In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: the first “cool” songs we ever liked.
Growing up, I was more familiar with the Muppets versions of popular songs than the songs themselves. As the eldest sibling, I didn’t have any older brothers or sisters to guide me, and my parents, bless them, were not big music lovers. Aside from a single copy of Big Brother And The Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, the edgiest records in their collection were an incomplete collection of Beatles LPs from Meet The Beatles to The White Album. Thus, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, along with whatever was on “alternative” radio, were the wholesome soundtrack to my last few years of blissful preteen naïveté. But after an especially brutal first year of junior high, I came to the painful realization that a) it was important to be popular and b) I would never be popular.
One of my classmates—here referred to as Chris—must have been going through a similarly angsty phase, because during that same year he started wearing dog collars, stopped washing his clothes regularly, and put his hair up into a mohawk held together with Elmer’s glue. (The result was appropriately dandruff-esque.) Chris and I knew each other from elementary school, and so as unpopular eighth graders we stuck together almost by default. We also rode the same bus, and it was here, around 7 a.m., that I heard the song that would send me down an entirely different adolescent path.
Kurt Cobain had died a couple of years earlier—this would have been the fall of ’96—and I must have been complaining about how there was nothing cool on the radio any more, because Chris handed me his Walkman and said something to the effect of, “The radio sucks.” I put on the headphones. He pressed play. Bikini Kill’s “New Radio” began blaring, and at that moment I decided that the popular girls could eat it, because I was a punk rocker. This music was loud, it was messy, it used words I wouldn’t dare say out loud until my 20s, and it did not give a flying fuck what anyone thought. And women were making it! Angry, aggressive, overtly sexual women who fought for what they believed in and against what they didn’t. It was what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it.
Inspired by these super-cool punk goddesses, I cut off my long hair, clad myself in ripped fishnets and combat boots, and immersed myself in the history of feminism and punk music, teaching myself about artists like Kim Gordon, Exene Cervenka, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, The Au Pairs, The Raincoats, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, and then-new-grrrls-on-the-block Sleater-Kinney. (If some of those references seem a couple decades behind, note that I was still a dork at heart, and aside from the inserts in Bikini Kill CDs my way of learning about punk was to go to the library and ask if they had any books about it.) Junior high still sucked, and I was still an outcast, but I cared significantly less. I was on a mission.
Saying that Kathleen Hanna “saved your life” has become a cliché among women my age, so I’m going to go ahead and give that honor to Chris—whom I lost contact with years ago and whose last name I can’t even remember—instead. Thanks, buddy. Your mohawk was gross, but you were cool.