In which I pay tribute to the pop music of my youth

I am paralyzed. Can I write this with pop music blaring in my head? But I would rather listen to it than think. 1994 comes back to me in a blaze of color.

I was 13, on my first big Youth Group trip to the big city to watch a hockey game and then eat pizza and be talked into praying to God for salvation for the first time. Except I had already done that and the hockey game was only mildly interesting. What was far more captivating? Intensely so? The cute girl across the aisle on the bus. She had such big brown eyes. I think she must have been about 15 – a couple years older than I. She was from the next town over so I didn’t know her name. I finally caught it by the end of the trip, but never considered asking her for it myself. I didn’t know how. I was a star-struck observer, first of sight, but then to my surprise, of sound.

Even though it was supposed to be a sanitized Evangelical outing, the bus driver succumbed to requests to turn on the local top 40 radio. Three and a half minute excursions into love and love lost and love cranked up flooded my ears for the next 90 minutes. I was an innocent back-woods farmer’s son who had barely seen an hour of television beyond Saturday morning cartoons. The only radio I had ever heard was my mother’s adult contemporary Christian station that was half electric-piano ballads from Sandi Patti and Steve Green and half topical Bible Q&A shows. Over the airwaves now came dancable tunes like I had quite literally never imagined before. First and foremost that trip, played three times in it’s entirety on the bus ride there was “The Sign” by Swedish pop quartet Ace of Base. Holy smokes! The drum machine was so snappy, the bass line so slick and the vocals so full of life – I was struck dumb. What’s hilarious is that at the time I assumed the artist must be Whitney Houston since she was the only female pop artist I had *ever* heard of at the time. It took me several evenings of listening to the scratchy radio on my Walkman to catch the tune again on a station that announced the playlist. Pretty girl with the brown eyes was long gone and quickly forgotten, but my head-over-heals plunge into the world of sound and chords and timbre was just beginning.

Looking back now nearly twenty years later, I’m sure it’s hard to take early nineties synth pop very seriously. Contemporary acts are so much more hip and polished (and jaded), aren’t they? I’ve moved on of course, right? I’ve played Beethoven symphonies in orchestra. I’ve heard maybe the greatest guitarist alive today play twenty fantastic works just twenty feet away from me. The amount to explore is endless. Still, you never quite forget what first latched onto you, however awkward it may seem in hindsight.

I’m not embarrassed anymore though. Love it or ridicule it, this is the kind of stuff I’m made of. And so is all that other stuff and I’m not embarrassed by it either. All those hours of Bible Q&A shows with folks like Chuck Colson and Warren Wiersbe – an amazing amount of that stuck in my head. I didn’t rebel and toss it all out for the hell of it later. Those old Christian artists? Some of them were actually really great – Michael Card in particular is a consummate musician. I still want to be Michael Card when I grow up. Sort of. Another interesting fact is that it turns out Jenny Berggren, lead singer of Ace of Base was a rather serious Christian. Though the band sold 30 million records, she eventually became disenchanted with the fame and quit to live in her quiet home town and sing in church. I eventually married another pretty brown-eyed girl – one I met in a pit orchestra.

All that stuff my mother taught me back then was pretty sound too. I’m glad for all the hugs and love and spankings and everything else, even though she couldn’t stand the music I had discovered.