Music

Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself

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I grew up listening to country and pop. For a kid in South Texas, especially one with a mother who liked country and who kept the radio locked to Y100, this was not uncommon. I was raised on twang and heartache, but I also spent time with the pop hits of my youth, which instilled in me a love for alternative rock that continues to this day. My sister actually helped me understand the power of those formative musical years when she said it this way: everyone always loves the music they were listening to when they learned to drive. Those songs and sounds will forever be fused with your heart and soul, and for me, that was country, pop, and rock. In high school, I added classic rock to the growing rotation of artists I explored, from Cream to Led Zeppelin, and though I briefly dabbled in jazz, the stuff never stuck with me beyond Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool
High school also meant listening to popular music, and that meant hip-hop as well as pop and rock. There was nothing unusual about this, and I was aware of the major hits like everyone else; listening to the radio and glancing at TRL meant knowing about “What’s It Gonna Be?!” as much as “How’s It Going to Be.” That kind of broad-based, catch-all approach to the hits continued through college, which was probably the last time I ever bothered to keep up with what was happening in popular music, and though I wasn’t as tuned in as I was in high school, I still picked up the songs that made enough noise. From a hip-hop perspective, that meant songs like “Roll Out,” “Ms. Jackson,” “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” etc.
Yet I’ve only recently begun to explore hip-hop in greater depth. When I did, several things happened.
The first was that I worried I was only doing so out of some misguided attempt to reconcile my white liberal guilt with the ignorance of a culture that had spawned pretty much every major American musical art form in history and did so from the mouths of people whose elders had been ritualistically imported and slaughtered until very recently. I honestly wondered if it was even okay for me to be doing this. I had heard the jokes and made them myself over the years, lines to the effect that hip-hop was fun music but utterly, totally black and therefore not acceptable for me to like except in an ironic or party-oriented way. In high school, we referred to white guys who loved hip-hop as “wiggers.”1 Yes, high schoolers are animals, but racism is always born of fear, and terms like that demonstrate a fear of liking something foreign.
The second was that I realized just how fucking good some of it is. Every genre has its own bad artists, and hip-hop’s no exception, but there are some brilliant MCs and producers out there. I got hooked on the beats and samples, the way personas would change and inflate between songs and over time2, the method with which different artists used language and internal rhyme to pack their verses.
The third was that I realized that hip-hop, like all other genres, is a land of blurry borders. The music borrows from and influences pop, rock, and classic R&B to a fantastic degree. Listening to it means getting another vital piece of the American cultural puzzle, and to write it off as music only for one race or not appropriate because of who created it is shockingly, horrifyingly stupid and cruel.
I also realized that, in a way, I’d come full circle. My early love for country instilled a passion for the sound but only when done well; I can’t abide modern country but will always make time for good artists in the genre from any era, from Cash to The Jayhawks. Country music has always been about a specific type of culture, and its biggest personalities have cultivated personas based on larger-than-life claims backed up by real-world troubles. Some of the biggest country songs of all time are about the songwriter’s problems with substance abuse and the law, whether real or embellished, and how they keep trying to get ahead and overcome anyway. Hip-hop is the same thing, just from another culture. I discovered I was hitting the same weird race wall that too many people hit. Hip-hop is almost exclusively the domain of black artists, while country is almost entirely white; yet it doesn’t follow that the fans must break down along those color lines. If anything, it’s insane to think that. Italian food isn’t only for Italians; songs by women aren’t only for women. I’d been suckered in by the same attempts to segregate the audience that had been defeating people for years.
I know this only the beginning of unpacking all this, and these brief paragraphs in no way get it all done. But it’s a good start.


1. It should go without saying that I’m ashamed of the frequency with which I used such terms in high school and, sadly, college. Ditto the use of “fag” and all instances of “gay” meaning “stupid.” Kids can be real children.

2. For instance, Jay-Z’s adorable switch from the guy who said in “Big Pimpin'” that he’d be “forever mackin'” to the one who said in “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” that all he needs is his girlfriend.

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California, Texas

The Old Girl

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My automotive history has been a spotty one. There was Coche Verde, a 1997 Chevy Silverado extended cab that I had for about a year when I was a senior in high school and freshman in college. Then there was the Cranberry Cruiser, a Dodge Stratus I had for about a year when I was a senior in college and then living out in Los Angeles. But in the spring of 2005, I got this 2001 Kia Sephia. I never came up with a proper name for her; I merely referred to her with the general female pronoun as many men have done with their vessels over the years. Somewhere along the line, calling her “the old girl” became the default, and then her official title.

She cost $6,000. (Though I wound up paying more, since I had to finance for a long time and had no money down and got her when I was not making much money.) I bombed all over Los Angeles, Ventura, and Orange Counties in her. I put a bumper sticker on her that I regretted less than 18 months later. I punished her with a 90-mile round-trip commute when I was living in Glendale and working in Thousand Oaks, then took it easier on her when I was living in Sherman Oaks and working in Mid-Wilshire. I took her on dates. (I did, despite my own worst efforts, get a few.) I took her to Comic-Con and Disneyland. I drove her all over the network of L.A. freeways, moving through the heart of the city like a cell through vessels. I knew just how far I could push her, and how far she could go.

The axle always made a little popping noise when I stopped. When I bought her, the sales manager acted generous when he told me he’d give me free floor mats; I took delivery of the car to find that he’d given me tan ones that clashed with the gray interior. She got good mileage, but pickup slowed to a crawl if the AC fan was on any higher than the lowest possible setting. I often drove to and from work with the windows down.

She was in more than her fair share of scrapes, too. Most frightening was the hit and run, in which I was heading north along Highland to the 101, only to be hit on my front right side when a driver pulled out to turn (on his red light) and then sped off before I could get his tags. She accrued a number of other dings over the years whose origins I can no longer remember. The front-facing license plate fell off last fall when a car bumped her while she was parked at the Fannin South lot, where I’d left her while I rode the train to work. By then, I didn’t want to put more miles on her than she could afford: I’d gotten her with something like 44,000, but by last fall, it was up to 120,000.

She got me to Texas, though. When I moved from L.A. to Houston in the fall of 2009, I shipped my belongings ahead of me and drove with a friend in the old girl. This was a good plan in theory: I was able to toss a bunch of old furniture and junk I didn’t need and just ship or pack the essentials. Yet I erred on the side of keeping too many things, and as a result, the old girl was painfully loaded down for the 1,500-mile journey. Her RPMs hovered past 4,000 for the entirety of the two-day trip. Accelerating up to highway speeds took considerable effort and planning; lane changes and exits required calculations of inertia I thought I’d left behind in 11th-grade physics. The Check Engine light clicked on not long after I arrived in my new home, and though I poured some more money into her for repairs over the next year, the light ultimately stayed on. I came to think of it as a sign that she was at least still alive and kicking, well enough to know something was off.

But she never quit. All the aches and pains, all the repairs and leaks; the night my stereo was stolen, and the next day, when my roommate and I put in a new one. The new brakes, the groaning transmission; the way the tint on the rear window was permanently warped and bubbled, training me to look not for specific cars or people behind me but to distinguish threats by patches of color and light. She hung in there. I had her for just shy of six years, longer than I’ve had any other car to date. I’m excited about the new car in my life, and grateful for the opportunity to have it, just as I’m thankful I had her for so long. She was a big part of my life for a long time, and she’ll forever be tied to the memories I made in my early 20s. What more could a man want?

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