So I’m watching “Criminal Minds,” which I love because of the profiling part – I would love to have a job in which I had access to everyone’s most intimate, personal business. It wouldn’t have to be killers; I would be perfectly happy plumbing the depths of gardeners, ferry boat captains or veterinarians. I like to know what makes people tick, and I am limited to my own observations because the rules of polite society prevent me from asking the questions I really want to ask.
In the episode I’m watching, the impossibly beautiful Dr. Reed explains that the music that’s popular when a person is fourteen is “their music.” It defines them, he explains, no matter what they hear before or after. Although this information is, in the context of the TV show, simply a clue in building a working profile of the Piano Man killer, to me it is huge. I Google it, and it’s a “thing” that fourteen is, according to no less than The New York Times, “a magic age for building cultural tastes.”
I am as interested in figuring out my own psyche as I am in probing the depths of everyone else’s. I look up the songs popular in my fourteenth year, 1976, and I am horrified. It was a time when disco was not a joke, but the bread and butter of Top 40 radio stations. “Disco Duck” was on the list of the most popular songs of the year. Somehow, probably because I was a very serious cellist by then, living in a house in which pop music was largely ignored, I missed “Disco Duck.” I find it on Spotify and play it, well, the beginning of it, and satisfy myself that I was probably unscathed by that particular hole in my musical history.
There are other songs, though, that bring back memories of Levis cords, Earth shoes, feathered hair and roll-on lip gloss. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Take it to the Limit.” I think about the Eagles, who I never liked, and about the fact that I bought an Eagles album with my own money because Steve Maltby spent his time in Algebra I drawing alternative album covers with “The Eagles” in fat, curvy letters. I imagined that if I sat in my seat and hummed “Hotel California” he would overlook my frizzy hair and acne and recognize me as his one, true soul mate.
And then, because I felt so sorry for that girl that I was, so protective of her un-pretty, un-guarded self, I wonder about the possibility of going back and fixing her. I develop this plan in which I immerse myself in the music of 1976, let the memories come, and talk to the Ann who started high school that year. As if she were my own child, a dearly beloved creature struggling upstream in a world that made no sense, I will serve as a guardian angel and cheerleader. She was so totally lost, that girl, between a blithe, indulgent childhood and a future that appeared catastrophically bleak for those without silky hair and the ability to flirt.
The music thing is complicated. I rarely listened to “popular” music, even then. I listened to classical music most of the time, or The Beatles and the moody singer-songwriters who spoke directly to my soul. Joni, James, Carly, Jackson…they were my people. I am uncertain whether one’s “own music” is the music a person actually chose at age fourteen, or the music that waspopular at that time. I put on “I Write the Songs,” by Barry Manilow. Closing my eyes, I imagine a high school dance. For some reason, I can see everyone but myself – girls with long, perfectly feathered hair and lots of eyeliner and gloss are swaying in the arms of guys in bell-bottomed cords, and everything smells like bubblegum and Jovan musk. I try “Dream Weaver,” and I’m still not in the picture.
I look back at the article in the Times, and it says this: “’Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,’” says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. “’Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.’” This would seem to mean that the important music for me was what I listened to over and over again in my bedroom, based on advice from the friends I knew to be kindred spirits. It is not the stuff that played at dances, or on the car radio.
I start again with “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull, “Blackbird” by The Beatles, “Court and Spark,” by Joni, and “Fire and Rain” by James. I see myself, then, sitting on the floor in my bedroom in front of the record player with a pile of jackets, records and white paper dust covers strewn around me. I have a notebook, which is not as pretty as the Chinese silk covered diary I got in my Christmas stocking, but which has much more room for actual writing. I am thinking about the boy I love, who is my friend, but who is on the other side of some incomprehensible barrier. I yearn, I jockey myself into his car when a group travels to a movie or a concert, I sit next to him in the dark of a movie theater and listen to him breathe, imagining in some vague way how it would be to have him breathing closer, or with his head on the next pillow. I am writing poems for him, filling pages with words that release the worst of the pain for a while like a hit of something powerful but temporary.
Surprisingly, I am not as ugly as I remembered; I am certainly not as ugly as I felt at the time. I have thick, glossy chestnut hair, and a faintly exotic slant to my almond-shaped eyes. I weigh too much, but I am not, as I had recalled, monstrous. I have to decide, looking at my thrawn, adolescent self as she writes love poems in a Mead notebook, whether to tell her anything at all. My regression therapy plan is dubious, at best; if I lie around listening to Joni Mitchell and bucking up my fourteen year old self, it will violate the lesson I learned from Star Trek: when you go back in time, change nothing or Hitler will win.
I look more closely at the girl with calloused fingertips on her left hand, and, dear Lord, a “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” necklace around her neck. If she does not suffer, if she does not lean into feelings as dark and endless as a moonless night, she will be a different person. If I tell her everything is really okay, that she’ll outgrow the acne and figure out her hair, that men will someday love her, she might change. She might morph into a confident, gum-snapping creature who stops writing and starts listening to disco. She might never discover Eliot Smith, “Lost in Translation,” or Colette. She might not write, might not need to write, and she might not feel compassion for those who suffer as she has suffered. She might not, after all, be me.
So I leave her there on the floor, knowing that the boy she loves is gay, knowing that her first real boyfriend will treat her badly, knowing that she will make some truly terrible choices because she hates herself with unshakeable certainty. The thing is, I love her. I love her for every mistake she’s making as she rises to look in the mirror one more time, checking the constellation of pimples for signs of improvement, her eyes shiny with love for a boy who loves boys. “We Have No Secrets” starts to play after a pause and a scratch, and she sucks in her cheeks, piling her hair onto her head and then dropping her hands and releasing her face in an agony of resignation.
“I love you,” I say as I retreat, “I love you.”