Listen Up: Mariah, Hootie & My Golden Hour
I turned 11 years old in November 1995, let me just say that up front.
Perhaps it’d be better for my credibility as a music writer if I pretended like I was holed up in my college dorm room, smoking pot and listening to Wowee Zowee at the time, but I cannot tell a lie. That fall, I began my second decade in life with a bunch of my also-11-year-old friends curled up our jammies in sleeping bags on my parents’ living room floor, me reclining on either or both of the two giant poly-filled pillows in the shape of Tweety Bird’s head I received as gifts (thanks, Jaclyn and Katrina!), all of us bawling over A Little Princess—which was, at least, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, so maybe we get some cool points for that.
No? Okay, fine.
I was on the cusp of something that year, 1995, but I only kind of knew it. Middle school and all its trappings—new friends, lack of recess—loomed large on the horizon of my life, as did the alternately glittering and putrid promise of full-on puberty. Those months were the last of my generally uncomplicated childhood before it became my slightly more complicated but still not really all that complicated adolescence. It was a golden hour in my chronological life and, as these things tend to go, a golden hour in my musical life, too.
Up to that point, I hadn’t listened to Top 40 radio all that much—instead, I favored my town’s local Oldies station, which I actively, tearfully mourned during the few months it went off the air in 1994 with the sort of apocalyptic intensity 10-year-old girls are singularly capable of. I don’t remember when or why I gently edged the dial of my see-through plastic radio from 101.9 down to 98.1, and aside from Hootie & The Blowfish (my early love for which I have previously discussed) I don’t have any specific memory of any other pop music that fall—my mainstays remained The Beach Boys and Peter, Paul & Mary tapes my dad had given me the year before.
But my brain, in all its pre-adolescent porousness, must have just silently sopped it all up anyway, because recently, when some kind of work-related Internet errand took me to the Billboard charts archive and I got distracted, as I inevitably do, and thought to look up the top 10 radio songs from the week of my 11th birthday, I had an intensely shivery, Proust-and-the-madeline moment: I loved and knew and could probably sing some significant portion of, every single song in the top 10 from that week. (Don’t ask me to do this. Just know that it’s true.) I loved all of those songs maybe because I really loved them and maybe because I was incapable of not loving them—it was what you did with songs on the radio. You loved them. That was why they were on the radio, right? Because they were good.
I can feel, even now, that those memories are stored in some different part of my brain than my recollections of all the songs that came after. They’re in some dent-cornered cardboard mental-box along with all the songs I sang at Girl Scout camp, in Sunday School, in Ms. Beene’s music class wherein we were rewarded with multi-colored mini-marshmallows and/or jelly beans for good behavior. They’re sitting right there on top, right under the lid, which probably has CHILDHOOD!!! or OLD STUFF scrawled on the side in Sharpie. And some peace signs and smiley faces and hearts, etc. for good measure.
By 1995, that box was getting pretty full.
In the Billboard archives, when I jump ahead to the same week in 1996, the decline is well underway. Music hadn’t gotten any worse and my tastes hadn’t changed all that much, but it had become a social thing for me by then, something shared, consumed and known and understood regardless of its quality. A song could be instantly corrupted by my sour mood, a bad bus ride, a traumatic school dance, a bad sleepover party. I’d realized that I could hate radio songs with out without reason—and as time and adolescence wore on, there was plenty more to hate. Within four years, we’d moved from the Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” to the sonic atrocity of Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” holding down the No. 1 spot. Talk about the end of innocence—I think that song gave me my first non-Santa-Claus-related existential crisis.
There were radio songs that came later that I loved intensely, too—I am completely unashamed to admit that “MMMBop” remains one of my all-time favorite songs, and only slightly chagrined to admit the Hanson obsession that consumed most of my early teenaged life. But nothing compares to that golden hour, when those songs moved through me all stomach-dropping and giddy, full of daydreams and love and hope (and Coolio).
It was all I ever really needed. I guess it’s all I ever really need.
Listen to Billboard’s top 10 radio songs from the week of Nov. 8, 1995 (minus Janet Jackson’s “Runaway,” which is quite sadly un Lala-able):
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s assistant editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday. (Next week won’t be another nostalgia trip, she promises.)