Pop goes the culture

In childhood most of your cultural experiences are dictated by your family. Particularly when I was a kid, when the typical family had, at most, one TV and one stereo music system. I was lucky enough to have parents who believed in reading and being cheap, so except in those towns we lived in that were too small to have a public library, most of my childhood involved near weekly trips to the local library.

For other things, we had church music, TV, my parents’ record collection, and radio. And most of the towns we lived in were so small there was only one local AM radio station. Which didn’t really matter, because our house, like most of our neighbors’ had the TV and stereo in the same room. So you watch/listened to what Mom or Dad wanted.

When I was ten or eleven, I was given a clock radio for Christmas by one of my relatives. Suddenly, I had an option of listening to the radio in my room if Dad wanted to watch TV or listen to music (and the only non-country music he liked was Elvis). But, given that there was only one local station we could get (KVEL, if I recall), that wasn’t much of a choice… Until late at night, when FCC rules allowed large stations to turn up the wattage on their transmitters. Then a few more stations became available, but most of their programming seemed to be call-in talk shows.

At most of the local stations in all those little Rocky Mountain towns we lived in, if they played any music at all, tended toward Country.

Except on Sunday afternoon, when pretty much every station seemed to carry American Top Forty, with Casey Kacem as the host. So once a week I heard music from another world. I think it was hearing Three Dog Night’s first hit, “Joy to the World (Jeremiah was a bullfrog!)” on American Top Forty that got me to beg for one of their albums for a birthday present later. My tendency to play it and one or two other albums over and over and over again whenever I could get control of the stereo is probably why by Christmas during my 7th grade year I got a small stereo record player for my room (and I think the headphones were a present from Dad the next birthday).

By high school my parents were divorced and Mom, my full sister, and I were living 1200 miles away in slightly larger town with a lot more music options. Multiple radio stations, personal music players, and friends sharing playlists. And MTV– back then, believe it or not, the station played music videos pretty much every minute of every hour, 24 hours a day. Plus I had discovered Queen and Elton John, among others.

Somehow, though, I never became a big Donna Summer fan. Which is almost sacrilegious, according to some gay men my age. Not that I didn’t know who she was, or didn’t like any of her songs. It’s just that I never quite connected them up. It was years later, hearing stories from other guys about how “Heaven Knows” or “Enough is Enough” or “The Woman in Me” or “Love Is In Control” had been an emotional life line or otherwise changed their life.

And I would say, “Oh, that was Donna Summer?”

Turns out I was a fan of her work, just not a True Fan.

Since moving my music library to digital, I had acquired a few of her classics–ones I felt a fondness for (for instance, I never really liked her single of “MacArthur Park”, but the combo of “MacArthur Park/One of a Kind/Heaven Knows” is a masterpiece, IMHO). As I’ve been re-listening to her music the last couple of days, I realize that more of her was woven into the fabric of my teen years than I had remembered.

Which leaves me wondering, how much does any of us really remember of our life?

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