WASHINGTON POST music journalist Chris Richards recently wrote an article about a white rapper who sold out the new Fillmore concert hall in Silver Spring, Maryland. The rapper in question, Mac Miller, raps about bagels and cream cheese, about being bored and needing weed.
Most of his Silver Spring audience was made up of teenagers, which deeply concerned Richards, who designed his article like a concerned letter from a retired-young-person to adolescent music seekers. It’s an urgent call to action to stop wasting those precious and painful teenage years on subpar lyrics and hooks – to not go to shows with music so unoriginal that kids are texting their Dads to tell “him to pick [them] up in front of Panera in 15 minutes.”
Your teen years, he argues, are a time to listen to music that’s raw and exposes you to the kind of person “you think you might like to become.”
It all got me thinking: I certainly am the person I am today because of music. Before I found punk, I was a dreadfully intense fourteen year old who had know idea where she fit. But all of that changed when I went to my first DIY show, at a church five minutes from my house.
In an oft-quoted incident, I once told my dad, “Music is my life!” to make him leave me alone while I listened to a new record. I was 15 and the record was Change, by The Dismemberment Plan. I held on and played that CD endlessly, trying to absorb every last detail before I started to break the songs apart and reproduce riffs on my off-brand electric guitar.
That’s what music should do to the people it touches. It changes our priorities, mixes us up; it perplexes and depresses. It makes us better people, more textured, more conflicted. It shows us another way of being.
In that tradition, the next five bands all, in one way or another, got me through my adolescence and young adulthood, and taught me about who I am and where I’d like to go.
The Dismemberment Plan, Washington, DC (ages 16-18)
I was there. I was! From the beginning (ok, the late middle), ‘til the end.
This was the band that marked the turning point in my life from “casual music listener” to the “music is my life” incident.
The Dismemberment Plan featured prominently in a fake magazine I made in the tenth grade for yearbook class. I interviewed my friends about my favorite bands. Even so, half of the quotes were made up by me to reflect my unadulterated admiration for this four-piece group. My yearbook teacher really had no frame of reference for independent music in DC, so I got an A, but not for ethics.
The Plan started out as a post-punk chaos-making group but over time their sound crystallized in the sophisticated album Emergency & I. I love them in all seasons of their career, from the polished blend of soul and punk they performed in the early 2000s to the smooth, down and out sounds of Change to the spastic !.
I still have that fake magazine, and when The Plan played a reunion show back in January, I had one of those “Anne Hoffman, this is your life” moments. Yet another reason why music rules for young people – its history can’t help marking your own.
Here’s their song, “Back and Forth”:
Fugazi, Washington, DC (ages 16-18, then ages 24-25)
I was at their last show in 2002, but I didn’t really understand what I was witnessing. I was 16, and there were grass stains on my jeans at Fort Reno Park in Tenleytown.
When the band ripped into the first minutes of their set, I understood that this is what punk rock could be, that the rough and unpolished groups of mostly teenage boys I saw play at being musicians in church basements were aspiring to this. They were learning how to translate their angst and pain into an eloquent thesis: and somewhere, somehow, Fugazi was in the back of their minds.
I fell in love with Fugazi backwards, first with their last and deeply mature record The Argument (2001), which takes on heavy-handed political issues like gentrification and war with subtlety and passion.
Later on I discovered their classics, like Repeater (1990) and 13 Songs (1989). As I get older and become more radical in my political views and less confident in the power of institutions to make real change, I come back to these records. They’re fuel for a difficult world.
Here’s Fugazi’s song, “Waiting Room”:
Sweet Honey In The Rock, Washington, DC (ages 18-20)
I got into Sweet Honey In The Rock at college, 350 miles from our shared city. I interviewed my favorite professor — a thirty-something man from Sudan who taught courses on Middle Eastern politics — about the music that he most enjoyed. Everything that touched him musically was, understandably, about politics.
Sweet Honey In The Rock, an all female, African-American ensemble formed in Washington, was his absolute favorite. I started pulling their CDs at the Oberlin College radio station, and nearly melted when I heard their honeyed and complex melodies. Part church choir, part best friends getting together to make a capella music, they sing about international conflict, gang violence, and voting rights for DC. This is something I can stand in solidarity with.
“Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock:
The Lucksmiths, Melbourne, Australia (ages 17-20)
There are bands that blow me away with their ability to mess with time signatures, who can seamlessly infuse the best elements of soul into the best elements of punk, the groups who can do really complicated stuff very well. The Lucksmiths are not one of those bands. But all of the albums I own by them have been worn out to the point of non-existence, because they are, in their own way, absolutely incredible.
The Lucksmiths were about the lyrics, the poetry of a song – the ability to put some easily ignored detail into heightened awareness.
Take for consideration, the line, “Remember when forever seemed just fine? Seen through glasses of rose-colored wine,” from the song “Southernmost.”
Endlessly dedicated to The Smiths, many of their lyrics and song titles contain barely concealed references, like, “There is a boy that never goes out,” and “I was drunk in the haze of happy hour” (from The Smiths’ song “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and the lyric, “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour”).
I got into the Lucksmiths when I was 17, and finding their music gave me permission to step away from punk for a minute and submit to my introspective, tea-drinking melancholy. Their lyrics also gave me inspiration to trust my authorial voice and take writing seriously.
I first saw them in a nondescript DC neighborhood, at one of those metro stops where everything empties out after 6 o’clock and looks, curiously, like a movie set. It was a tiny venue; the three band members milled around and hung out with the audience. My friends and I freaked out as quietly as we could in such a small space and debated talking to them. When we finally did, they were predictably nice and friendly, understated and shy.
Here’s their song, “T-Shirt Weather”:
Des Ark, Philadelphia (ages 23-25)
In my early 20s, I had this terrible job that I couldn’t quit for reasons various and tedious. Everyday was asshole day. I cried on the drive in; It was that bad. To make matters worse, I experienced the crash and burn of four consecutive romantic possibilities within a span of two months.
Looking back on that period, it seems like every day was winter. As the days got shorter, I went through a pretty dark music phase. I listened to a lot of strong women singer-songwriters: some Shannon Wright here, some Cat Power there. But Des Ark is what stuck.
The musical project of Aimee Argote, Des Ark is notable for Argote’s scratchy, urgent vocals laid over moments of compressed musical tension, much anticipated rock-outs, and the sense that everything could fall apart at any moment.
Here’s her song “My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’mon Jump On It)”:
So that’s me. Literally, it’s me in band form. You may have noticed that most of these bands are from the US, but please fill me in on groups who affected your growth. I’d love to hear about growing up in music scenes in other countries if you’d care to comment.