A Romp Through the Music that Made Me (Part 2 – Early School)

The last few posts got me into an introspective mood, so I just want to share a few thoughts before getting into my Early School years (age 6 to 9). 

During childhood, I probably experienced most music as enthralling noise. Regular exposure to certain songs would create familiarity, dictating (to some degree) future preference. I don’t know how intentional this was, but I suspect that my childhood preferences mostly aligned with what my parents wanted me to prefer. 

Music was passively absorbed, not actively curated. It permeated my skin and nerves like heat against black vinyl. Sure, as mentioned in the first post in this series, sometimes music videos and the vibe of certain melodies forced me to venture inwards into areas yet unexplored. However, still lacking those “higher” mental faculties, I was likely incapable of doing much more than “feel” the music. 

I’ve also been thinking about how my experience with music was different from that of my childhood peers. I was living in a predominantly white working-class community in Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia. Many of the families I grew up with had been there for generations. They had time to put down roots, develop their identities, secure their traditions and customs. They all saw this place as home, and everything from street signs, store names, and local radio, to magazine ads and celebrity gossip was tailored to their reality. 

As recent immigrants from a very different place, our interaction with the marketplace was a bit more — laborious. It may be true that music has a certain universality to it, but there are regional flavours that must be acquired in small doses over time against the backdrop of this place we’re in, a palate molded by lived experiences, the shape of landscapes, the colour of street signs, the sounds and sights of cargo ships in the morning harbour. 

I never understood the appeal of The Tragically Hip until after the death of Gord Downie. However, I’ve been around long enough now to have explored this vast country. I’ve fallen under the trance-inducing hum of the Trans Canada tarmac. I’ve even toured the cold maze of Kingston’s Millhaven Institution. What my pale-skinned friends picked up so naturally in their teens took me till my late 30s to appreciate. Not because there was something inherent to The Hip’s music that was appreciable, but because I wasn’t conditioned yet to appreciate it.

Maybe that’s why I was drawn to the raw struggle of rap and the angst of grunge. I felt lonely, apart from the rest. I found connection in communities who shared in my dislocation, who raged against power, who desired nothing more than to disrupt the comforts of those who lived easily.

But before all that, I had to do the New Kids on the Block thing. 

Don’t hate. EVERYONE was (shamefully) into them, and for good reason. Aside from The Beatles and The Jackson 5, NKOTB was a new sort of craziness. Before Boys 2 Men, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Westlife, Take That, Jonas Brothers, One Direction, or K-Pop, the “New Kids” were the OGs of a highly choreographed, internationally recognizable, shamelessly commercial, teenage fan-girl heart-throb industry that merched its way into postered bedrooms around the globe. No experimentation, no grit, no angst, just teenage boys singing peppy love songs for a singular market demographic: teenage girls. 

But let’s face it, we were ALL totally caught off-guard and trapped in the NKOTB undertow, so I had a poster of Joey up on my wall and I won’t apologize for it. I mean, how can you resist those crystal blue eyes? Dreamz. 

NKOTB’s “Hangin’ Tough” was released in 1988 when I was five years old. In the same year, NWA dropped “Straight Outta Compton”, though I wasn’t quite ready for it. I started “Primary School” in 1989, and a few months later The Simpsons first aired. This animated sitcom reached more than 13 million households in its first season and, 700+ episodes later, ended its 33rd season in May 2022. We’ll come back to The Simpsons.

In 1990, around the time I turned seven, NKOTB released their hit single, “Step by Step.” By that point, I was obsessed. I even have a handwritten letter to a pen pal dated January 16, 1991, in which I explicitly declare my love of “New Kids” (for some reason the letter never quite made it to the intended recipient).

1991 is also the year that Michael Jackson released “Dangerous.” The album’s cover entranced me with its clutter of detail, like the Graeme Base picture books I enjoyed so much as a kid. It was painted by Mark Ryden, the “godfather” of Lowbrow art (or pop surrealism). Ryden was also the artist behind the Red Hot Chili Peppers album cover for “One Hot Minute”, released in ‘95.

Back to Dangerous – I loved everything about this album. Virtually every track was released with a video. Most of the videos were iconic (see, for example, the video for “Jam” below – a New Jack Swing hit and 7+ minutes of pure 90s music-vid entertainment), and some featured cameo appearances by the biggest names at the time, including Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy, Naughty By Nature, Heavy D, Naomi Campbell, Iman, Magic Johnson, and Kris Kross.

Kris Kross released “Totally Crossed Out” in 1992 and inspired young listeners the world over to shed the ways of old, to abandon long-established norms, and to — put clothes on backwards. 

I was nine at the time, and for a nine-year-old Iranian boy living in small-town Nova Scotia, desperate for connection and power, going kris-krossed only made sense. It was a loud assertion of rebellion, but like all acts of rebellion, kris-krossing was met with resistance. The dominant class (i.e., parents, community, school-aged establishment spies a.k.a. “the popular kids”) were unanimous in their condemnation. 1992 Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia just wasn’t ready for avant-garde countercultural self-expression.  

Now, circling back to The Simpsons. In 1990, when I was just 7 years old and beginning my first year of grade school, Geffen Records released an album, titled (by James L. Brooks), “The Simpsons Sing the Blues”. There were some major cooks involved in the production of this merch-musical; namely, John Boylan, Michael Jackson, Bryan Loren, and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Track-after-track, the Simpsons family entertained us with feuds, fables, and melancholy. These fictional characters, who were now as ubiquitous as Michael Jackson and NKOTB, aired their dirty laundry and we loved it.

I can’t remember when exactly this album entered my life, but I still have virtually every lyric committed to memory.

In my next post, the third segment in this series, we will explore my pre-teens: 1993 to 1995 (age 10 to 12). This is when my nascent preference for spicy music emerged. For me, it was the period of forbidden mixtapes, dark emotions, schoolyard survival, and grunge.

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