The Sidewalk Soundtrack: Kicking Off the
Feel-Good Revolution Earth

A column on unabashedly happy music.

My mom never fed me cayenne pepper-flavored baby food. Yours probably didn’t either, for a few very good reasons. Gerber, prized for its line of strained and mish-mashed food products, has yet to explore the joys of Southwest cuisine. And infants, being new to life and its wonderfully infinite mysteries, are too fascinated by things like clenching and unclenching their tiny fingers and following the spinning shapes on their overhanging crib mobiles to care what they might be missing.

Naturally, with age comes discovery — education spanning every sensory front. Discovery, in turn, ripens the human faculty for discrimination. You choose your favorite stuffed animal. You begin to associate love with the smell of Grandma’s kitchen. You establish your own personal yuck-face when your brother tricks you into eating a hot pepper for the first time.

While fingerprints are a biological symbol of human individuality, the opinion or ideal is its emotional manifestation. It is expression in its most distilled form. Before the artist reaches for his or her instrument — whether it is a pen, a paintbrush, or a violin — he or she has a fundamental idea of what is beautiful, of what to strive for. And beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. (Incidentally, clichés do not incite my yuck-face. I’m not so quick to kick a warm, old friend to the curb.)

Here’s a question, then, to position the fun house mirrors: is one eye superior to another? For instance, should I really buy all the albums on an “esteemed” rock critic’s Top 20 list? What do movie reviewers know about being entertained that I don’t? Why do museum curators have a say in what is culturally relevant, while Joe Blow has to be content with picking his nose and looking on as the world is shaped around him, supposedly for him?

I would certainly argue that everyone’s opinion is valid and important. In a way. If that was totally true, the idea of connoisseurship would collapse on itself like a reflection of a reflection of a reflection and wink out of existence. That fact is that there are experts to rule every proverbial school.

I think it’s sufficient to say that everyone is a snob about something. Everyone has extended knowledge in at least one area. That area can be extremely broad or highly specific. So we have computer snobs, WWF wrestling snobs, comic book snobs, and snobs who can answer every “Simpsons” trivia question. There are health snobs who will heckle you for not taking your daily dose of fish oil, and car snobs who will laugh at you for choosing an inferior make or model. Asking yourself what kind of snob you are is just as profound and a lot more fruitful than attempting the lofty “Who am I?”

As for me, I’m a music snob. This is not to say that I spurn those who don’t share the same opinions as I do. I don’t fancy myself possessing some sacred bit of wisdom that others will never be able to attain.

The reason I can lay claim to some elitism is that music is where I place most of my energies outside of what’s necessary to maintain life. I work ultimately to buy CDs, related magazines, stereo equipment, and concert tickets. I’ve read and researched. I’ve reviewed and interviewed. I’ve been a manic mix maker and a closet kazoo player. At the school where I am employed, I sponsor the Music Appreciation Club. Which I founded.

I lay my qualifications on the table because this is supposed to be a column. A column is a regular feature addressing a particular topic from a hopefully unique perspective. For the column writer, having more than a layperson’s knowledge of that topic is a start. Having a passion for it also goes a long way. It’s a lot better than simply being a snob.

Most music columns function as reviews, making definitive judgments about what’s good and what’s bad. But I think my relationship with music at the moment is different than that, because I’m not interested in handing out ratings stars or making snappy comments about albums that don’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong — I love reading those things. I just can’t step outside of myself enough to write them anymore, at least not in the conventional format.

Instead, I’d like to use this space to talk about music in a gentler, more leisurely way. A way that imitates my best musical experiences: strolling off to school with my Walkman on, oblivious to cars, the sounds of people, the slight drizzle that’s started up … lost in a perfect melody.

This is the sidewalk soundtrack, a look at music and the human experience from a pedestrian’s point of view — but not in a pedestrian manner. Ideally, it will involve more than an expression of aural values. It will consist of introductions, celebrations, memories, and otherwise interesting tidbits. And it will explore the beautifully strange connection between music and emotion.

To take an abbreviated look, right now I am listening to Nude on the Moon, a double-disc anthology of the B-52′s greatest hits. Most people know the B-52′s as the party pop band behind “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster.” They’re often dismissed as a novelty act — an outfit including a couple of strange dames with beehive hairdos, a fey front man with a voice like Kermit the Frog, and some other guy who kind of stays in the background.

They’re quirky and upbeat in a way that the population at large might find a bit too cloying: they’ve got tons of songs with titles like “She Brakes for Rainbows” and “Follow Your Bliss,” and lyrically they lay the psychedelia on nice and thick (“Orange popsicles and lemonade/It’s the summer of love love love”).

Right now, though, they are making my day. Right now, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson can out-sing anyone, their voices at once intertwining and reverberating off each other on the opening verses of “Deadbeat Club.” The hook is clean and simple; the chorus is beautiful. So I’m pushing the repeat button on my Walkman.

Undoubtedly, pop is my music of choice, and I don’t mean pop as in short for “popular.” The pop I’m talking about is music that is soaring and jangly and uplifting for its own sake. Music that makes your ears smile and your heart swell.

What I like most about the B-52′s is that they’ve never tried to be anything more than pop, but they still make it sound like art. And until I picked up this album, I never realized the impact they have had on the music world. According to the voluminous liner notes, they inspired John Lennon to record again (they reminded him of Yoko). They perked the ears of Kurt Cobain and Bjork, and made the cover of Rolling Stone (not that this is any amazing feat nowadays).

The B-52′s started as a jam project inspired by a gigantic shared drink called a Flaming Volcano in 1977. Twenty-five years later, they remain resilient, even after the death of original member Ricky Wilson (Cindy’s brother) and a three-year hiatus by Cindy. Overall, their history has been only semi-tumultuous, which I find refreshing. Personally and musically, the epitomize positivity. Oh, they can deadpan, but their wit is never really barbed. Just fun, sharp and straight through the nose, like Pixy Stix.

In a time when the youth of the nation only laugh at jokes they’ve heard before while their elders contrarily wallow in the muck of post-ironic irony (wink wink sigh), I am really loving the B-52′s. When my bones ache after a long day, when I’m feeling ground down by the gears of life, when I just need something that is what it is without some venomous cultural subtext, I can take a bite of “Quiche Lorraine” and rest assured that the sun is shining somewhere.

Maybe it’s just the thought of approaching summer, but I think I can say I’ve acquired a taste for happiness.

Article © 2002 by Sarah David