Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”
“Come and open up your folding chair next to me”
Nostalgia swelled from the first bouncing piano riff of Regina Spektor’s concert in Grand Rapids to the last lingering chord and applause. There are few artists whose discography I know so well or have lived with for so long, and I was more than willing to sink into the warm, contemplative space that familiar music brings.
Music is almost always this way for me. Every artist, every album, even individual songs, brings me back to particular moments in life quicker than you can say “smells like teen spirit.” Sufjan Stevens’ Come On, Feel the Illinoise is Traverse City in July c. 2007. Ingrid Michaelson’s Girls and Boys is the sewing room at my high school. Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” and “Babys” is a chilly upstairs room on Sigsbee Street on the brink of 2014, often accompanied by a greyhound. The National’s Boxer is summer 2012, windows-down driving the streets of Eastown and climbing the ladder to a loft on Fitzhugh. Fionn Regan’s The End of History is winter driving on the Alger extension waiting for the exact moment in the long curve where all you can see is the road and trees dripping snow, like you’re in middle of nowhere and if you pretend hard enough, the stoplight at Kalamazoo won’t appear in a few seconds, you’ll just keep coasting, crunching over the new snow in your 1990 white Ford Escort.
Thanks to an obsessive podcast habit (thanks, Geneva and Julia), I recently learned that nostalgia was once considered a disease of the mind—an ailment that caused one to linger in the past, regretting things done and undone. What a shift we’ve made, we twentysomethings who now revel in the wacky contraptions and pop music of our youth, always looking for the next hit of “those were the days.”
But speaking of 90s boy band hits and Beyonce when she was a child of destiny, you might notice that all of my music memories are from high school (I graduated in 2009) or later. I have no Backstreet Boys while I jumped on the trampoline after a rough day of seventh grade memories, no dancing around my bedroom with a hairbrush microphone to Britney Spears to look back on. That’s because I didn’t listen to anything other than CCM until high school.
Contemporary Christian Music, for the uninitiated, is a genre aimed at tricking secular (aka heathen) radio listeners into thinking “hm, this is a cool song,” only to discover by the second chorus that it’s Christian music. It is also written for youth group leaders to play on a boombox with a microphone pointed at the speakers while groups of teens play dodgeball in the church gym. Still lost? You may have heard of Jeremy Camp, Chris Tomlin, Brandon Heath or The Newsboys (pretty much only youngish white men with three-syllable names sing in this genre). Maybe you know MercyMe, Casting Crowns, or Third Day, three bands that are, incidentally, all the same band. Ladies, perhaps your GEMS counselor played Barlow Girl or Staci Orrico during craft time or while she taught you how to put on eyeshadow and how far was too far with your middle school boyfriend. Or maybe your very first concert, like mine, was DC Talk at the Van Andel Arena. (That’s another whole “firsts” post—I won tickets on the radio, went with my dad, and hated it so much we left halfway through.)
Anyway, I don’t remember this being a rule at my house, necessarily, but it was all we listened to. Maybe a little Boston or Phil Collins snuck in if Dad or Mom, respectively, was feeling nostalgic, but this was also the age of CDs, and I don’t remember anything other than CCM or Christmas music in our CD rack. I imagine my friends played other things when I visited their houses, but I have few music memories pre-2005.
Which brings us back to Regina Spektor. Her 2006 album Begin to Hope was the very first non-CCM album I purchased for myself, on my own. I went to Target and bought the CD with money I’d made babysitting. I can’t even tell you how I knew about it; maybe I heard a song on a TV show, or maybe a friend introduced me. Regardless, I popped that album in my anti-skip CD player with a buckle you could fasten around your hand in order to carry it while jogging (which I did not, obviously), plugged my headphones in, and lay on the floor in my lime green bedroom for hours—doing homework, browsing early Facebook, texting friends on my flip phone with T9—all to the quirky voice of Regina Spektor.
And so, when I attended her concert last week, all of that came flooding back. She sang four songs from Begin to Hope (her fourth of seven albums), accompanied only by her own piano, keyboard, or electric guitar playing, and dozens of other songs from albums both newer and older. My highlight was “Music Box,” a fairly obscure song from the deluxe edition that I didn’t expect to hear that night.
“Music Box” is 3 p.m. on an October day in 2007 in the vestibule outside the theater studio at my high school. My friend Max and I are taking off our shoes in preparation for Beauty and the Beast rehearsal, and he says, “Abby, do you know the Regina Spektor song ‘Music Box’? I think it’s you put into a song.” I almost cried. It remains one of the loveliest things someone has ever said to me, and the nostalgia of friends and high school and clomping around backstage dressed as a salt shaker well up every time I hear the song. High school was the first time I really felt like me—you know that moment when you look in the mirror and suddenly make a connection between your inner thoughts and the body you carry around every day?—and sitting in the audience last week, I thanked my lucky stars I had friends like Max and music like Regina to shape me.
Life inside the music box ain’t easy
The mallets hit, the gears are always turning
And everyone inside the mechanism
Is yearning to get out
And sing another melody completely
So different from the one they’re always singing
I close my eyes and think that I have found me
But then I feel mortality surround me
I want to sing another melody
So different from the one I always sing
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.