You know how you’re driving, and some half-forgotten song from your misspent youth comes on, almost subliminally, and you dive for that volume knob, turn it to blasting, and sing along until it’s over—too soon? I know, you’ve seen it in a million movies. The guy is usually Tom Cruise, or a guy who looks like him.
I had that happen recently with “Master Jack,” a very unlikely hit by a South African group named Four Jacks and a Jill. Do you know the two other South African hits? Follow the * for the answer. Anyway, “Master Jack” reached #18 on the Billboard charts, and that was high enough for Cousin Brucie to play it a few times on WABC-AM in New York, and for it to worm its way into my consciousness.
Somebody played “Master Jack” recently and it was amazing, a song I’d completely forgotten—and I still knew every word. The words don’t actually make much sense, but I was thoroughly familiar with them anyway. Here’s “Master Jack”:
If you’re like me, and think Portlandia is the funniest TV show ever, then you’ll likely be interested in Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl—a Memoir. It’s hilarious; another Bossypants, complete with vivid, hugely embarrassing anecdotes from elementary school assemblies. If you didn’t happen to be in her class and somehow missed her interpretive dance to “Hang on Sloopy,” it can be relived here. Before the song started, her teacher went up to a boy named Braden (“whose mouth was only capable of one expression, a smirk”) and told him, “Try not to laugh.”
I’m reading Hunger right now. Early on, Carrie goes to see the B52s with her high school mates, and has the best time ever. I stopped dead on this passage. The concert…
wasn’t about the band—it was about us, it was about the fact that we were there together, that the music itself was secondary to our world, something that colored it, spoke to it. That’s why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better—it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled, oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia casts it now.
Listened to today, Brownstein says, alone in a nice, clean adult house or driving solo in an upmarket car, “the sounds don’t hold up….Being a fan has to do with the surroundings, and to divorce the sounds from that context often feels distancing, disorienting, but mostly disappointing.”
I dunno about that. Don’t your favorite songs still sound great? OK, maybe not the embarrassing ones by Jesse McCartney, David Cassidy or Ricky Schroeder, but the later high school and college songs? They're kind of like the cars we had in high school, and a whole lot of us reconnect happily with those old jalopies once we're able to afford them again.
I remember exactly where I was (and with who) when I first heard certain songs, and that doesn’t get in the way of loving them now. Sure, there’s nostalgia wrapped up in the package, but it’s value added to me. A caveat, though. If you hear an old song too often—if you listen to “the hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s” radio, for instance, the shock of rediscovery gets dulled and you won’t want to hear them again.
Here are some great car radio sing-a-long songs, each one with a Carrie Brownstein connection:
“Hang On, Sloopy,” The McCoys (1965). There were other versions, but this is the one you probably know. Brownstein wanted to do it because it “sounded like it was a tune about the dog, Snoopy.” Here's the song, badly lip-synched:
“Jump,” Van Halen (1984). The world didn’t end that year; we got this insanely catchy number instead, complete with killer guitar solo. “I got my back against the record machine / I ain't the worst that you've seen.” Brownstein did the David Lee Roth stage moves to this song.
“Like a Virgin,” Madonna (1984). The pre-adolescent Brownstein failed to connect with the overt sexuality of Madonna's music; she says her dancing around the room "revirginized" the classic "Like a Virgin." Brownstein has a total Madonna jones. She told her friend Questlove, "I remember sitting on my bed and crying to my mom about how I’ll never be friends with Madonna.” Questlove promised to arrange a meeting. “We’ll write a book about your dinner with Madonna,” he said. Brownstein liked the idea. “Carrie Meets Madonna," she said. "It’s like a children’s book.”
“White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane. Brownstein’s band, Sleater-Kinney, covered this in concert. It never gets old for me. Maybe it does for her. The band also covered "Promised Land" by Bruce Springsteen and "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“Venus,” Shocking Blue (1969). Not that many European acts cut through the American Top 40 static; Shocking Blue was Dutch, and in addition to this radio perennial recorded “Love Buzz,” a song covered by Nirvana. The Shocking Blue album was pressed on Brownstein by a friend when she was trying to become a musician.
So what are your car radio earworms?
* The two South African hits I’m familiar with are “Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba (U.S. release 1967, peaked at #12) and “Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masakela (1968). Hugh’s song actually reached #1, unusual for an instrumental. “Pata Pata,” which peaked at #12, is a crash course in the Xhosa language.
** Four Jacks and a Jill are briefly referenced in This is Spinal Tap, one of the best music films ever made.