by Nick Burd
Time is weird, but it’s never weirder than when you’re young and can barely imagine what your life will look like the following Thursday. And then there are are the late nights when you get to wondering what life will look like in a year, a decade, 50 years. Between the ages of zero and 17-ish, it’s all an empty room. I think that’s why I fell so in love with music at a young age — I think it’s why many of us do. Music puts things in the empty room. It makes it liveable. When I take stock of it all, there are three albums that stand out because they help me see parts of myself that that I don’t think will never go away.
Like a Prayer, Madonna
Released March 21, 1989
Madonna didn’t necessarily make me gay, but she did help me figure it out. For example, I bought my dad her remix album You Can Dance for Christmas and then suggested he open it early. I also thought that Who’s That Girl? was a really good movie. So, it makes sense that the release of Like a Prayer was a major moment in my life.
The day the “Like a Prayer” video debuted, I rushed outside to find my mother. She was in the yard talking to a neighbor and I loudly informed her that the new Madonna video was about to start and if she didn’t hurry up, she would miss it. It’s important to note that the neighbor my mother was talking to was very Catholic and almost certainly had all sorts of opinions about what Madonna was up to in March of 1989. It’s also important to note that my mother (28 years old at the time) politely excused herself to come inside and watch.
Released March 31, 1986
Prince’s deep weirdness, funky blackness, and confrontational sexuality appealed to so many of the strange sensations I had running through my veins during my early 90s puberty. Like much of the music I obsessed over during my youth, I discovered him through my parents. It wasn’t long before my fandom overtook theirs and my mom was knocking on my bedroom door and asking me to play anything else but “Seven” for the 4,000th time.
I have many indelible Prince-related memories — buying a cassette of Diamonds & Pearls with $10.99 in quarters, seeing him play live my senior year of high school with my best friend whose two favorite things were marijuana and group masturbation — but the one that sticks out the most occurred in the back row of the black and red van that my Christian elementary school would take on field trips. It was the year everyone got Sony Discmans and carried around giant binders of naked CDs. In early 90’s Iowa, these binders tended to be a confusing mix of hip-hop and corporate country, but I only had one CD on that trip: Prince’s Parade, the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon. I hid the CD case by sitting on it, certain the cover — Prince in a crop top with his hands raised in a pose that I can only describe as very Prince — would surely earn me a lecture from my teacher, or even worse, a dirty look from a classmate. But the girl next to me saw it. A few minutes later someone a few rows up yelled “Prince sucks!” but I had my headphones on so it was easy to pretend I couldn’t hear them over “Mountains”.
Strand, The Spinanes
Released February 27, 1996
In 1996, I was a sophomore and my teenage angst was at an all time high. My favorite things were Gregg Araki movies, painting my nails black, and playing my guitar. I’d also discovered the IowaM4M chat room on AOL, and just now seeing IowaM4M typed puts a weird feeling in my chest. The was also the year I made friends with a girl named Jen, a junior with a little blue Datsun and lots of Bjork import singles on CD. We liked the same things. We proved this to each other by trading mixtapes, and “Lines and Lines” by the Portland-based Spinanes appeared on the very first one she gave me.
The full Spinanes record as a whole — jangly, bass-less, breathy — felt like soul music to me, and the fact that a guitar pop record could sound like soul made me think about art differently. I think this is the album that made me pick up the guitar later that year. I know it was the one I always came back to years later when I was in college and played in a band and believed I could write a song that changed the world. But of all the songs on the records, “Lines in Lines,” that first one I heard, was the one that stuck with me. It sounded like love, which in 1996 I was slowly starting to figure out.
A few months later I would get my first boyfriend, an impossibly handsome kid at my school named Chad (he was the first Chad of three). Chad liked the same music as as Jen and I, but one day while we were sitting in the Burger King drive-thru, he told me he thought the Spinanes sucked. I think that was the first time I felt what is commonly called heartbreak. He was trying to hurt my feelings, and he got me right where it counted: He told me my favorite band sucked.
Chad’s not around anymore, but my love for the Spinanes still is. Like Parade and Like a Prayer, it’s a record I revisit a couple of times a year, and each time her and Elliott Smith’s dueling vocals kick in on the opening track, “Madding,” I think to myself, Music is a time machine.