I didn’t realize, when Nena’s ’99 Red Balloons’ first hit the radio, that it was about a nuclear accident. I thought that it was just about balloons. I was pretty young. But it wasn’t long before the subject was something that my friends and I discussed at length, titillated and alarmed (it’s about bombs? BOMBS!), as we huddled around the tetherball pole in the schoolyard (OMG THAT COULD HAPPEN, Y’KNOW!!!).
It was the same way that we discussed teen pregnancy and divorce (an eleventh-grader over at the high school was rumored to have gotten pregnant that summer, and Cheri Wilkinson’s parents were separating and her dad was moving to a different house): with the kind of fevered, fearful urgency that bordered on excitement. The sky is falling over there! It could happen here! What would we do? We agreed that we would never get pregnant, that our parents would never get divorced, and that if a bomb fell, there would for sure be a bomb shelter to hide in. Our parents would build one, with stockpiles of Campbell’s tomato soup and Chef Boyardee and pop. For sure. They would protect us. But the song said it all – it could happen, even if we didn’t think would, even we were certain that it wouldn’t, even if our parents told us a thousand times that it couldn’t happen here. It could happen. You and I in a little toy shop/Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got. We shuddered around the tetherball pole, each of us thinking privately that we might need to sleep on the floors of our parents’ rooms that night.
After ‘Red Balloons’ came Ultravox’s ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ (The man on the wireless cries again/It’s over, it’s over). Kate Bush’s ‘Breathing’ (Last night in the sky/Such a bright light/My radar sends my danger/But my instincts tell me to keep/Breathing) had been released while I was still in grade school, but I discovered it in my mid-teens and played the ’45 until it was badly scratched. I had nightmares. Bombs dropping, parents divorcing. It was never clear to me which were worse: the dreams where the landscape shattered into grey ash, or the ones where my Dad disappeared from the horizon. In both cases I would wake up in tears. Sometimes, even as a teenager, I would creep into my parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night to curl up on the floor at the foot of their bed with my quilt and my headphones and fuel my angsty misery with sad, scary songs while clinging to the comfort of their presence. The possibility that some epic familial tragedy might someday occur in our household both tantalized and tortured me in the same way that the possibility of some Day After apocalypse – possibly but not necessarily set off by Matthew Broderick hacking computer games – tantalized and tortured. The child in me craved the security of a world without threats. The gothy teenager relished, in some predictably twisted way, the drama and the excitement of a life less ordinary. The Catholic in me squirmed with guilt at this tortured but stubborn ambivalence.
My parents were struggling. It never seemed to me, in the full light of day, that they were approaching meltdown – a disaster on that scale was the stuff of my nightmares and of the dark, derivative poetry that I wrote, late at night, in my room, the soundtrack of my nuclear-scale angst running at full volume (come, bombs). We were a close family, a very close family, and I regarded the possibility of my parents really splitting up as about as likely as the Soviets bombing the suburbs of Vancouver, Canada – not outside the realm of an angst-ridden imagination, but also not realistically within the realm of my lived future. But that very possibility – of meltdown, of accident, of angry finger hitting deadly red button – kept my anxieties alive, and I nurtured those anxieties by holding onto that possibility as something that distinguished my adolescent experience from the white-bread normalcy of my peers. Something that permitted me to identify, authentically, with the anthems of fear that we all wanted to claim as our own, with t-shirts and concert bills and LP covers taped inside our lockers. (Oh, what a heaven what a hell/Y’know there’s nothing can be done/In this whole wide world)
Those anthems of fear remained the soundtrack to my self-important postures of doom until those postures collapsed under the weight of reality. I had believed, deep down, that it couldn’t happen here. But some time between Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’ (Hoping for the best but expecting the worst/Are you going to drop the bomb or not?) and Morrissey’s ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ (How I dearly wish I was not here) the bomb dropped and my parents’ marriage shattered and in the fallout the angst that I had so relished became an insufferable, toxic disease. Radioactive. Every day is silent and gray.
‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ wasn’t explicitly about nuclear holocaust in the same way that ‘Red Balloons’ was. Nor was ‘Forever Young.’ But my teenage angst – the deep angst, the stuff that ran beneath the surface of the superficial, black-eyelinered pop-angst that justified the brooding that hid that deeper angst so well – was never really about that kind of holocaust. It wasn’t even about the possibility of that other, figurative holocaust, the annihilation of my family unit, the possibility that had loomed like a bogeyman for so many of my formative years. It was about a deeper fear: the fear that what couldn’t happen here could indeed happen here. What that ‘what’ might be – divorce, unexpected pregnancy, nuclear holocaust – didn’t matter. That the stuff of nightmares could – really could, as the songs insisted – happen was a fear that matched or exceeded the universal childhood fear that there might really be a monster in the closet. The moment of discovering that there were such monsters, that such bombs could and would fall, that the angsty-teenage postures that claimed such fears as real were not magic bullets against the actual realization of those fears – as I believed, somewhere deep down – was the moment of my coming of age.
I still dearly wish it had not come.
OK, so I didn’t mean for this post to come out as dark as it did. It was written as part of a little koffee klatsch blog discussion that was kicked off amongst a small group of us – let’s write some flashbacks! on Friday! how ’bout something about the songs or musicians that like totally changed your life? – and was gonna be all light and reminiscent, but somewhere along the way I got sidetracked. Probably because, as a teenager, I pretended that I loathed anything light and sweet, so. There you have it. Other participants today (more to be added later, with full post links, so check back) include:
Oh The Joys: www.othejoys.blogspot.com (full post: Since You’re Gone)
Mrs. Flinger: www.mrs.flinger.us
Feel free to join in (the topic is, ‘OMG – The Smiths/NKOTB/Debbie Gibson/Insert Preferred Musical Act From Your Youth HERE – Like Totally Changed My Life OMG’). If you do write a post, be sure to link back and list the participants so that we can all find each other and not feel, like, totally self-conscious.