I laugh when I hear college students reminiscing over the 2000’s. Their eyes get misty when they think about Britney Spears’s pop peak, the first season of American idol, their first election (Bush v Kerry!), or midriff-bearing tops paired with thong underwear. I have no sentimentality for the decade after 9/11. That’s when the world grew up. Or at least I did.
The genius over at xkcd says that an American tradition is “anything a baby boomer did twice.” His chart there on comic #988 satirically shows how baby boomers have defined what Christmas songs we all find nostalgic. Golden Oldies stations play their music, themed restaurants cater to their memories of what it meant to be a teenager, and the decade that appears most ideal happens to be the 1950’s.
But thanks to VH1 and the internet, Gen X has defined a new “Golden Oldies” category: anything that happened in the decade in which you went to junior high and high school. Although I was alive through the 80’s, nostalgia begins for me around 1989 and ends somewhere around 1999. This is when everything special went down.
This morning I was rocked by the news of Whitney Houston’s death. Not only was she a singularly miraculous singer, not only did she break racial boundaries, create the modern pop diva, and break records selling records, not only did she sing a ballad that still stops people in their tracks with its a cappella introduction, she broke my heart in 1993. And for this Gen X middle schooler, that was everything.
I was sitting in Ms. Kahn’s 8th grade Spanish class at Grisham Middle School in Austin, TX. I was in the front row. It was seat work time. Sophia, an African American in my class, asked the teacher if she could put on a tape. Yeah, a cassette tape. And I remember the way my heart broke when those first few notes came out of that raspy tape player. I knew the song because I knew Dolly Parton. I knew it as a country whine and I loved it. But this, this was new. This was life-changing. This was different.
I can’t hyperbolize this moment because it was historic in my musical, social, and cultural education. Until 1993, my music exposure had not included gospel music. Southern gospel, yes. CCM, yes. Country, yes. But this? This must be what heaven sounds like. I had never heard anything like it.
That day in class I was so moved by what this woman’s voice could do with such a familiar song, that my eyes welled up with tears, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Even now, as I’ve participated in gospel choirs, familiarized myself with the gospel greats, memorized ballads from Celine, Cristina, and Mariah, I still drop everything when I hear that song. It’s magical. It’s miraculous. It’s a moment that moves beyond nostalgia for me.
Once in a while as we contemplate the moments of our Golden Oldies decade, we realize that some of the things we experienced were important. There is something more life-changing about I Will Always Love You than alternative rock, Doc Martens, the tv show Friends, or anything else I miss about the 90’s.
My good friend put this status up today on Facebook:
In 1992 my family got our first CD player. I walked into Peaches record store in Oak Park and what was my first cd purchase: Whitney Houston’s 1987 “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” Loved her! On a funny note, my brother picked “Criss Cross.” Fail
Criss Cross brings back nostalgic feelings for all the children of the 90’s (Jump! Jump!). But yeah, we just chuckle about that. And Hammer pants. And sky-scraper bangs. They are sentimental things, but they don’t really stick with us.
Whitney gave me a window into another culture, another musical expression, another group of people that I didn’t really understand. Whitney’s version of that song was so powerful that it broke my heart that day. When it comes to music, I feel like I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to find that again.
I may be crying around the house today because she represented my youth, but this time it’s more than that. Her voice transcends nostalgia. She was historic. She changed everything.
And for that, I will always love her.