Now, to the question around which today’s post circles: Why is my book about a teenage musician named Rainey Cobb set in 1995 instead of today?
It’s all about the music. The title of my book is actually the title of a mix tape that my protagonist is given by a girl she meets and falls for. The songs on that tape introduce Rainey to a musical world she’s never before imagined and, quite literally, change Rainey’s life. And they do so in a way that just wouldn’t happen if Rainey was a teen in 2022.
In the myriad ways that our world has changed since 1995, when Blowin’ My Mind Like a Summer Breeze takes place, one of the most profound is in our collective relationship to music. The circumstances, I mean. The way we purchase, consume, share, and even appreciate music has changed unutterably.
Here’s what I mean.
My fourteen-year-old son, an avid music listener, has never paid a nickel for the pleasure. 100% of his listening happens on Spotify. He has never purchased a CD, cassette, or LP with his own money. Has never flipped through the racks at his local record shop, pondering the cover art, reading the track listing on the back, wondering what sounds await him. He may become a vinyl-head like me one day, but for the moment, this is still true. Which means that he, like the bulk of his generation (I see you record-store kids), doesn’t understand something essential about the way that past generations, including my own, interacted with music. That we had to work for it. Study it. Stress over it. And when you work for something, it automatically changes your relationship to that thing.
When I was 14, I’m going to estimate that 75% of the money I had from all sources (allowance, bussing tables, gifts) went to buying CDs. And CDs were not cheap. In fact, they were expensive as hell. A brand new CD was often $15, and a double album in the jazz section at Borders could be $30 or more, which meant that every time you spent money at a record shop, you were forking over a considerable portion of your income on a bet. A bet that what you were about to buy was going to rock your world. You may have heard one or two songs on the radio, or gotten a thumbs up from your friend, but pre-streaming, pre-algorithm, pre because you enjoyed, your favorite bands’ new album was a dice roll, a calculated risk you were taking because you simply didn’t know what you were getting. Counting Crows second album was never going to be as good as their first. But how could you know until you paid for the pleasure of that inevitable disappointment? And there was an unbelievable thrill involved in that risk. You’d be there at the store, sweat forming on your brow, a dozen CDs stacked awkwardly in your arms, knowing you could only afford one or two. Which was the best? Most likely to light your soul on fire? You simply didn’t know, and you died a tiny death with each and every one you returned to the racks as you thinned the herd.
When you raced home and threw on your new CD, you had no idea what was about to happen. You might be about to meet a new favorite, a lifelong friend, even. Or, you might be about to be let down mightily by a dud hiding behind a promising single.
And keep in mind, regardless of the outcome, you’re now out of money, so before you can get any new music in your life that’s not on the radio, you have to wait. For pay day, allowance day, for your goddamn birthday, which isn’t for a million years. And then when you’re flush with cash again, you race back to the record shop and the whole thrilling saga starts all over again.
Now, before you think I’m just going on some kind of “these kids today” or “back in my day” sort or tirade, I’m not necessarily trafficking in nostalgia here, but something more visceral. Because we chose our music by hand, took a chance on it, and paid for it with real money, and frankly, because we had so much less of it, there was something intensely personal about the way we listened. We coveted our CD collections, just as our parents had coveted their vinyl. We stacked them, organized them, cleaned and polished them. We bought metal towers to display them and expensive satchels so we could keep them in the car. We developed intense relationships to them linked to time and place, to the people we knew. Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs., came out my sophomore year in high school. How do I know? Because I remember sitting in a car with my friends outside of Best Buy on release day in 1993, waiting for the store to open so we could race inside and buy our copies before they sold out. I’ll never forget that that first edition of Vs. had a tri-fold cardboard cover instead of a jewel case. Cardboard, whoa! Or that I spilled Dr. Pepper on mine one day and it was forever stained. Our CDs were our babies. I long ago lost or threw out that copy, but when I listen to Vs. it will always-always-always be sophomore year.
I’m not trying to say that my son’s generation’s relationship to music is of less value, or less worthy, or that we like music more than they do. What I’m saying is that I do think that our relationship to music may be a bit less personal than it used to be. Less likely to inspire stories and bright-burning memories. And that music’s capacity to hit us over the head and re-arrange our programming has softened in the streaming age, in the age of Thank You, Next. In a lot of ways this is about quantity and the sheer fact that you can literally listen to anything, anytime. So why wouldn’t you? With those options, how do you stay loyal? When the new album by your favorite artist drops on Spotify, you stream it, love it, share it, but within days, or perhaps even hours, something else that’s awesome has come out, or come up on autoplay, and before long, you’ve forgotten all about that album. Or, at least, you can’t see it anymore. It drifts away.
But when you spend $15 on a new album, and you can’t buy another one for two weeks, that album will just sit there, staring at you, inviting re-listens. Inviting you to pick it up and hold it in your hands. To ask it questions. The object itself becomes your friend, right along with the music.
Now, back to Rainey Cobb. I made Rainey a teenager in 1995 because I wanted her to have that kind of relationship to music. When Juliet gives Rainey the mixtape that re-programs her brain, her sense of what music is and can be is struck by lighting. Forever changed. Juliet stayed up all night making that mix. Sweating it out. Making lists and curating an experience. Combing her CD collection, making a holy mess with crap strewn all over the flow, and constructing a masterpiece that she hopes might just be an arrow right through Rainey’s heart. Even Juliet doesn’t know how significant that mix will become. She doesn’t know, and will never know that later, when Rainey can’t see her anymore, the mix, the object, is still there in Rainey’s hands. Rainey still sees Juliet’s handwriting on the back, the place her hands touched, imagining her pen gliding across that glossy paper that was so hard to write on. The object itself takes on new meaning, becomes interwoven with the songs on it, the two braided together inexorably until they’re no longer two separate things.