Roots: Eine Kleine Lebensmusik
Despite being employed by a newspaper for which I write about “the arts” on a regular basis, my artistic tastes are quite underdeveloped. Sure, I know my way around a museum and I’m well versed in hip hop — my rolodex of knowledge covers Frank Ocean and Frank Lloyd Wright to Frida Kahlo and Skee-Lo (for whom I will eternally sing the praises of his vastly underappreciated 1995 debut I Wish). Once I spin through the A-Zs of music and visual arts, there are very few index cards remaining for other forms of media.
I’ve seen eightfold more “Fast and Furious” movies than entries in the Stanley Kubrick filmography. The only two television shows I’ve watched this year are “Atlanta” and the Netflix reboot of “Queer Eye.” And despite being one of the poster children for the Books section here at Daily Arts, my vast memory of titles and authors is often surface level; I know the plots to stacks of classic books but have hardly read any of them myself. All in all, I’m still in the “faking it” stage. Enough to impress the artistic fledgling, but far outclassed by people who actually know what they’re talking about.
The reason for my inconsistent palate is my late arrival to the culture party. While I overhear conversations in the newsroom of people transcending to a higher aural plane when they first heard Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones as a little tyke, I can never bring myself to chime in with any of my own youthful experiences. My childhood was relatively normal, and that normality meant adherence to whatever age-appropriate media was popular then. I watched Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, read Percy Jackson books, would die for my PlayStation 2 and Gameboy Advance, thought the Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah” was the pinnacle of songwriting — but what suburban white kid didn’t at the time?
Let me rephrase that: my childhood was normal for the first nine years of my life. Nine years spent in quaint little Anderson, South Carolina (home of Chadwick Boseman! and casual racism¡), where the biggest worry was how late I would get to stay up playing Pokémon Sapphire. That worry becomes pretty inconsequential though when you’re sitting on a massive, hulking plane, all the belongings you could fit in a suitcase stored in a cargo bay beneath your feet, with the rest in a shipping crate slowly cruising ten thousand feet below on a cargo ship. There’s a lot of worries going through your mind on that nine-hour flight to Stuttgart, Germany.
I’ve already touched on my broad experience moving to Germany and my meaning of “home” in a prior piece, so let’s establish I’ve already settled in for the sake of this one. Enter delightfully awkward middle school Robert: Justin Bieber hair swoop on his head, Abercrombie shirts and patterned shorts on his torso and oversized skate shoes on his feet. On his mind? The latest rage comics and Smosh videos. O, tween rebellion, my eternal muse; except in this case, rebelling meant staying up late with my friends playing Call of Duty and watching “The Hangover.” Pop culture of the early 2010s is often swept under the rug, usually for good reason. They were a time where “bro” and “epic” comprised a good chunk of daily vocabulary. So, when people ask me what I grew up on, you can understand my awkward reluctance to answer truthfully.
One would think living in Europe would awaken some sort of cultural renaissance inside me, and it did; just not in a swift, lightbulb-flicking-on-above-me type of way. It was a gradual yet important process of opening myself up to new foods, new lifestyles, new people, expanding my horizons and learning acceptance. I remain eternally grateful for my experiences there, as I would not be the person who I am today had I lived in the insularity of South Carolina for all of my 18 years. The one thing I never learned though was a magical mastery of the arts, even though students studying in France for a month in the summer may have led you to believe artistic enlightenment can only be achieved abroad.
In reality, the pop culture of Germany is like bizarro-USA. People still see the same movies and listen to the same music, except in a pre-streaming age it seemed like German radio stations only heard word of the big hits a year after they were popular stateside. Rihanna’s “Disturbia” and Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” were still spun regularly on the airwaves before I moved back in 2012. So the music I enjoyed essentially became what I heard on the radio and whatever songs my friends played on their iPods, pending if I could find them later on YouTube (forever curse GEMA for blocking almost every popular song). Eminem was untouchable, but I was enamored with Recovery, “No Love” era Eminem. Songs like “Forever” by him, Drake, Kanye and Lil Wayne and DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over” were, in keeping with the lexicon of the times, legendary. I became the envy of all my friends by memorizing the entirety of “6 Foot 7 Foot” sans Cory Gunz verse (I might still, but it would take more than a few libations to pull that out of me). In a sentence which I hope has never been written before, the first album I ever owned on CD was deadmau5’s 4×4=12. My music taste didn’t make a lick of sense.
I don’t point my evolution in music choice to any specific event; it did grow more varied with the introduction of platforms like Spotify and simply me becoming more curios and independent as I grew out of my early teens. There was one moment, however, that kicked off a marked change in musical perspective. New Year’s Eve a few years back; I was at my grandparents’ cozy house, and my cousin and I mulling around waiting for the ball to drop. We wandered into my dad’s old room, relatively untouched from his high school days, and stumbled upon his box of vinyl records. My grandpa still had a (quite antique) record player, so we spent the evening sampling my dad’s collection. AC/DC, ELO, the Jackson Five; all the ’70s and ’80s hits were there. The record that caught my cousin’s eye was Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman.
I used to hate country music. Despised it. Would put my hands over my toddler ears whenever it came on cruising around with my mom in her dusty truck. So, when my cousin placed the needle down on this “classic” he was raving about, I was apprehensive. The record was a little warped, but it played the title song just fine: “I am a lineman for the county” coos Campbell over homely guitar twangs. And hearing that was the moment where the lightbulb illuminated over my head. I was laughing at myself on the inside — here I am sitting on a squeaky plastic couch cover, actually enjoying a genre of music I had long since denied.
From that moment on, I was more open with my music tastes. I listened to anything that I found online, anything I was recommended, any genre, any artist. If it sucked, it sucked, but hey! At least I listened to something new. My mom has always told me to never say hate, because “hate’s a strong word.” I always thought that saying was stupid as a kid and would want to hate things to be #cool and #edgy. Only now do I understand that hate can be an empty word. It’s perfectly fine to hate bad and evil things, but at least in the world of music, most things are neutral. When you say you hate Nickelback, and you hate Coldplay, you’re only going out of your way to spread more negativity around in a world that certainly needs less of it. I might not particularly enjoy both of those bands, but that doesn’t mean I’m forced to listen to their music. Chad Kroeger or Chris Martin never did any wrong by me; if anything, I respect their passion and desire to create. Art is about community, it’s about a shared love and support of all this beautiful weird shit we come up with. That love may manifest itself in forming your own band or simply sharing your bomb playlists online, but it’s a love we all hold deep in our hearts.
Art links people all over the world in amazing ways, and to me, it has allowed me to harness my roots and connect more deeply with the people who mean the world to me. My roots may be scattered, popping up here and there in places like South Carolina, Germany and Michigan, but they are strong as oak. I like to think my roots make themselves tangible as records, picturesque vinyl histories. I can picture my dad speeding around good ol’ Sumter, SC like James Dean in his Nissan 240z whenever I play Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.” My mom is still in college twirling about the dance studio as the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack gyrates.
On the day of my high school graduation, I awoke and came downstairs to see a record player on our kitchen table with tons of records strewn about it. Propped up against the plastic case of the turntable was Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. Although my dad had lost a majority of his old records when that same house of my grandparents recently flooded, there was still some he managed to salvage — John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. I’ve added to that collection with pickups of my own — Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb, Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach. While the shelf of records in my room still has lots of gaps to fill before I can consider it complete, I’m loving every step of the journey. Maybe one day I’ll have kids of my own, and my record collection will become theirs. I don’t know what memories they would associate with my music (they should know I was never as cool as my parents in their youths), but hopefully if they slide that Glen Campbell album out of its sleeve, the first thing they’ll hear is love.