Only a few things can happen when you’re middle aged and listen to music on the radio. Most of them are bad.
If you’re lucky, you’ll just feel old as you hit seek on the FM band in search of a soundtrack for your drive home.
I was warned this would someday happen, and now I confess. The music the kids listen to today all sounds the same. The hits of my high school years still flood the airwaves, only now they do it from classic rock stations that peddle pain and debt relief every thirteen minutes.
No one ever told me, however, that I'd one day be perusing the airwaves as a married adult and father and realize Bob Seger's music elicits more than 1980s memories of Chevy truck commercials and Tom Cruise dancing in his tighty-whities.
I guess it’s a rite of passage that I’m near forty and have discovered Seger’s lyrics tell the story of my life. I used to have Night Moves, now I’m the Beautiful Loser. I’m fine with that. Turn the Page.
Unfortunately, Bob Seger isn’t the only music from yesteryear waiting to torment me on the FM dial with a message for my aging soul.
I recently listened to a triple shot of 1980s hits on the radio that made the father in me reach for the nearest automatic weapon (which was probably just a car away, given I was driving on a Florida highway at the time).
Three songs from the 1980s by three of the most popular artists of all time played in succession:
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper
“Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson
Each was a staple of the 1980’s, and is known word-for-word by Gen Xers across America. Each was a Billboard #1 song in its time and is as ubiquitous today as when it dominated MTV.
When combined, these three hits tell a harrowing story of the American teenager. I missed it the first time around. We all did. Can you blame us? We were too busy looking for warp levels in Super Mario Bros. to hear the cries for help hidden in the subtext of the lyrics.
But it’s all there in the words we know by heart and sing when no one’s looking. A tragedy in three acts, classically structured the way Aristotle would have loved had he been the one to travel to the 80s in Bill and Ted’s excellent phone booth:
The prologue starts out harmless enough:
I come home in the morning light
My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we're not the fortunate ones
And girls they want to have fun
Oh girls just want to have fun
Girl stumbles home after an all-nighter. Mom’s waiting up. Girl feeds her a defeatist line laced with feminist apathy. Dad lets it slide in the next verse when the girl bats her eyes and tells him he’s still number one.
Things take a turn in the next act.
Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep
Papa don't preach, I've been losing sleep
But I made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby
Shit’s serious now, isn’t it? Girl’s had her fun and now all of the sudden she’s an old soul who knows how the world works and doesn't need another lecture from Dad.
Daddy, daddy if you could only see
Just how good he's been treating me
You'd give us your blessing right now
'Cause we are in love, we are in love, so please
I see. Naturally this absentee Romeo is Captain America when no one else is around. I guess Dad’s just supposed to get behind this without protest.
But Dad keeps his cool and holds his tongue. He lets his little girl speak her piece—which has nothing to do with jobs, rent, shelter, food, baby strollers.
Dad takes the high ground, and begs someone answer one innocuous question. Where the [bleep] is this guy?
Now for the final climax:
Billie Jean is not my lover
She's just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son
Straight denial from the would-be father and provider. The tragedy is complete.
Now that I’m a father with a daughter, I’ve realized FM radio simply isn’t for me; too much sobering truth hidden between hair loss ads. Fortunately before I turned it off forever, an old hero of mine from the 1980s named Huey Lewis sang the exodus to the tragedy of the American teenager:
I used to be a renegade, I used to fool around
But I couldn't take the punishment and had to settle down
Now I'm playing it real straight, and yes, I cut my hair
You might think I'm crazy, but I don't even care
Because I can tell what's going on
It's hip to be square
Catharsis. The hits have spoken.
Fred Smith was born in the 70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the 80s, played drums in bands in the 90s, and became a husband and a father in the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site. Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.