I could write a dozen more pieces about Meredith’s #ShanaTop40 mix, starting with the rest of Disc 1, chock full of my most formative years. And I’m going to have to come back to Disc 2, which starts with George Michael.
(I’m almost almost almost ready to write about George, but as I told Sara as we texted furiously back and forth about this playlist and all the memories it dredged up, once I start writing about George I may never stop.)
Disc 3, though. Disc 3 is my life in California. (Note: This is just the first half.)
2004: Green Day, “Are We the Waiting”
In February ’04, I moved from San Francisco back to New York City. To prove I could. To be sure I hadn’t actually died on 9/11 and just not yet fully noticed. Turned out I wasn’t dead, but it still wasn’t where I needed to be. Quit my agency job, figured out how to fund and run a GOTV campaign working with AIDS agencies, dropped my stuff in an apartment in Long Beach and spent three months criss-crossing Ohio and Pennsylvania. The day after GWB won (again), I tucked myself into my hoodie and took a train, another train and a plane back across country to my new home. I listened to American Idiot the whole way, and for most of the next month, until SoCal’s relentless sunshine forced me back into the world. I don’t say lightly that an album saved my life, but this one came as close as I’ve ever needed and found. More than once, really: then there was the musical, oh god the musical. We saw the previews in Berkeley on our honeymoon, I got to sit down with Billie Joe Armstrong and talk about hearing his songs fully realized only when sung by women — and as face-melting as that was, it couldn’t compare to how beautifully Stark Sands delivered this song on Broadway. (Or then, later, BJA as St. Jimmy.) If I ever figure out how to write this novel I have bouncing around inside about Los Angeles it will be born from that same ache.
2005: Panic! At the Disco, “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”
Relatively recent memory is a mindfuck. How bizarre to think back and realize these were adjacent years. We actually saw what’s left of Panic — Brendon Urie, now Broadway-bound himself to take a role once played by Stark Sands — last month at the Forum. It wasn’t at all like the many of their shows we saw once upon a time, through no real fault of theirs. I was proud that this weird queerish band of teenagers had survived long enough to be loved by a new generation of kids on a sold-out arena tour scale. But they might as well be a different band now. What I first remember of Panic in 2005, maybe 2006, is as raw and rough and painful as the ache just barely restrained under the young ambition of this record: Emily belting out “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” in the shower, bathroom door open on a hot summer day. But whenever it was we first saw them play live, it was this song that sealed the deal. “Swear to shake it up!” Brendon howled, and the devoted crowd yelled it right back at him like a boomerang. Swear to shake it up.
2006: Silversun Pickups, “Lazy Eye”
Peak Silverlake, though actually we got there more like two years later. Yes, this album was great, but it was Swoon that I will forever feel in my bones. I heard “Panic Switch” for the first time sitting with Davis at Dangerbird Records, blasted from the speakers on the publicist’s desk right in our faces. Just a sunny weekday afternoon in Sunset Junction. That was my job, to hear a song like that months before it would be released and figure out how to make the world love it as much as we did. That was 2008, the year when we almost got married at Spaceland — because why not, we could throw open our balcony doors and hear whoever was playing down the hill anyway — when I spent as much time in LA’s many tiny rock venues as I did at the office. There’s nothing about “The Royal We” — we are ready for the siege, we are armed up to the teeth, be careful how you live and breathe, release what’s broken underneath — that feels less relevant now. More, really, compared to those easy happy days. “Lazy Eye” always felt to me like a track that belonged more to Swoon than its predecessor, though, so consider this kind of a prequel to that life moment.
2007: Fall Out Boy, “Hum Hallelujah”
When everyone was putting Rufus Wainwright’s (admittedly amazing) cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” in their TV show’s most emotional finale, Pete Wentz was writing a song about that time he tried to kill himself in a Best Buy parking lot while listening to the original on repeat. It’s fast, full-bodied and loud as fuck. (It was around this time that I realized my best answer to being asked “What kind of music do you like?” was simply, “I like it loud.”) Fall Out Boy belatedly filled in for my un-arrested development — a far-too-serious adolescence spent mostly shunning whatever my peers liked. But standing shoulder to shoulder with kids 10 years my junior at FOB shows even as I turned 30, sweat and tears and feels pouring off us, did more to heal whatever angst was left from my teens than years of therapy. I sing the blues and swallow them too, Patrick sang so sweetly, and I hung onto the rough wooden beams on the roof of the Troubadour, standing on the table in the balcony with Jamie and singing back at the top of our lungs. I got splinters in my fingertips. Never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you, Pete wrote once. Felt only fair to bleed for it a little, too.
2008: Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi”
In no small part because of how I spent way too much time thinking about Pete Wentz — and specifically how he toed some precarious line between his public self and whatever was left to keep private — in this string of years I wrote, and rewrote, and kept writing a short film and then screenplay about how some unclassifiable pop star could still shake the music industry. One common rumor early on about Gaga was that she was trans. “Ambiguity makes you a lightning rod for people to hate you,” Pete told me when I interviewed him for an Out cover in spring ’08. “Some days I wake up and I couldn’t be bothered at all. Some days you Google yourself and you can’t eat.” This is hardly even the most meta song off Gaga’s The Fame (that prize probably goes to the title track) but it was still in heavy rotation through my writing playlist. I was — am — so obsessed with the known and unacknowledged rules and behavior required to succeed within the economy of fame, and this little stalker of of a love song sums it up so succinctly: Baby you’ll be famous, chase you down until you love me.
2009: Adam Lambert, “Whataya Want From Me”
I tried not to sneak a look at the track list of each of these discs as I made my way through, didn’t want to spoil myself in this amazing journey back through my own life, and when these opening notes came on in the car I actually gasped. I’d forgotten somehow how perfect this song is and was for that moment. I’ve already written my way through what Adam still makes me think about in this post around the end of American Idol. This song was written by/for Pink (with Max Martin, natch), and you can tell, but somehow it still feels like it was written for Adam. After months and months of writing about him on Idol and the aftermath, I interviewed him in October of this year, days before my wedding, and unknowingly and unwittingly beginning one of the biggest shit-storms of my life as a writer. This track was in many ways used as his peacemaker — after shocking the AMAs with an unrehearsed extra-sexualized version of his first post-Idol release, the far less interesting or emotionally honest “For Your Entertainment” (in response, in part, to what was written about him and Out), a bunch of his promo appearances for the album were canceled. When he was allowed back onto the morning shows, it was with this song, which seemed to contain somehow just the right amount of genuflection (once upon a time, I didn’t give a damn, but now here we are) and righteous defiance (there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s me, I’m a freak) to let him largely win his way back into safe-for-straights territory. It worked: the song charted into Billboard’s Top 10 and scored him a Grammy nom for best male vocal performance. He’s still got one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and I’m so glad we’re seeing him at the Hollywood Bowl with Queen this summer. But this song, wistful and a little angry, reminds me he could have been an even bigger star, and somehow we still weren’t yet ready for him.
And….somehow that feels like the right place to stop with this for now. In 2004 I finally figured out where in the world I wanted to live — sunny Southern California, please and thank you — and by 2009 I’d figured out who I wanted to spend the rest of my days with. Those are the biggest and most important before-and-after changes in my life that still bring me happiness every day, and getting to hear them play out in song is truly a gift.
Originally published April 29, 2017, at tinyletter.com.