Radio Writing Assignment is a challenge I created to nudge my blog into unexpected territory. The premise is simple: Turn on the radio (or any source that generates music at random), and then write something about the first song that plays. You could write about the song’s literal meaning, a personal memory the song evokes, or some deeper meaning you believe is embedded in the lyrics.
Driving to work recently I turned on the radio, and Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” came on. The song isn’t too complicated to understand (unless there’s something going on under the surface that I’m not picking up). Joel is stating that despite changing trends and a tendency to focus on looks and fashion, good music is good music.
Thinking about the song inspired me to trace the influence of music on my life. I decided to review the different artists and the ever-evolving technologies that have come and gone over the years, while appreciating the common emotions and experiences music can provoke.
My earliest memories of music come from my mother singing me to sleep with songs from the 1950s and 60s. To this day, I can recall many of those songs almost word for word, and I can still hear the soothing tone of my mom’s voice and the exact way she sang each one.
When I started listening to records, it was often a collection of Disney tunes from Cinderella, Snow White, The Jungle Book, and other animated movies. We had one of those stereos that was the size of a tall file cabinet turned on its side. You would slide the door on the top open and place the album down onto the turntable and then gently drop the needle on the record. It was almost like a sacred experience.
My mother and I lived with my grandparents, and we regularly watched The Lawrence Welk Show on television, which helped foster my love of music and dancing. We had a collection of albums from The Lennon Sisters, who often performed on the show. They were like the big sisters I always wanted. I can picture the cover of one of their albums so clearly – the photo is taken from overhead, and they are wearing blue pleated skirts that are fanned out on a red background. When I looked this album up online, I was delighted to see that it appears just as it does in my memory.
Another album cover burned into my brain is from Michele Lee, who is mostly known as an actress from the 1980s primetime soap Knot’s Landing, but who was also a singer. On the cover, she’s wearing a black miniskirt, tight turtleneck, and high black boots. At the time, this outfit seemed incredibly risqué to a young girl. Something about it felt naughty yet exciting, like maybe I wasn’t supposed to see it, but there it was in my totally square family’s record collection!
We also had a lot of soundtracks in our collection, like The King and I and South Pacific. I used to listen to those and dance around the living room to songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Getting to Know You.” The Soundtracks Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music evolved into Grease and Saturday Night Fever, all of which I played over and over. I loved the escape from my sheltered life that soundtracks provided.
We used to go out to eat at Pizza Hut sometimes, back when the chain had actual restaurants that were kind of nice. The one we frequented had a jukebox, and my mom would give me money to play songs while we waited for our food. I was going through a John Denver phase around this time, so we heard a lot of “Take Me Home Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
As I got older, I graduated to listening to records in my bedroom on a portable record player designed to look like it was covered in denim. I also acquired a white portable radio/cassette player the approximate size and shape of an old lunchbox. I could record songs off the radio, and I even remember holding it up to the television to record songs when a band I liked performed on an afternoon talk show. Hence, my obsession with mix tapes was born.
I soon discovered The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, still two of my favorite bands. For many of us, rock music serves as a guide to help usher us from childhood into adolescence. Suddenly music is all about desire and betrayal and jealousy and sex (and you realize that a lot of the songs you listened to as kids were about those themes, too).
In your teens, the music you listen to can make you feel cool, edgy, adult, dangerous. Music is also an invitation to start touching and exploring each other. I was a late bloomer, so I mostly sat on the sidelines watching everyone slow dance at our school dances. I wasn’t part of the action, but I can still hear the songs that were the most popular slow dance songs, like “Dust in the Wind” and “Stairway to Heaven.”
Once I started driving, that portable cassette player always came with us, along with my preferred tapes of the moment. As any of my friends can attest, I have always loved playing deejay—sometimes obnoxiously so.
Growing up in a boring small town, going to concerts was an important part of our lives in high school. I can’t possibly list all the bands we saw, but I am not embarrassed to admit that the first two concerts we attended (back when one of our moms had to drive us) were The Village People and The Jackson 5. From there we went on to see Pat Benatar, The Go-Go’s, AC/DC, Rush, Van Halen, Bryan Adams, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and so many more.
Music not only gives you permission to loosen up and get physical, it also allows you to express rage and sadness. Memories from my teens and early 20s are punctuated with the songs my friends and I used to nurse our broken hearts. Yaz’s “Don’t Walk Away from Love” is one I can recall singing loudly and defiantly.
By the time I got to college, Walkmans were becoming popular. Suddenly you could take your albums anywhere and have a whole private musical event going on inside your head. At my college in Florida, and everyone “laid out” by the pool in between classes to work on our tans. Freshman year, there we all were individually listening to The Police’s Synchronicity album on our Walkmans in the hot sun.
After going through a number of Walkmans and countless headphones, I was probably one of the last people to convert to a portable CD player—so late that I didn’t have my CD player long before switching to an early model iPod.
The ability to create electronic playlists, first on the computer and then on iTunes, was revolutionary. Early on, my enthusiastic need to create playlists became like a second job, and I had to step away because I was losing the joy of appreciating the actual music.
Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed all kinds of music. My friends and I share a love of Reggae, and we spent many a night dancing at clubs to Madonna and Prince. I’m fond of big band classics and singers like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, I adore Latin music. Anything that makes me want to jump up and down or shake my hips calls my name. I’ll give pretty much anything a try, but I’m mostly drawn to songs that make me smile.
Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to discover new artists that don’t get much radio play, and my husband and I have started a new tradition of listening to Beats 1 music shows on weekend mornings. But my love of soundtracks will no doubt outlive all genres and delivery mechanisms, because there’s nothing quite like an eclectic combination of songs that take you to another place.
In honor of this post I’m sharing a playlist that I just created for the soundtrack of my life. If you love music and enjoy trips down memory lane, I highly recommend building your own soundtrack.
First, I broke my life into eight time periods, and then I typed up lengthy lists of songs, musicians, genres, and movie soundtracks from those periods. This part was loads of fun. I did research on Google, Wikipedia, and Apple Music. I talked to my mom about the songs she used to sing to me, and we reminisced about the music we had in our home.
Once I had an abundance of musical touchstones, I narrowed down the list to a total of 28 songs—a respectable double album size. This part was hard, but the good news is that I can change it anytime I want! Some songs were chosen because they conjure up a specific memory, some because I listened to them so many times, and others because they represented the kind of music I was listening to during that timeframe.
When I have a chance, I plan to create a few expansion playlists, like an all-female influences version, an all get-up-and-dance version and an all rock bands version. I can think of worse ways of spending my time—as long as I don’t get too preoccupied once again.
Hope you have as much fun as I did creating your own soundtrack.
Lisa Bennett’s Musical Journey (through 2016)
1. If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake – Eileen Barton
2. Doll on a Music Box / Truly Scrumptious – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
3. Love Will Keep Us Together- Captain & Tennille
4. I Just Want to Be Your Everything – Andy Gibb
5. Summer Nights – Grease
6. Shattered – The Rolling Stones
7. Promises in the Dark – Pat Benatar
8. How Much More – The Go-Go’s
9. True – Spandau Ballet
10. Let the Music Play – Shannon
11. State Farm – Yaz
The NYC Years
12. Summer Wind – Frank Sinatra
13. Head to Toe – Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam
14. Boy – Book of Love
15. Johnny Come Home – Fine Young Cannibals
16. Lithium – Nirvana
17. My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) – En Vogue
Welcome to Maryland
18. Gel – Collective Soul
19. Never There – Cake
20. On the Bound – Fiona Apple
21. Run On – Moby
22. Turn Off the Light – Nelly Furtado
23. Holiday – Green Day
24. Girl is on My Mind – The Black Keys
25. Take Your Mama – Scissor Sisters
26. Stung + You Belong to Me – Deer Tick
27. Mexican Aftershow Party – Kevin Drew
28. North American Scum – LCD Soundsystem
Bonus Track: Me in Honey – R.E.M. * possibly my all-time favorite song! *
Upcoming blog topics:
- Destructive distractions
- Motivation capacity
- Podcast dream guest appearance