Music As Teenage Cultural Capital

Teenagers by ChiesADIbeinasco via Flickr
Teenagers by ChiesADIbeinasco via Flickr

When I lived out my teen years, in the early nineties, the musical landscape was much different than it is today. I don’t mean in terms of genres or styles (although that is certainly true, as well). I’m now going through the experience of my teenage son exploring the music that was popular back then. It’s the same music, but encountered in a much different way. The easy access that he enjoys to jump to anything in the sonic universe enables him to quickly make musical connections that it took me years to understand. The glut of information available in the internet can, in a short matter of time, fill a brain with enough musical trivia to shame the most learned and cynical 90’s hipster record store clerks.

In the the space of a few days, my son went through Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. I thought, “it’s only a matter of time before he makes it to Dinosaur Jr.” Passing by his room a couple of days later, I heard the unmistakable bridge from the Dino Jr. song “Raisans.” The gruesome sample of a mentally ill man complaining that his bathing attendants were killing him is haunting every time I hear it. The sound of the guitar leads, erupting before you can even anticipate them, like lava from a long-dormant volcano, made their way into the hallway.

Where he will leap to next I can't anticipate, although he has mentioned needing to hear Mudhoney as he takes in a grunge history lesson. With the wide availability of almost all recorded music a few taps on the keyboard away, he loses something that made crate digging and memorizing liner notes and record guides made special. In my teens, to a certain species of nerd, musical knowledge was power. When you were listening to Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and others a full two years before they broke into the mainstream and the jock with his locker next to yours suddenly became a fan, it gave you a sense that you were onto something.

If you were not careful (not many teenagers are too careful), you could build up a sense of superiority over knowing what others would only come to find out later. It was easy to look down upon the johnny-come-lately crowd as mere posers. I shamefully remember the feeling of disdain. Once, in the twelfth grade, I had a fairly heated argument with one of my classmates in the library about what music was cool. A year later, she had died, a victim of a vicious asthma attack, and I laid in a hospital bed awaiting my first round of chemotherapy. After that point, I no longer had the will to make music a thing by which I judged others. It all seemed so pointless.

I'm doing my penance now for my snobbery in high school, though. I couldn't stand Pearl Jam back then and now my teenage son listens to them more than any other band. He sings songs like "Jeremy" at the top of his lungs, so I hear them all of the time. It serves me right.

Robert Rackley @frostedechoes