I’m 13, turning 14.
During the school year, I live for hockey. Playing it, watching it, and reading about it. But the off season, June through August, brings on a void which I fill with pop music.
Z95.3 FM and MuchMusic are the staples of my early high school life. Each night I vote diligently for my favourite songs to make Z’s Hot 6 at 6. On weekends, I listen to the Top 40 countdown and write commentary in my diary.
Boy bands are particularly integral to my life 1998 – 1999. I don’t just slavishly devote myself to any boy band; I’m more discerning. The Backstreet Boys have my support, because they seem like originators, and they can “actually sing.” I’m vaguely aware of NKOTB and Boyz II Men, but they’re a bit before my time. I’m distrustful of ‘N SYNC and 98 Degrees because they feel like cheap imitations. Nevertheless, I follow the whole phenomenon with rapt attention.
It’s June. Sitting in my mother’s car as she drives along Marine Drive, probably on the way home from Park Royal. A song comes on I haven’t heard before. White boys rapping about Chinese food and something called Abercrombie & Fitch. Even at age 13, I scoff at the stupidity of the lyrics.
But the song sticks. Do I hate it? Do I love it? It doesn’t matter, I will hear “Summer Girls” what seems like hundreds of times this summer. I roll my eyes each time it comes on the radio. I never change the station. I need to stay on top of what’s current. I will see the cute blond lead singer/rapper frolic on the beach dozens of times on MuchMusic. His tips are frosted and his pants are baggy, but this doesn’t look ridiculous to me in 1999.
In the fall, LFO will release another song, “Girl on TV.” It’s catchy, sweet, cheesy, romantic. I love it. Jennifer Love Hewitt appears in the video. The song is about her; she is dating the cute blond. I think I relate to the song. Before this summer, he was unknown, invisible. He longed for a pretty girl from afar, then suddenly, like a Hollywood dream, he had her.
I feel invisible too. I hadn’t yet learned not to base my self worth on what a boy thought of me. All I know is how it feels to admire someone from afar; to wish they would notice me too. The song is sincere, simple, silly even. It made so much sense to me then.
“Summer Girls” made no sense. The lyrics are littered with absurd non sequiturs: “Fell deep in love, but now we ain’t speaking / Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton.” The song is ostensibly about a guy trying to remember a summer love that’s faded away, but his memories are filtered through bits and pieces of throwaway pop culture (and “Billy Shakespeare”). It’s not a sudden whiff of the girl’s favourite perfume or the ocean breeze that “brings [him] back there oh so quick,” it’s Bugaloo Shrimp, Footloose, and Cherry Coke. It sounds so clumsy and pedestrian in a disposable pop song, but maybe LFO was on to something—pop culture can be a great mnemonic device for bringing the past back into focus.
The other day, I found out that cute blond guy from LFO, Rich Cronin, the guy who wrote the silly songs and dated Jennifer Love Hewitt, died of leukemia at age 36 in 2010. How terrible, dark, and sad. How strange that someone who wrote a song so central to my orbit could die without me knowing for three years. It’s unsettling. It doesn’t jibe with the breezy pop tunes of summer ’99.
We like to relive our memories in sepia tone. Our teenage years should be in attractive soft focus, overexposed with daisies and lens flares like a montage from a Sofia Coppola film. We want this so badly that we invented Instagram to make it happen in real time. We blur out the sadness, the disappointments, and the boredom, and play the memories back to a soundtrack of pop songs.
What did I do in the summer of ’99? I probably wrote letters to my friend away at camp. I probably went to hockey school. I probably ate penny candy from 7-Eleven and went rollerblading. Was I worried about my frizzy hair, a boy who didn’t notice me, or my dad’s frequent business trips? The answers are in my diaries, buried in the depths of a drawer in my old bedroom, waiting to be re-read or hastily destroyed (I can’t decide which). Without the diaries to remind me, everything bleeds together.
So what did I do in the summer of ’99? I listened to “Summer Girls,” over and over and over again.