Yourself or Someone Like You: Nostalgia and the Power of Music



On a recent episode of Voice & Verse, I chatted with former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson about the golden age of late-’90s rock. Anyone who’s familiar with the show knows I have a huge soft spot for this era, as evidenced by guests like Wilson, Eve 6’s Max Collins, Vertical Horizon’s Matt Scannell and American Hi-Fi’s Stacy Jones. Anyone who knows me even better is well aware I hold Barenaked Ladies as my favorite band of all time.

Bands like Eve 6, Semisonic, Barenaked Ladies, Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind and Sugar Ray were some of my earliest musical discoveries, the first time I felt like I’d uncovered music that wasn’t my parents’. The music was something intrinsically mine, something my friends and I shared over sleepovers and pseudo band practices as part of our social identity. It’s largely why I started Voice & Verse, to learn more about the creation of music that has and continues to shape who I am. During my chat with Dan, I posed a question: Do I still love this music today because the songs are truly great, or is my fondness a byproduct of nostalgia?

A few weeks ago, I set out to answer that question at the Under The Sun tour. Curated by Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, Under The Sun is one of two touring summer festivals focused on ’90s bands (the other is Everclear’s Summerland tour, which, unlike McGrath’s trek, focuses primarily on rockier ’90s acts). Two ’90s tours? What a time to be alive.

This year, Under The Sun featured Sugar Ray, Better Than Ezra, Uncle Kracker and Eve 6. As someone who has vivid memories of sitting in a Wendy’s drive-thru the first time I heard “Every Morning” on the radio, I was so in. But there was still some doubt in the back of my mind as I entered the gates of Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia. The songs I love exist in digital files and on plastic discs. They’ll always sound the way they do, but the musicians who created them aren’t as crystallized. They’re older now, having logged thousands (millions?) of miles since hitting it big. They’ve also played these songs thousands of times since then. Do they still love this music?

It’s clear Mark McGrath truly, truly does. He should, of course, because it was the launching pad for his career, but hearing him talk about this era of music onstage cemented it. McGrath is still the consummate showman, self-deprecating and innately likable. He was genuinely blown away by the response to his band’s set, commenting that these songs have the power to bring together thousands of people on a rainy, summer weekday. It’s easy to love music when you’re young; when you’re older and have kids, responsibilities and a job, sometimes things unfortunately take a backseat.

But here we all were because the music touched us in some way. In this moment, I had the answer to my question. It really didn’t matter why I loved this music – all that matters is that I did, and still do, love it. What a thrill it was seeing Eve 6 rip through “Promise,” “Here’s To The Night” and “Inside Out.” What a thrill it was seeing McGrath lead the crowd in sing-alongs during “Every Morning” and “Someday,” seeing Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin (a criminally underrated songwriter) belt out “Good” and “Desperately Wanting” like they were still new and exciting.

I certainly wasn’t alone, either. A row ahead of me, a dad was explaining this era of music to his young son, while 30-something men on the venue’s lawn traded stories about the first CDs they bought with their own money. Everyone spoke of this music with reverence; there was no holier-than-thou judgment from anyone, because, unlike a lot of concerts I’ve attended, seemingly everyone was there to simply have a good time. In that regard, what McGrath has done with this tour is really remarkable. I’m already anticipating Under The Sun 2016.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never had much of an emotional connection to Uncle Kracker, nor did he have any hits in the ’90s, making his inclusion here a bit suspect. My only real memory of his music is getting the worst haircut of my life while “Follow Me” played over the barbershop’s speakers. Clearly, he and I have some issues.)

But throughout the night, a flood of memories came rushing back: memories of hearing songs like “The Way” and “Real World” seemingly every time I went to the dentist; wondering with my friends which one of us sixth-grade boys would be the lucky one to slow dance with Kelly Williams during “I’ll Be” or “Truly Madly Deeply” at a middle-school social; watching TRL every day after school and praying anyone but the Backstreet Boys would own the top spot; discovering Eve 6’s massively underrated B-side “Anytime” at sleep-away camp thanks to my friend Sean.

It’s amazing how clear these memories feel, even today. But that’s the power of music. More than any other art form, music has the power to transport us back to certain moments in time. Science shows this “reminiscence bump” acts as the proverbial soundtrack to our lives; mine would have to be a multi-disc affair.

It’s a bit Pollyanna-ish to look back on all of this so fondly in 2015, and even easier to whitewash the past in the process. (Trust me, I thought long and hard about conveniently leaving out the time Sean and I planned to sing Will Smith’s “Miami” at a middle-school talent show.) But in the end, Under The Sun reminded me what it was like to be a kid again, to cut through all the responsibility of my current life and simply enjoy music at its most basic form. And I wasn’t the only one: Hearing thousands of people sing, “I just want to fly” in 2015 was a strange thing, but it immediately brought a smile to my face.

But it’s also hard not to feel a tinge of sadness thinking about all of this. The Blockbuster Music where I bought records like Dizzy Up The Girl, 14:59 and Americana is now a McDonalds. Similarly, the Sam Goody that sold me Horrorscope, The Battle of Los Angeles and Californication is now a shoe store. Driving past these stores now feels like driving by the house I grew up in, like the current occupants will never really understand how important that place was to me.

In a way, though, it’s fitting: I’m certainly not the same person I was some 15 years ago. I’ve moved three times since those days, graduated college, entered the workforce, started a new life. My middle school and high school friends have mostly drifted away. When you’re 13, the thought of being 28 feels like an unreachable goal. When you’re 28, the thought of being 13 is even more unattainable. But no matter where I am, I can put these songs on and remember the good times, the laughs with my best friends, the long summer days and big dreams. When I put these songs on, the world once again feels full of promise – when who I was and who I am intersect, if only for a moment.

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