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Pop Goes the Summer

* Commentary

By Peter A. Hahn, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

For me late August is a time of transition. A suburban summer comes to a close with a farewell to friends and a warehouse of memories to forever cherish. Months of parties, late night talks reminiscing about high school, hours of nothing to do are over and the time has come to move away from the community that served as a bittersweet stomping ground for innumerable adolescent antics.

A final moment comes to enjoy the last warm, humid breezes of the fading season before returning to campus: Another night at the smoke-filled Friendly's, one more look at the stars under the cool midnight blue sky, a last conversation about the inane worries of post-adolescent life. Although a fresh new batch of faces, soon-to-be explored relationships and an invaluable education-in and outside class, of course-await, I can't help but long for the summer to go on just a little bit longer. To have a simple but impossible extension of time to keep the smiles in sight, the conflicts tangible and the bonds within reach would be great. Yet from our closed community to bustling college cities we must go. The time to move on is here.

The inevitable physical separation does not mean an end must come to the emotions and inside jokes we share. If these moments crumbled into oblivion, my self-definition would fall alongside. Fortunately there is an inescapable medium in American culture, which I hold particularly dear, that helps serve as a carrier of memories-popular music. Yes, pop music. Top 40, Billboard, Kasey Kasem, whatever you'd like to call it. Music spilling out of apartment windows, pumped up bass beats from cars cruising around, dance tunes plaguing the club scene. Popular music is a universal language for everyone from early adolescents to the middle-aged to enjoy.

In an instant, a pop tune can jump-start the retrieval of a mental picture or reenergize a certain feeling clamped to an unforgettable experience. Just as memories of childhood may come flooding back with the sound of The Cure, Jesus Jones, early R.E.M. or LL Cool J, the most extraordinary times spent with my friends are immortalized through summer of 1997 songs, which seemingly characterize every moment of elation, melancholy and inebriation we experienced.

Let me share some of these with you and the same songs may also have a certain significance for you.

"When I was young and knew everything..."

Yes, you guessed right! How could anyone escape this opening lyric from the Verve Pipe's overplayed "The Freshmen"? This is not to say I'm complaining-the infectious, melancholic ballad will always be welcome wherever I go. It speaks of the naivete that saturated every waking moment of my summer vacation and holds within its simple, emotional guitar lines flash frames of countless good times I had with friends.

At first, however, I wasn't so appreciative of this fine tune. Returning home late last May, I knew my dormancy from pop radio at school would make me Top 40 illiterate. The first song I heard, one which would eventually become such a dominant force in my summer music catalog, was "The Freshmen." Initially I resisted any peer persuasion, dismissing the sappy song as uncharacteristic of this rock band's previous repertoire. Thankfully the walls soon came crashing down when I actually absorbed the lyrics and let the beautifully moody music seep in.

On the radio, the song has been inescapable these past few months for several reasons. Most importantly, every second is infused with an essential pop musicianship that rightfully brought the tune right into Billboard's Top 10. With lyrics that tell of youthful tragedy and tug at the heart strings but aren't overbearing, the song is instantly identifiable within American teenage culture.

Along with an interesting if not mystifying tale, "The Freshmen" succeeds musically. The charged bass precisely complements the guitar with a brightness in each note that at once reinforces and rebukes the lyrical subject matter. Paralleling this double-edged musical sword, the song can identify both with sad moments (saying goodbye) and happier instances, such as journeys out on the open road with a crisp breeze cutting across your face and the somber song ambling along on the radio.

My experience with "The Freshmen" has gone from denial to excitement-the latter manifesting itself when the first few plucks of that familiar guitar line come marching out of some nearby speakers.

Falling Into the Pop Stereotype

Summer 1997 was witness to a few undeniable and unforgivable overproduced pop groups. Can you say Hanson and the Spice Girls? I hope so, because if these names aren't permanently placed within your internal musical file cabinet you've missed out on a few essential ditties that earned deserved spots on the pre-millennium pop rock landscape.

And before you go trailing off to the next section of the article to obey some sort of personal musical standard that keeps you from reading about these captivating groups, please patronize me for a few seconds. A new-found respect for these songs may be in your future.

Like some of you reading this article, I was an ardent disliker of the Spice Girls from the first mention of them coming out of the English press. The problem began for me, like most people, before any benefit of the doubt or exploration into their songs. Most people who deny the Spice Girls' social and musical presence have allowed the overwhelming candy-coated energy of the chipper female quintet go underappreciated for all the wrong reasons. The names, personalities, voices, Girl Power motto-they are all packaged, glossed and ready for consumption. Any objection to the perfectly prepared merchandise is absurd. Looking beyond the bright colors and flashy presentation will uncover the Spice Girls as a corporate fantasy turned real. Feel free to chuckle. Proceed to spin "Wannabe" or "2 Become 1" a couple of times on the CD player for relief. Remember to leave a few minutes open for "Say You'll Be There." Turning on the radio will probably work, too.

The Spice Girls were an essential thread connecting my summer memories. My friends and I built upon each other's initially weak attraction to these dance pop goddesses in the beginning of the summer until we became intensely appreciative by the end. Happily, their songs will always conjure up thoughts of my friends and luckily the radio will never let me forget.

Hanson presents a different kind of story. Most of my friends abhorred the fraternal trio while I couldn't help but appreciate their songs, which are complete with brilliant melodies, pre-adolescent harmonies and an innocent outlook on the world. "MMMBop" makes me want to get up and dance, play around, shake my head-and sometimes I have done even that! And there is that one amazing part in the song where all three kids have different musical lines. See, it's not that hard to listen, invite the likable parts in and acknowledge that the Hanson Brothers (and the Spice Girls, too) can be enjoyed.

Girls, Girls, Girls

1997. A year of female singer/songwriters; a summer for Lilith Fair to prosper in the wake of its participants' success; the post-Morissette calm after the storm: Emotionally-charged solo girl performers have been a recent mainstay on commercial radio and they are welcomed with open arms.

Personally, I think Meredith Brooks arranged the most appealing female offering of the season with "Bitch." Opening with a fragile, babyish voice in every verse, Brooks pleads with her listeners to accept her good and bad sides. Then enter the courageous chorus, "I'm a bitch, I'm a lover..." and the song breaks loose, ready to be subdued by her lilting voice once again. Also, I can't forget to mention my favorite lyric which appears in the bridge-"when you hurt, when you suffer, I'm your angel undercover."

Every time those words grace the radio, summer memories come flooding back.

Brooks' personal battles and consequent cry of self-acceptance parallel the sentiments of other female artists. Sarah McLachlan contemplates "Building a Mystery" in her graceful, soothing voice. Although she was not top on my list, a few close peers were obsessed and I enjoyed by default. Jewel mourns life problems on all her songs-whiny but memorable. Despite not being my favorite genre, the summer wouldn't have been complete without this female musical scene.

Semi-Charmed Summer

Still enjoying regular airplay, Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" was the summer anthem in my suburban circle of friends. It embodied our insouciant attitudes toward life as we spent the summer months together. The song's awesome combination of calculated brilliance, rebellious lyrical themes and the lead singer's solid, warm attack create an unforgettable tune. Emanating from all of this, the song represents the youthful belief that nothing can ever go wrong in life-a sentiment that inherently appeals to adolescent culture.

Key to the musical attraction of "Semi-Charmed Life" is the scat section of the chorus-an easy sing-along that gives permission to even the most tone deaf amateur to join in (believe me, I know!). Along with this bebop blast, the chorus proclaims "I want something else, to get me through this...semi-charmed kind of life." Who better to identify with this mantra than the supposedly characteristic bored youth generation? Well, I have no answer for that, but I can say that a handful of suburban kids working jobs for spending money and wasting time in search of fun would definitely identify with such a thought.

Notes & Afterthoughts

Essential music to the summer of 1997 would not be complete without the mention of a few more songs.

The ska explosion has brought a couple of horn-based groups to the forefront of the popular modern rock movement. Replete with animated lyrics and cheery melodies, Reel Big Fish revels in their own path to fame with "Sellout." The next time you hear this song, picture two cars swerving down a rural, gravel-paved road on a sunny day with hands swaying outside the driver's side windows. I know I will. Then there is the more serious but just as exciting "The Impression That I Get" by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Although they are musically superior to Reel Big Fish, they didn't produce a comparable summer effect.

Then there are the Wallflowers with "The Difference" and Sugar Ray with "Fly," offering two of the ultimate feel-good songs from the past few months. If you need a jolt of energy, listening to either tune will definitely work. Both have a groove that'll keep your rump shakin' and head bouncin.'

Of course there are too many songs left unmentioned, but not everything can be covered and not every pop song this summer had an effect on me. But I hope some memories have been stirred up, may be light shed on some previously unchartered musical waters or insight gained into pop rock from the summer which has now sadly faded away.

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