa portable cassette tape player she used for walking. I never remember either being off-limits to anyone. Someone always had a boombox or Walkman around, and if a kid didn’t have one, it would likely make his or her Christmas or birthday wish list.
As I noted the importance of music while I was growing up, I watched individual interests in my family throughout the 1990s. Some of our preferences overlapped, but we had our own bands. If I remember right, Mom harbored a particular interest in Anthony Kedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (which may or may not have been strictly musical); Sara liked the Cranberries, Pearl Jam, and Alanis Morisette; Andrew liked Beck, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains. Jo liked Stone Temple Pilots, No Doubt, and R.E.M. Everyone liked U2. We liked more light-hearted groups too—EMF, CC Music Factory, Marky Mark, and Spin Doctors, but these groups never held the spotlight for too long in my memory.
Mom bought the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After tape for the car in 1993, and my sister Sara got a Pearl Jam poster with a scary sheep on it I always mistook for an ape. My brother Andrew, then in middle school, at last figured out “cool” and traded in reading hot-rod magazines for Rolling Stone. He began growing out and bleaching his hair to look like Kurt Cobain. My sister Jo, just a year younger than Andrew, got a tape single of R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” for her birthday not long after.
Early one Saturday morning before soccer games started, I found her tape in our family’s entertainment center, and popped it into the deck. It was different from the bouncy “Shiny, Happy People” I remembered hearing in the neighbor’s house when we lived in Nebraska just a few years before. A girl about my brother Jeremy’s age was headed to college and playing it in her room. She told me she liked R.E.M., so I paid attention and thought they were cool. Even with my limited knowledge of style, I knew the sounds of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” revealed a different kind of R.E.M. The video didn’t have people dancing in what looked like Pee-wee’s Playhouse. This video showed Michael Stipe looking mad sometimes and the guitar sounded like real rock’n’roll. The colors were different, too.
As I grow older, I look at my siblings and my parents differently, remembering that darker sound. I have recently considered what it all meant. Lately, I have begun to think we had finally gotten close to all the complicated, nameless pains we felt but never knew how to express.
I’m writing about my family and music. It’s going to be a book, eventually. This got me started in 2015.