When I watched Good Morning America today they were talking about how Rolling Stone has just updated their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list for the first time in 17 years. Hearing about the revisions resurfaced a memory from when I was in high school.
Growing up, my music diet was exclusive. I solely listened to old-school Christian hymns with a sprinkling of Top 40 Christian radio. When I was a teenager I got an MP3 player. My parents were quite strict about the music I was allowed to download. Even Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” was off-limits. Not a naughty word or innuendo to be found in that song, and yet because it was not made by Christian musicians it was not wholesome enough.
High school was when music became a point of contention between me and my parents. I resented that they wouldn’t let me download even squeaky clean songs.
Because my musical library was slim, I compensated by listening to the same track on repeat. Deprivation amplified my enjoyment. The secular song “Titanium” by Sia had somehow slipped past my parents’ radar and I listened to that song every single day for months while I skipped rope. If I hear that song now I instinctively want to jump up and down.
As I finished up high school, I became more aware of the ocean of pop culture references that washed over my head. I knew there was no shortcut to catch up on all the movies and TV shows I had missed. But songs are only a few minutes long. Music promised an escape from my sheltered world.
So at the age of 17, I decided to give myself a musical education. Enter the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” — a list compiled by Rolling Stone. (This one is the now-ancient list from 2004.)
I began with number 500: “Shop Around” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. As I played my way through the list, I was introduced to Marvin Gaye, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Queen, Jay-Z, Amy Winehouse. These legends were all brand new to me.
Initially, I didn’t like a lot of songs on the list. My ears were confused and overwhelmed. But I was determined to be systematic, so I pushed through and listened to each track in its entirety.
I have one specific memory of this experience, which is what made me think to write this story. Song Number 51 on the list: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” I lay on the floor watching the grainy music video on a tiny phone screen.
Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge
I know how corny it sounds, but that’s the exact moment I became conscious of truly connecting with music. The lyrics seemed to grab and shake me.
It took a few weeks but I listened to all 500 songs on the list. I felt like I’d given myself a coming-of-age gift.
Later that year, I made the mistake of getting involved with “A,” a man in his mid-20s. Throughout our relationship, A said a few things which stuck with me. One day he told me, “My music collection is complete. I don’t think I’ll ever listen to a song I don’t already know.”
I don’t recall the context of his comment. But I often wondered if I would eventually feel the same way.
Now I’m the same age that A was when he quit discovering new music. And I couldn’t feel more opposite. Although I often listen to my favorite tracks on loop, I love to find new artists and explore unfamiliar genres. I have a compulsion to keep expanding my music knowledge.
That’s why I’m happy to live in the era of YouTube and free streaming services. Sometimes when I want fresh music I’ll go on Spotify, search a keyword like “summer,” and make a playlist of every song with that word in the title.
Speaking of playlists, I’m going to listen to Rolling Stone’s renovated list. Maybe I will fall in love with some new-to-me classics. Now that I’m a little older, my ears are ready to be delighted.