First favorite songs
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s the first song you remember truly loving?
Thanks to my Oklahoma-born parents, I was raised on a steady diet of country music and the soundtracks to musicals (including Oklahoma, of course); there wasn’t much popular or contemporary music in our house. I’ve complained about this in other AVQAs; I feel like I grew up musically warped, and am still catching up on the rest of the world. Which is probably why my early exposure to something with an actual beat sticks with me so vividly. As a little kid, I spent a lot of time at the home of a similar-aged friend with a lot of older cousins, including one 16-year-old who seemed like the epitome of unreachable cool at the time. And one day she brought over a mix-tape featuring Olivia Newton-John’s “Love Is Alive” and played it for us. And we danced and hopped around like little kids do, and I thought “This is the best music ever, why don’t we listen to this all the time?” Then my friend’s mom came home and gave us all The Look. Maybe she’d never seen us dancing before. I’m sure she’d never seen us trying to disco. Mostly, I remember the 16-year-old cousin smugly telling her “I taught them everything they know about dancing,” and my boundless, wordless childhood annoyance. You didn’t teach me anything, Sherri. It was the music, man.
I grew up in a Disney family, so most of the first songs I remember really loving are from Disney movies and TV shows. (I had a cassette tape with the theme songs to Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales, and The New Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh, all of which I could sing to you in their entirety right now.) But the first “real” music I remember being obsessed with was the only “real” music that was my own and not the music my mom played in the car: The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like An Egyptian,” a.k.a. side A and B of the only cassette I had for my blue-and-black Pocket Rocker. I was an extremely shy kid who was overwhelmed by the social pressures of Children’s World daycare, and I learned early on that wearing headphones was a good way to keep the other kids from trying to talk to me. So I would listen to those two songs on a loop while making friendship bracelets (oh, the tragic irony) until it was time to go home. It was my first experience with music as escapism, and probably helped establish my enduring love of dance-happy, female-sung pop music.
This question initially made me think back to the first tape I ever purchased, UB40’s Labour Of Love, which I bought for the song “Red Red Wine.” But before that, I clearly recall whiling away some childhood hours performing interpretive dance for an audience of zero in my parents’ sun porch to the Cats soundtrack, specifically, of course, “Memory.” But even before that I can recall singing with my dad to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” in one of our first cars. That song still rules for its ’80s electronic bounciness and incredible drama, although I recently learned the hard way that it’s a very hard song to handle on karaoke night. Anything before that involves the alphabet or itsy-bitsy spiders, so I think Laura Branigan’s got my number.
I grew up on a fairly busy street with not a lot of kids around, so by default, I was best friends with the only girl who lived nearby. She had a tan-and-orange Fisher-Price record player in her room, and I remember one of her records very clearly: The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles Hits. We’d jam that on repeat, singing along to two tracks: “Please Please Me” and “Do You Want To Know A Secret,” both of which I thought had beautiful harmonies. I contend that record eventually led to my love of The Monkees, then The Beatles, and then to Britpop, all of which have served me much better in life than that iffy friend across the street, who was eventually banned from my house after she (allegedly) stole some of my Christmas money.
As a child, I had tastes equally informed by ignorance and poor judgment. I gravitated toward larger-than-life figures like Michael Jackson, and for some reason, Slim Whitman. I suppose I liked the way Whitman elongated syllables when he sang “I remember youoooooooooooooo.” But I have a vivid memory of my first favorite song being Ringo Starr’s “Stop And Smell The Roses.” For the life of me, I can’t remember what I saw in it, but I guess I thought Starr was funny-looking and likeable, and the song lodged in my head the first time I saw the music video. Thankfully, it vacated its once-valuable real estate inside my psyche and only surfaces in response to questions like this.
I honestly can’t remember how or why, but Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5” was my first favorite song of all time, and it stayed in the top spot for a full year, before being knocked off its perch by Men At Work’s “Down Under.” My parents never listened to music, I’ve never seen the movie starring Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, and the gang, I’ve never really liked anything related to country music, and I was a good 17 years away from experiencing the daily grind that Dolly speaks of in the song, but I somehow found it and loved it anyhow, and I still have the 7-inch to prove it. I had the chance to see Dolly in concert a few years ago, and the 5-year-old in me was dying to finally hear that first slice of magic live. Unfortunately, the folks who took us out beforehand—I was with a large group of people from my 9-to-5 past—decided to order some extra drinks and dessert, and we missed the first half of the show. Next time, I’m going to pour myself a cup of ambition and get there on time.
Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” came out in 1978, when I was 3, but the vivid memory comes slightly later. It’s one of my earliest: sitting at my grandmother’s dining-room table with my aunt—her youngest daughter, only five months older than me—listening to the 45 on her Fisher-Price record player, some time around 1979, the year after she got it for Christmas. It soared—and still does. It’s also a completely natural kids’ record: Donna’s stage training helps a lot, in that she sells the drama while remaining believable and not stagy. That arrangement is a total show-stopper—slow-jam buildup that explodes into brilliantly lit disco. Horns punch through strings; everything moves. That change—I didn’t know music could do that. I was in a nightclub, like my mom and her brothers and sisters used to go, and I was only 4. I never let go.
I was a precocious, music-loving 8-year-old, and I used to go spend my money on 7-inch singles at a store called Bay Music in Shorewood, Wisconsin. I distinctly remember hearing The Rolling Stones’ minor, minor hit “Hang Fire” on the radio and heading to the shop to buy the record. I thought it was called “Hang Five,” though, and that’s what I asked for. Luckily, the employees didn’t make fun of me. They just pointed me to the record, which I remember taking home and playing over and over, along with other favorites of the era, like Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock And Roll.”
My memories of early childhood are pretty sketchy. I remember The Banana Splits. I remember being in a bad car wreck with my drunk mom and stepdad. (I’ve still got the scars on my face to remind me.) I remember going to the bank with my grandparents and having the teller hand me boxes of Chiclets. I remember the awkward horror of my first day of kindergarten. And I remember Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It was all over the radio when I was 5, and something about the country-pop anthem infiltrated my tiny mind; it’s a tragic yet ultimately triumphant tale that Campbell tells, an epic vignette of decline and redemption that probably made zero sense to me at the time. Actually, my daydreamy, 5-year-old self may have just confused “Rhinestone Cowboy” with Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” another ubiquitous ’70s story-song about some glittery dude doing shit I didn’t understand. Like I said, sketchy.
I grew up in a musical household, with a father who was a part-time musician and full-time DJ, so we had stacks of promo records scattered about our home. I remember when I was 6, my dad worked a late shift at a crummy pop station in Searcy, Arkansas, and I’d call in almost every night before bed to request one of two songs: Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” and The Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft.” (I don’t know why I liked the former so much; the latter I liked because it was all science fiction-y.) But I have much stronger and fonder memories of the following year, when we moved to El Dorado, Kansas, and my dad brought home a promo copy of Rock ’N’ Roll Rocket, the second album by Starbuck, an Atlanta band that fused southern rock and disco (with a heavy dose of marimba, as on their lone hit single, “Moonlight Feels Right”). We even got to go see Starbuck play at Worlds Of Fun in Kansas City, and my brother and I were so enthused about that experience that for the whole summer, we played Rock ’N’ Roll Rocket about once a day, taking turns singing the songs while holding the lyric sheet. We were obsessed with the whole album, but particularly the opening song, “Everybody Be Dancin’,” a breezy piece of dance-pop that featured synthesizers and a vocoder, two elements guaranteed to bewitch any geeky 7-year-old.
I’m not sure it was my favorite song, but the first song I remember liking a lot was “What A Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers, which is pretty incredible considering it topped the Billboard charts when I was a shade under 20 months old. I doubt I can remember “What A Fool Believes” from that age, but I was still awfully young when this song became my jam. Looking back, I can understand why “What A Fool Believes” captured my attention. First off, it’s a pretty damn infectious song, with a bouncy piano, synth-powered hook, and sweeping, slightly disco-sounding chorus. But more than that, “What A Fool Believes” sounds like a song written and performed by Muppets, due in no small part to Michael McDonald’s often imitated but never duplicated vocal. The smooth indecipherability of “What A Fool Believes” doesn’t sound human, but it’s a warm, fuzzy inhumanity that makes you want to bob your head and suck your thumb.
My parents had a terrific record collection when I was growing up: every Beatles album, plenty of Elvis Presley (and Costello), lots of new wave. Of course, with such a wealth of music at my disposal, I focused solely on “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. Something about the song’s vivid, detail-obsessed storytelling struck a chord, and I quickly became obsessed. Plus, the album cover—featuring Rogers in one of those sepia-toned, “old-timey” photos you can have taken at the mall—always made me giggle. I haven’t been much of a story-song fan since, probably because nothing tops a well-told tale of a mysterious stranger doling out enigmatic, poker-themed life advice.
I kicked this off answering another AVQA a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll repeat myself by noting the first pop song I remember really liking was Tony Orlando And Dawn’s “Knock Three Times,” a hit years—well, not that many years—before I was born, but still frequently played during my youth. So let’s fast-forward a few years and talk about one of the songs that helped turn me into someone who really spent a lot of time listening to and obsessing about pop music. I was born to older parents who recalled with shock and disapproval the first appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and I grew up in a house where rock ’n’ roll wasn’t smiled upon. But it came to claim my soul anyway, sneaking in through the first song I can remember wanting to own and play again and again: “An Innocent Man” by Billy Joel, the title track to his homage-paying album of the same title. What can I say? We don’t choose the music we love; it chooses us. And I still like that song. (I still like the other song that helped lure me into the devil’s music, too: “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now),” by Phil Collins.)
My childhood was a long series of small breakthroughs, guiding me from the closed-off, insular fundamentalist Christian world I grew up in toward the more open pop-cultural world I live in now. If I were to answer this question honestly, my first favorite song was probably the Christian kids’ standard “The Butterfly Song,” which I used to sing compulsively for some reason. (I think I liked the idea of being all of the different animals.) But the first song outside of the Christian contemporary sphere I really paid attention to didn’t come along until I was 12. My youth group and I were on our way to see DC Talk (still in their bubblegum-rap phase) in concert, and the youth-group leader had on a mix-tape of mostly Christian music that occasionally cycled around to one song I quickly fell for. I didn’t know the name of it, but I kept begging him to play the “da da da” song. As it turned out, the song was by The Proclaimers and was better known as “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” a song that began my slow descent into the alt-rock scene of the time. Ironically, as pointed out to me by our own Sam Adams, The Proclaimers actually recorded some Christian tracks, making them not exactly the edgiest band in the world, but I maintain an affection for the song to this day, largely for making me realize pop music didn’t have to be Satanic, and could be goofy and fun.
I was never really into music as a kid—I mean, I had albums and I listened to the radio, but while most of my friends were busy defining their place in the world through grunge and hair-metal, I read books and dabbled with Billy Joel. So I guess it makes sense that the first song I can ever remember really being in love with was something I saw in a movie: specifically, “Johnny B. Goode” from one of the many climaxes of Back To The Future. The Chuck Berry song (performed in the movie by “Marty McFly with the Starlighters”) is great enough on its own, but for a while, that scene in that movie (which is also the first movie I can ever remember thinking of as my favorite movie, and the first movie I ever owned on VHS) was everything I wanted in music. Michael J. Fox has just saved the day by convincing his parents to fuck (eventually), and before returning to his own time, he gets a chance to finally let loose on the guitar in front of a live audience. It all ends in a joke (and a funny joke at that), but until Fox goes a bit too far in bringing rock ’n’ roll to the masses, the number is one of the joyous, triumphant moments that, to me, seemed the whole point of being alive. One of my longest-running fantasies was to be able to perform the song myself someday, and I finally got the chance to… as a soloist in a chorus concert my senior year of high school. Thus I learned at a comparatively young age that yes, my dreams could come true, but they might turn out to be pretty goddamn dorky.
My parents weren’t big music fans, but we did go to a lot of movies, which explains why one of the scant few records we did own was the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. Most of it, my 7-year-old self found pretty dull, but one song absolutely blew my mind: The Charlie Daniels Band’s “Devil Went Down To Georgia.” It was pretty much love at first listen. You had a great story of good vs. evil and two absolutely awesome solos, all wrapped up in one hell of a foot-stomping, shit-kicking tune. I listened to that one song over and over until I pretty much wore out the record, and unlike most of the other music I liked in my pre-adolescence, it’s still a favorite. One thing did bother me, though (and still does, to this day), and that’s how in the hell Johnny ever convinced the devil that his fiddle-playing was better, when the devil clearly beat him, hands down. Ah well, even the devil gets the shaft sometimes, but at least it opened my eyes to the fact that the devil always has the best music—a realization that’s served me well to this day.
Growing up in Alabama, the saturation of country music was nearly impossible to sidestep, but I somehow managed to (mostly) avoid it, even with limited access to MTV. Because if anything, the TV was more often tuned to its adult-contemporary sister channel, VH1. One day, at age 8, I bore witness to the video for Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and instantly fell in love with Whitney. She was the prettiest woman I had ever seen, and her dancing around with permed hair and slinky dresses was downright seductive to me: One of my first crushes was born. I got my mom to check out the cassette copy of the album from the library and dub it. It’s a fantastic, catchy song, and to this day, I don’t know if the appeal was the hook or my crush on Whitney. But either way, I sat next to my tape player, hypnotized and bobbing my head, playing the song over and over.
You know that line from A Mighty Wind where John Michael Higgins’ character says the abuse in his family was “mostly musical in nature”? That’s how I feel about my upbringing—not because my parents crammed smooth jazz or lite FM down our throats, but because we didn’t listen to music at all. Apart from Peter, Paul & Mary 8-tracks on car trips and endless spins of Free To Be You And Me and Really Rosie, I don’t recall them turning on the radio or cueing up the classics at all. It got so bad, I ferociously envied the grammar-school classmate who wore his Duran Duran shirt to dress-down days, not because I was a closet Durannie, but because the idea of being into a band—any band—seemed impossibly, unachievably cool. I didn’t get my first radio or buy my first albums until I was in junior high, and it wasn’t until a friend simultaneously turned me on to Jethro Tull and Dire Straits just before high school that my musical obsessions began. (If, by this point in the story, you have gotten the impression that I was almost unfathomably uncool, you are correct.) There were songs I listened to before—“Rapper’s Delight,” for one, and Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy”—but the first one I remember truly loving was Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms,” which I’ve only recently become able to listen to without tearing up. It seemed sad, soaring, and poignant, in part because I hadn’t yet realized that Mark Knopfler couldn’t sing worth a damn, and the fact that it was one of the few songs from that album not played to death on the radio made it mine in a way that “Money For Nothing” or “Walk Of Life” could never be. I recently heard the song for the first time since The West Wing’s second-season finale, and it no longer opens the floodgates. But it was the first time I realized that pop music could move you to do more than dance, and a key step toward becoming someone who takes popular culture far, far too seriously.
In 1983, I was 7, and like every kid in the U.S., I spent a lot of time watching MTV, which is where I first heard “Cum On Feel The Noize” by Quiet Riot. Obsession came quickly: First there was the 45 I spun endlessly on my Fisher-Price turntable, followed by the LP Metal Health, and the following spring, I gathered friends to basically air guitar to Quiet Riot in our school talent show. (Sadly, there’s no video.) While I’m sure I liked songs before this one, they probably came from being hostage to my parents’ and siblings’ tastes—“Cum On Feel The Noize” was my first step toward independence, and the first sign to my family that my relationship with music would be far more intense than theirs. My sister still chuckles when she talks about hearing “Cum On Feel The Noize” blasting from my room and realizing it was an omen. Of course, she also told my mom, “Do you know how they spell ‘come’ in that song? C-U-M!” I asked what that meant, and my mom said, “Drugs.” (She was similarly evasive when I asked what Trojans were in “Little Red Corvette.”) Remarkably, my mom didn’t immediately pull the plug on my Quiet Riot fandom after that. Even then, she knew that war could not be won. Before she knew it, I was going to punk shows at sketchy downtown clubs on school nights—but it all began with this Slade cover.