Cue Def Leppard’s “Photograph” and the opening guitars rev in my mind. My current reality shifts, rewinding at full speed (zeep! zeep! zip!) to 1983, and age 14—when I was all carefully curled bangs, thick brown eyeliner, and self-conscious teenage angst.
You’re too much
You’re the only one
I want to touch
It gave me entry to the cool culture of high school, a music scene I’d only glimpsed from afar in junior high. In 9th grade my music collection consisted of mixtapes made from stuff I’d taped from the radio. The poor audio quality motivated me to spend my allowance on my first real cassette albums: Def Leppard’s Pyromania (from which came “Photograph”), and how could it be anything else, Journey’s Frontiers. I’d put on my foam-wrapped headphones and melt into the school bus seat, head against the window, sighing to the ballad “Faithfully.” Rewind, replay, over and over.
Through music I felt like I was finally growing up and getting closer to escaping from my parents. Music helped me look ahead to dating, going out at night with friends, shedding some of my “good girl” conditioning by looking for a little trouble, and feeling like, well… like I finally had a life.
Few things transport you the way music can—it can overwhelm your senses, disintegrating and reframing the present moment, transforming whatever is bothering you into a new reality with new possibilities. The older I get, the more I appreciate how music can also zip you right back to a time and place you’d forgotten. A time and place that made you who you are, which is as much a part of you as your present circumstances.
1983, an age ago, was a formative time. Coming out of the folk, protest rock, and disco era, Gen X, as all generations do, was looking for a new direction, new possibilities. Hair bands and the punk scene were just being born. Pop music developed an electronic, synth sound as keyboards and electronic drums came into greater use and acceptance. This was met with predictable resistance from the mainstream that this new stuff was junk, and could never meet the standard of the previous generation’s music—the truly cool classic rock of the 1970s. Only subversive types, according to the mainstream, hung around CBGBs and other underground punk scenes.
Now that I’m “old” and people are talking about 1980s music as “classic,” it seems there is a new appreciation for those once-nascent, often-scorned sounds (ripping metal guitars, fast edgy punk beats, synth-pop). This new appreciation feels validating, yet at the same time forces me to confront my discomfort with how much time has actually gone by.
A Spotify search for “Photograph” yields a long list of songs with several more recent candidates, forcing me to scroll further down than I’d like to find Def Leppard’s 1983 version. As I pass Nickelback, Ed Sheeran, Chris Malinchak, and even Weezer and R.E.M., it becomes clear to me just how far back in the past my past actually is. Excuse me while I go have a slice of humble pie and sob into my sleeve.
When I recover, I think I will put on my fingerless gloves, tease up my hair, and cue up some other gems I loved from that year, in no particular order:
Once I arrive at the arena, I expect to wind up with a screaming case of cognitive dissonance as the gray and wrinkles I see in the audience around me force me to accept that the reflection in my mirror every day is not quite the same as it was in 1983. Wait a minute, I don’t look like this. Do I?
No matter. I’m just gonna throw on my Walkman and dance. Next playlist: 1984. (I am nothing if not methodical.) Retro music rocks. It reminds me of all the great stuff I have to look back on. It gives me perspective, helps me appreciate that I am having a pretty freaking good life. Best of all—it helps me understand that this life I have continues to evolve, and is nowhere near over yet.