What's My Age Again?

the lasting power of ’90s alt rock

In fifth grade every social group had its own distinct background music. On the blacktop, the tomboys and little leaguers dribbled kickballs and skinned their elbows as Will Smith sounded from the coach’s stereo. On the sidewalk, the Girl Scouts played hopscotch and snapped each other’s training bras while humming the melodies of Britney Spears. On the wood chips, the gifted kids practiced their chorus solos. On the teachers’ parking lot, in the name of Limp Bizkit, bullies feasted on stolen Fruit Roll-Ups and mooned anyone who saw. Why didn’t I fit in?

I excelled at kickball, I was technically a Girl Scout­—though I ate more Samoas than I sold—I was in accelerated math, and one time, I even placed fake dog poop in the center of the classroom during morning cleanup. In other words, I belonged everywhere in theory but nowhere in practice. What I lacked, it seemed, was my own appropriate background music.

Fortunately, there were others just like me. But, who were we, the ones whose idea of a successful recess was to huddle under trees or hang from the monkey bars in a fit of curse words and sarcastic slurs, our middle fingers raised to the heavens? For a long time, we didn’t know, either. That was, until Hannah pulled that disc out from her cargo shorts, both of which she had stolen from her older brother that morning. The album was Enema of the State, by Blink-182. We took turns admiring its scandalous cover art and listening to its songs on the CD player I had received for my birthday months before, but until that recess, never used.

This music did more than just sound energetic and catchy, and like nothing my parents would ever tolerate in the house. It justified my entire ungraceful existence. After each lonely bus ride home from school, I could still consider my uncoolness an odd brand of cool, so long as I blasted “What’s My Age Again?” loud enough to piss off my parents and frighten the cats. Everything from the profane lyrics to the thrashing guitars to Tom DeLonge’s whiny cries gave my shyness an aggressive voice, my vague frustration a distinct rhythm, and my awkwardness a triumphant, thrilling tune. In the same year that I started to define the world entirely in terms of what was cool and what wasn’t, angst-ridden rock bands ripped up these distinctions as emphatically as they did their chain-link army pants. That’s not to say I stopped caring about how others saw me—I cared more. For the fifth-grade graduation dance, I dyed my hair blue on a whim and spent the whole night by the Kool-Aid bowl as my peers were bumping and grinding to the best of Destiny’s Child. “And I didn’t dance to any of that stupid girly music!” I recalled later in my diary, “Victory!” Really, I had just been embarrassed about my hair.

The true victory came after graduation: insecure as I was about my appearance and behavior, for the next three years, I didn’t give a damn what you thought about my taste in music. After all, how could a song be bad if it made me feel so good? “Because Green Day’s for poseurs, you poseur,” said the skaters in seventh grade. “Because it’s immature and obnoxious!” my mother would shout over the stereo before replacing The Offspring with her Elton John anthology. Fortunately, my music was so obnoxious in both lyrics and volume that I remained deaf to its critics for a long, blissful time. Then, I started high school.

As a freshman I attended the first meeting of the Mixtape Club, a gathering that mainly consisted of intimidating, cigarette-addicted, tattooed seniors. I had prepared what I thought was the perfect compilation of rock songs, and even decorated the CD case with hot pink exclamation points out of pride. We exchanged mixes randomly, and to my happy surprise, I got the president’s. To the president’s horror, he got mine. At the next meeting, he outlawed every band I had included, threw my new mix in the trash, and handed me two more of his own, calling them “homework.” I thanked him for his kindness and wisdom. That was my last meeting for the Mixtape Club.

Still, its memory haunted me all throughout high school. I began to associate my favorite bands with my favorite junk foods, and enjoyed them sparingly. Maybe all the critics were right. Maybe music that perfectly encapsulated my angst was bad, because teen angst itself was bad. By the end of junior year, I had relegated what I had not deleted of my Green Day and Sum 41 collections to a single iTunes playlist called “Guilty Pleasures…SHHH.” It was time to grow up.

I imagined this process was as simple as trading Blink 182 and Green Day for The Smiths and Radiohead, my expressive anger for melancholic irony. I completed the transformation just in time for college, only to realize after many frustrating papers and disappointing weekends that neglecting what I loved was even more ridiculous than what I loved. While I appreciated the plaid shirts and witty lyrics in a way I never would the blue hair and curse words, it took me until my sophomore year to learn that despite the change in image and taste, deep down I was—and likely, always will be—the same cranky fifth-grader. How do I know? “Why,” I think, as “What’s my Age Again?” blares from my headphones in the Undergraduate Reading Room, “that’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.”

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