One recent morning, my nine-year-old son began humming a familiar song over his bowl of oatmeal. I was scrambling around, as I often do on school mornings, filling up the kids’ water bottles and stuffing homework folders and overdue library books into their backpacks, so, it took a minute before Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” fully penetrated my thoughts.
“Wait,” I said, suddenly, my finger pausing on the zipper of his backpack. “How do you know that song?”
“I just do,” my son answered with an air of nonchalance.
I stared at him, wanting to know more. That song belonged to my generation, to my youth. Specifically, it belonged to the fall of eighth grade, when my friends and I confidently strutted down the halls of Mountain View school, feeling like we (as the oldest students) owned the place.
So how exactly, decades later, did my fourth-grade son know this song?
But we had a bus to make; there was no time for further inquiry. And so off he went—we went—out the door, and he took his song—which I still couldn’t help but think of as my song—with him.
It would be a couple weeks later, during his music recital, when I finally grasped the connection: The chorus teacher led the entire fourth-grade class in a resounding medley of “old-school” songs. Yes, there was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but also “Come as You Are,” and Green Day’s “Basket Case,” and “Good Riddance,” and some Foo Fighters as well. The kids loved it, but as I scanned the auditorium around me and noticed the wide grins on fellow parents’ faces, the taps of their shoes against the floor, and even the way some wordlessly mouthed along to the lyrics (the real ones, not the slightly modified ones our kids had learned), well, then, I knew that we parents loved it even more.
Because here's the thing about music, about the songs you grew up with: It’s all about the experience. And if you grew up in (not born into!) the 80s and 90s, you likely rocked out to Nirvana at a school dance (or at the very least tried your own private headbang), and you were actually “In Da Club” for that song—not watching it being performed on a Superbowl halftime show—and the band Berlin literally took your breath away in the movie theater during Top Gun.
Music has the power to evoke nostalgia, to create a visceral timestamp which the listener can revisit. When I was writing my debut novel, Our Little World—a story of two sisters in a small New Jersey town in the 1980s whose lives are suddenly and irrevocably changed when a neighborhood girl disappears at the local lake—I often felt like a time traveler, aided by my 80s-heavy play mix. I relied on music for research, to evoke what it felt like to be young, to be awkward, to rise in popularity, and to become the outcast. I used it to recall the wondrous sensation of butterflies in my stomach that accompanied my first kiss, but also the terrible way it felt like the world had ended after a fight with a best friend or sibling —feelings I drew on to create the darker, more serious elements of my novel. I found that listening to music with which I had my own relationships, my own memories, allowed me to freely traverse the time barrier.
Some have called my novel “a love letter to the 80s,” while others have repeatedly remarked on the nostalgic aspects of it. Many say they are transported during their read. Here’s a sampling of the playlist (full list available on Spotify) for my novel, Our Little World:
Karen Winn received her MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also holds a doctoral degree in nursing. Born and raised in New Jersey, Karen now lives in Boston with her husband and two children. OUR LITTLE WORLD is her first novel.
Visit her website: www.karenlwinn.com
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