In 1995, I bought A Boy Named Goo, the debut album by the Goo Goo Dolls.
A Boy Named Goo is not a “classic” album in the way that Led Zeppelin IV is a classic album or in the way that Nevermind is a classic album. But that didn’t stop my ears from telling my brain in 1995 that A Boy Named Goo ought to be a classic album.
In a piece for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern provides an explanation for my misconception: it’s the hormones, stupid. As Stern writes, our hormones “tell our brains that everything is incredibly important — especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments).”
You see, I was 17 in 1995. So, as I drove around rural Kansas pining for whatever girl had most recently broken my heart, with “Naked” and “Name” playing on the CD player that was tethered to the stereo in my light blue Corsica by way of a cassette adapter, I was pretty sure that this might be as good as music got.
During the decade that spans age 12 to 22, our emotions take on the characteristics of a momentous sine wave. The music we hear in this period of our lives becomes the music against which we judge the tunes we hear for all of eternity (or until we become dead).
This is science. Or close to it, anyway.
What comes next is supposition. My supposition.
If we are each prone to thinking the music we heard as teens is the most important music we will ever hear, it follows that some people might have better music taste than others, by the happenstance that led to those people being 17 at exactly the right (or wrong) time.
That uncle you have, born in 1950, with teen years steeped in the Beatles and the Stones and Jimi Hendrix: he might know what he’s talking about when he tells you what he thinks about OneDirection.
That brother you have, born in 1981, with teen years steeped in the Backstreet Boys and NSync and Britney Spears: you can probably ignore his advice, at least when it comes to OneDirection. Instead, listen to him if he tells you about the Internet. He probably knows a great deal about the Internet.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rubric.
For example, when it came to popular music, the late 1970s were a disaster, but that same era spawned the punk movement, which some people consider important. While the Bee Gees were on the radio in the U.S., the Clash were sending people into paroxysms in clubs in the U.K.
And just because someone was born at the right time doesn’t mean he or she was gifted with good taste. Take me. I was 13 when Nevermind came out. My best friend gave me Pearl Jam’s Ten for my 16th birthday. But there I was at 17, listening to A Boo Named Goo.
You can lead a teenager to Nirvana, but you can’t make him sit down and listen.
Maybe that uncle — the one born in 1950 — was busy listening to Lawrence Welk with your grandparents while his friends were discovering Rubber Soul. Maybe that brother — the one born in 1981 — was downloading Are You Experienced? while his friends were jamming to No Strings Attached.
Like most theories, mine isn’t perfect.
But there are generalizations we can make. When it comes to the tastes we cultivate in our formative years, listening to the Rolling Stones is superior to listening to Wham. Eddie Vedder is more important than Eddie Money. The Beatles are better for your brain than the Backstreet Boys.
And if you were 17 when the right bands hit the radio or MTV or your best friend’s Rockford-Fosgates, it could very well be that you have better taste in music than the rest of us. Not because you are smarter or more interesting or because you’ve had a Rolling Stone subscription for 15 years.
Because of when you were born.
So, what should you do with this information?
Well, if you were 17 at the wrong time (1989, for example), you’re going to have to learn to listen to those around you. You’ve got some blind spots, and you need to be aware of them.
If you were 17 at the right time (1992, for example), you’re going to have to learn to not be a dick. Just because you know what you’re talking about doesn’t mean we’ll start listening to Pavement, because Pavement is terrible.
And if you were 17 at a time no one understands (now, for example), you get to do whatever you want because you’ve had access to all the music that’s ever been recorded for as long as you can remember. So you know both more and less than any of us. This fills us with envy and relief.
Envy because it must have been nice to have all that music at your fingertips.
And relief because we’re not sure we’d trade our nostalgia for anything. Because, yeah, A Boy Named Goo might not actually be a classic album.
But it’s nice to feel like something is.