It was Hanukkah, 1985, when my mother gifted me with what was to be my most prized possession (until my dad pawned it for crack money)— a pink boombox that was not only sleek and feminine but also came with a strap for easy transport, just in case I felt the urge to have a Lloyd Dobler moment. When I wasn’t playing Madonna’s Borderline album and singing into my hairbrush in front of the mirror, I was lying on my Laura Ashley-clad canopy bed listening to WZOU, Boston’s Top 40 station, and dreaming about what love was going to be like. Like most kids from chaotic households, I had absolutely no frame of reference for what a healthy relationship looked like (turns out alcoholic crack addicts don’t make good partners), so I turned to pop culture to fill out the picture of what romance had in store for me.
Songs like “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon, fueled my fantasy of someday being rescued from my life of oppression (aka being a teenager) by a handsome boy who was nothing like my father and would give me a life completely unlike my mother’s. This young man, who had somehow secretly fallen deeply in love with me, could no longer hold back professing his feelings—he wanted to know what love was and Goddamn it, he wanted me to show him! Busting down the front door or my house (or chasing me across the school yard in the rain, depending on my mood), my fated soulmate would grab me and kiss me like I had never been kissed before (which would have been easy since I had never been kissed before).
I am not really sure what happened next since this is generally when most love songs ended. There aren’t a lot of epic ballads that follow a relationship past the romantic apex and into the doldrums of daily living. So I just turned to more love songs (and some John Hughes movies) to replay that moment of consummation (which at 10 years old I can assure you did not involve sex) or re-cast me and the object of my desire into a new scenario that conjured up the same release of brain chemicals. And it was this release of powerful chemicals (Oxytocin and possibly Dopamine) that, unbeknownst to me, became so addictive and psychologically warping it sabotaged every single romantic relationship I had for the next 30 years.
After 25 years of therapy, 15 years of self-help books, 13 years of alcohol and drug abuse, 12 years of subsequent 12-step work and six-months of EMDR—not to mention countless attempts at dating—I can honestly say that I may have finally undone most of damage I did to myself through the seduction of commercial music in the 80s and 90s. I am not trying to go Reverend Shaw from Footloose and claim that music and dancing is the root of all evil, but for a troubled kid like me, who was desperately searching for something stable and happy to look forward to (and also happened to have a genetic disposition to addiction), it certainly didn’t help matters.
Though my pink boombox eventually mysteriously disappeared (thanks, dad), I continued to indulge in fantasies of men with broken wings who wanted me to get out of their dreams and into their cars well into the 90s and 2000s—taking the form of anything from Tesla to Sophie B. Hawkins. To this day, when I hear the first couple of bars of “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” I can actually feel my pituitary gland light up (and don’t even get me started on the full spectrum of emotions conjured up by “Love Song”).
While music is a beautiful art form meant to affect us in some way, there is something to be said about this effect and how different people process it at different times. Thirty years after I plugged into commercial pop radio, I am happy to say that my musical tastes have broadened quite a bit (though I still love Top 40). Other than maybe J-rock, K-pop and German hardcore, I think I can find a palette for something in almost any genre depending on my mood. But I would be lying if I were to deny the affect certain music has had on me, my chemical and behavioral addictions and the self-destructive actions I have taken around both of them.
But again, I am not about to “blame” rock n’ roll or any kind of modern music for making me chase after a married man, have unprotected sex with a co-worker in a storage closet or webcam masturbate with guy I wasn’t the least bit attracted to. These are all things I did because I was chasing after a feeling, a way to escape the daily doldrums of what I felt was an anti-climatic life—a life that was “missing” a boy standing outside my window with a boombox blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” But music played a part in all of it. At the very least, the songs of 1985 to 2005 became a well-matched soundtrack to the story of my addictions; but I know it was more than that. For me, music was the impetus to the stories I told myself about who I was and what love and life were supposed to be like, to feel like. And as it turns out, ladies and gentleman, there isn’t a goddamn word of any of it that was true.
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