By Nicole Roth
Good music evokes a state of mind. The right song or album brings back feelings of the teenager you used to be or dreams you thought you had forgotten. At least that’s how I feel every time I hear the CDs I used to listen to in high school. Over the years and many different moves, I’ve culled the collection to only what I can still bear to listen to. With the opening riffs of AFI’s Sing the Sorrow, I’m seventeen again and back in my childhood bedroom. The case is open in my lap and I am pouring over the lyrics. Listening to the music, I feel that I’ve finally found someone like me, someone who loves language and is moments away from losing control.
Looking back, I am surprised that some of the other music I listened to didn’t sink in as deep as that one AFI album. In the early 2000s, a lot of other bands I listened to were fiercely anti-Bush. On my way to and from high school, I had Anti-Flag’s Terror State or NOFX’s War on Errorism on repeat, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about what was going on in politics. I just liked the way the music sounded and how the people looked. Night after night, I listened to my punk and emo screamo as I did my homework. Eventually I even covered my backpack in safety pins and thought of myself as a little left of normal.
Despite my accessories, I somehow missed out on the social parts of being punk. Instead of finding my people, I studied all the time and wrote terrible emo poetry in my notebook. So it was completely by accident that a punk at my school handed me a flyer for a local punk show. The flyer was a photocopy with a mohawked vocalist screaming into a microphone, a date and time typed in the corner. Finally, I thought, something new to do.
Where I lived in the very northern suburbs of Chicago, local punk music still had a foothold. Most of the world may have been declaring punk dead, but it was alive here. Groups of kids wore the markers of typical punk subculture: studded belts, ripped up clothes, and a scowl.
Although I’d seen these punks in the hallway, I had no idea what to expect. That weekend I drove to the show and parked my dad’s car in one of the only two venue parking spots. Crunching across the gravel in my thrift store Keds, I eventually made it to the door of the dirty DIY club, which was sandwiched in the middle of tiny strip mall. I paid my five bucks and walked into a tiny room with a busted couch and a sound board. Beyond the first room was another room with dusty linoleum floors and padded walls.
One look around and I knew I didn’t really belong there. My hair was its natural color and I was wearing plain clothes. Everyone else seemed to get the dress code. Kids in skin-tight black pants, holes and rips scattered on the legs. Chaos spikes and mohawks radiating from the heads of every other punk. Studded leather jackets, black Misfits t-shirts, and bum flaps. They all looked like they’d come straight out of a Casualties photoshoot.
It seemed like a painfully long time before the music began. While I waited, I looked around or down at my shoes. But when the music started, that self-consciousness almost melted away. The guitar riffs were stripped down and muddy. I could feel the bass drum pounding in my chest, beating like the raging teenage angst that I always seemed to be feeling. Each vocalist growled more furiously than the last, and before I knew it, I was bouncing around in the mosh pit.
I’d like to say that night was an awakening—that I left that show and became a real punk blaring Black Flag and talking about overthrowing the man. But to be a true part of a subculture, you have to mean it; you have to commit to the way of life and try to find more people just like you. And I never seemed to have the patience or motivation to pledge my allegiance to only one style of music.
A quote often attributed to Duke Ellington says, “There are only two kinds of music—good music and the other kind.” As a music fan, I will listen to almost anything and I find myself hooked on many different genres over time (and sometimes at the same time). In all that listening, I’m looking for my own definition of good music.
Lately, I have been listening to a lot of death metal. There is nothing more cathartic than putting on metal after a horrible, stress-filled day at work. The meaner and louder, the better. On those days, I roll down the windows, turn up Job for a Cowboy, and feel this rush of power. In that moment, I feel that I could get as angry and as loud as Jonny Davy if I wanted to.
Whenever I tell someone that I listen to metal, they look at me with wide, surprised eyes and ask, “You? Really?”
And I get it. There’s nothing particularly “metal” about business casual. I don’t have visible tattoos and I don’t wear band t-shirts.
That said, why should it matter what I look like? We live in an age of musical democracy. Everyone is clicks away from any genre imaginable. There are so many choices and so much great music out there. There is no reason why anyone should have to look like a certain type of music in order to be allowed to listen to it.
Music has the power to transform and transport us. Anyone who has belted out a Beyoncé song or screamed along to a punk anthem knows that power. So, listen to whatever you want, wear whatever you want. Only you get to decide for yourself what “good” music is.