When I tell you that I’ve only been listening to Top 40 radio for the last year, know that I am confessing something to you. And I’m just as surprised as you are. Most days, as the news cycle runs faster and faster, I’m jamming out, alone in my car, to music that I was rolling my eyes at a little over a year ago. After the 2016 election, I heard a lot of people, desperately searching for a silver lining, say that at least music would be good again. And I don’t know, maybe it is. But I haven’t heard the music they were talking about.
It was just two days after the election when I finally had to go back to work. My alarm clicked on, 6 AM, Donald Trump’s voice. I couldn’t find the off button fast enough. I was still in that raw state. You remember it: the light seemed too bright, the sounds too loud, as we all sat in the ruins of what we (or at least the privileged, liberal we), had thought our country was.
I’m a rabid consumer of news. And since moving back to Nashville, I get most of my news while driving, commuting in a city too thick with transplant traffic. I listen to the local NPR affiliate, which up through the election had served me well. But after, when nothing made sense, it was painful to hear my own confusion reflected back at me. I switched the dial. I found a random “mix” station, playing mostly songs from the 80’s and 90’s. It was better, but there are only so many power ballads you can take when you’re feeling heartbroken. I needed something more. These were dark days.
I haven’t listened to Top 40 since about the age of 14. First, I gave it up because a preacher told me to. Then, when I had rejected the preacher and what he stood for, I went in search of something more “authentic,” and by that I mean moody. And then later, I was taught to think of pop as somehow pedestrian, as unworthy of the considerations of anyone who was “enlightened,” and by that, I mean a snob.
But it wasn’t always this way. Like every pre-teen girl in the late 90’s and early 00’s, I went to Brittany Spears concerts and sang my heart out, danced in my best friends’ living rooms to Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls, and went to *NSYNC concerts and screamed. I screamed not because of attraction, being the baby queer that I was, but in catharsis. In a world that demonizes and denigrates the desires of teenage girls, pop concerts were the one place where we were celebrated and catered to. Every scream you heard was not only full of pop star worship, but of celebration for who we were, and what we were becoming. I was only a girl, but according to pop, I could be an independent, self-reliant woman, that I could make people fall in love with me, but they would have to get by my friends first.
This is how I came to know the world. And it was an understanding that I shared with my friends and millions of girls all over the world, all listening to the same songs, over and over again, and reveling in the them, learning to dance. And with 90’s nostalgia at an all time high, it’s never been easier for Millennials to connect to these early musical lessons. Especially when so little else has changed. When my alarm goes off in the morning now, I’m waking up to the same DJ’s that woke me up as a middle schooler. Except now, there’re a woman and a gay man joining the lineup. And “Gender Wars,” the men v. women radio classic, is still as annoying as it has ever been. Radio DJ’s are not perfect. Pop is not perfect. Obviously, there can be a lot of misogyny in the lyrics, just like there is in most of heteronormative society. But instead of abandoning it, the inner teen inside of me insists that I will go after what I want, I will roll my eyes, I will change the words, the pronouns. I will allow myself to feel heartbroken, I will set my boundaries, and I will queer this shit up and keep on dancing and singing along in rooms with the music too loud and the lights too bright.
Driving home from the first Women’s March in DC, I finally landed on the Top 40 stations that have let me return to that sense of community. It was scanning local stations as I passed through Virginia and East Tennessee when I first came to rely on them, not only as a consistent sound through unfamiliar radio territory, but also for the therapeutic experience of letting the vocals of powerful divas and pop princesses carry me home after protesting the election of a known sexual abuser. If there was ever a time for girl power, this was it.
And it might be that pop plays to our lowest common denominators as humans, but isn’t that just a judgmental way to say universality? And maybe in these politically divided times, it’s not such a terrible idea to find some common ground. Let’s start with radio.