This is part two of a series chronicling each year of my life as viewed through the lens of a song that was meaningful to me in some way that represents a significant aspect of my life experience in that year. This segment covers the second decade of my life. Be sure to catch up on Part 1 first.
1988: “Orinoco Flow” by Enya
This is another song that I remember from that radio station my parents used to listen to. Obviously it’s a lot more well known by the general public than probably anything else they played on that station – ask most people to name an Enya song, and this is the one they’ll come up with, though they’ll probably call it “Sail Away” because that’s what the chorus says. I thought when I was a kid that she was singing “Dove, dove, sail away, sail away”, so I always remembered it as “The Dove Song”, and I would picture a bird flying high over some coastal fantasy landscape whenever it came on. I still think it’s a beautiful song, and now that I’m older I can appreciate how meticulously everything is layered – Enya was certainly a perfectionist in the studio when it came to making up entire choirs of her own voice and so forth. Nowadays it appeals to my inner “geography nerd”, because where else are you going to find a song named after a river in South America, that dares to rhyme the names of other far-flung locales such as Peru and Cebu, or Bissau and Palau? None of the usual generic New York, London, Paris crap here.
1989: “Angle Dance” (from Square One TV)
Square One was a PBS show that aimed to teach older kids about mathematics – kind of as a stepping stone for those who had graduated from the simple number-based antics seen on Sesame Street, I guess. I loved that show, and probably watched every single episode of it multiple times in reruns when I was home from school over the summer. While I remember it most for its sketch comedy, its recurring animated bits like “Mathman”, and of course the serial police drama “Mathnet” that closed every episode, they also did a lot of music videos parodying popular styles of the day while teaching some sort of a mathematical concept in the process. “Angle Dance”, which had WAY too much fun with 80s synthpop tropes, is a shining example of how absurd and delightful these videos could get. The 80s were considered passé by the time I really got into music in the 90s, and everything was trying to be more organic and “alternative”. So I didn’t come to appreciate a lot of the 80s music this was based on until much later, when everyone who wanted to avoid sounding dated in the 90s suddenly got all nostalgic in the 2000s. Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” and probably a few Devo songs are among the sources they cribbed from for this one. As cheesy clips from 80s kids shows go, at least this is acute one. (I’m sorry; I just had to make some sort of an angle joke here. Wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t.)
1990: “Give Thanks” by Don Moen
The early 90s were basically my “Charismatic years”. At around the time my parents split up and our old, stuffy Brethren church increasingly became a place where we didn’t feel like we fit in, my Mom brought us to a church in Azusa that an old friend of hers had been attending, which was like night and day compared to our old church. Instead of having a steeple and stained glass windows, I’m pretty sure it was a repurposed old warehouse or something. People were happy to see us and generous with their hugs. The music was all upbeat and (at least to my ears) modern. The pastor actually told jokes! (And occasionally got so carried away with whatever spontaneous tangent he had gone off on that we would be waiting like an hour after youth group let out for our parents to be done with service.) We would sometimes combine services with our Spanish-speaking congregation, which made things extra lively (and made the sermons take twice as long to preach due to every line needing translation). Not to mention, there was laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. All pretty bizarre considering the more reserved type of church we’d come from, but I adapted pretty well to the change, all things considered. I look back now at some of the elements of what I came to understand as “normal” for Christians then, and find them cringe-worthy now, but at the time, this was an important part of my growth as a Christian. It felt like my faith was meant to be something expressed out loud, rather than kept all quiet and reserved. A lot of the songs we regularly sang on Sunday mornings (and evenings, and occasionally Thursday evenings too) came from Integrity’s series of Hosanna! worship albums, which my Mom quickly set about acquiring on tape so that we could listen to them in the car and at home. I’d take them in my walkman on bike rides, too. A lot of my favorite songs from those tapes were the more upbeat ones back then – this may have been where I initially formed the expectation that the front half of an album would be more upbeat, while the back half would contain a lot of the slower, more emotional material to close things out on a more contemplative note. But I can’t think of any decent up-tempo material from back then that doesn’t make me cringe now. The title track from Give Thanks, however (which went against my expectations by being a slower opening track) actually still resonates with me. Worship was meant to be an expression of gratitude for something we could in no way earn for ourselves. Not some sort of a stiff exercise in seeing how pious we could appear to others, and not a form of bragging about all the holy actions we were gonna take to make God proud. Whatever good things I took away from my time in that flawed, but well-meaning congregation, this song expresses them best.
1991: “Baby Baby” by Amy Grant
It would still be a few more years before I would become fully immersed in the world of contemporary Christian music, and aware of the contentious issues that would come up when an artist from that genre experienced some form of “crossover” success. Amy Grant was kind of the guinea pig – the darling of the Christian music industry during the 80s, getting her hand slapped for the earliest hints of mainstream appeal on some of her records later in the decade, but nothing too controversial, and then going into full-on pop star mode with Heart in Motion. That album would end up becoming one of my favorite pop albums of all time, even though I was never enthusiastically into most of the rest of her work. But when I first heard all of that album’s massive singles, I actually didn’t know they were Amy Grant songs. This is because they were all performed by the teenaged members of The New Mickey Mouse Club, a revival of one of my Mom’s favorite TV shows from when she was a kid, that I watched rather obsessively in the early 90s. They would do sketch comedy (which was probably a gateway to my later enjoyment of Saturday Night Live) and have the kids star in their own music videos of songs that were popular at the time. I didn’t outwardly express an interest in mainstream pop music back then, since it was pretty much drilled into me by a lot of the folks we went to church with that “secular” music was bad, but the MMC was my back door into a lot of that stuff, and I honestly don’t know why enjoying it on a TV show was any different than acquiring the actual albums those songs came from for my own enjoyment… but whatever, I was weirdly pedantic about what I thought were “the rules” back then. Of all the songs on that record that the MMC did videos for, “I Will Remember You” ultimately ended up becoming my favorite, but the big early hit was definitely “Baby Baby”, and I still think of happy, lovey-dovey teenagers riding bicycles whenever I hear those sunshine-y keyboards. (The actual Amy Grant video, in which she generated controversy by – gasp! – appearing alongside an actor playing her love interest who was not her then-husband Gary Chapman, was not something I would see for myself until much later.) I mean, check out those slick key changes in the later verses and the outro. Given what I’ve already explained about how that sort of thing catches my ear, it was just destined to be that I would love this song. My happiest memory of “Baby Baby” actually comes from a few years later, when I was a freshman in college with very little knowledge of mainstream music, hanging out in the dorms doing calculus homework with a friend who had no real knowledge of Christian music, and this song came on the radio and she and I both had to “stop for a minute” and sing along. It was like the center of the Venn Diagram depicting our individual musical tastes. I didn’t experience that sort of thing very often at the time.
1992: “Jump” by Kris Kross
Go on, laugh. All the important history that came from the golden age of hip-hop, and in my complete ignorance of what made rap music meaningful, I had to go and get attached to this song, which is basically the Kidz Bop version. It might be the first song I liked that was performed by someone younger than myself (though only by a few months). It was all over the place in during my sophomore year of high school – people constantly referenced it, and if someone had been tracking the popularity of various memes and catch phrases back then, “wiggity whack” would have been a strong contender for the #1 trending phrase. (The New Mickey Mouse Club did a version of it too, which unsurprisingly is where I first learned it.) It was an easy song to make silly jokes about, but dang it, it was a fun song nonetheless. At one point I probably knew every word. Having no knowledge of the boundaries of good taste, nor the ability to discern when my classmates were laughing at me rather than with me, I decided that a parody of this song would make a good creative project to perform in front of my chemistry class that year. Sample lyric: “CFC’s make Earth a… Dump! Dump!” The whole class just lost it when I got to the “Miggity-miggity-miggity-miggity-mack daddy” part. I probably should not have attempted that.
1993: “A Whole New World” by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga (from Aladdin)
As a family, we watched pretty much anything Disney threw our way. It’s the reason the only subscription channel we had after we got basic cable was the Disney Channel. You can probably tell from my previous song picks how that influenced my musical tastes as a teenager. But the one actual Disney song that I remember most from my youth is definitely this one. Aladdin was released in late 1992 to much acclaim as part of the “renaissance” Disney animation was experiencing in those days, and we went to go see it as a gift for my 15th birthday in early 1993. That was the Disney movie that was most up my alley as a teenage boy, because I related to the main character a lot. Not that I was a poor street rat or anything, but I often felt like even if I could admit to myself that I was actually attracted to a girl, she’d be so out of my league that there’d be no way she’d take me over any number of other guys in school with a better fashion sense, smoother moves, and actual knowledge of what to do in a relationship. I was late to the puberty party, I think. So I figured I was the guy no girl would notice, unless extroardinary circumstances led to us meeting and spending time together, such as being paired up on a homework assignment, or as mixed doubles partners later in high school when I joined the badminton team – situations where I probably wouldn’t have been her first pick if not for an adult putting us together. I know it was a silly and self-deprecating way to think about my odds at experiencing romance, but that was my worldview in high school. Hearing Aladdin and Jasmine sing this duet, cheesy as it might have been, really tapped into my desire to meet someone special, and to have new and exciting places for us both to explore, beyond the confines of all the places already familiar to us. I knew that one day when I was an adult, and I had a job and my own means to travel and understand more of the world, I wouldn’t want to do it until I had a traveling companion by my side who would see it all with the same sort of wide-eyed wonder I did. (Thankfully, I didn’t have to find a magic lamp with a genie in it to eventually get that wish granted.)
1994: “Summer Solstice” by Susan Ashton
1994 was the year when I wholeheartedly began to pursue music as a hobby. The youth pastor at our church was instrumental in getting a lot of us who were part of the group to expand our horizons, by loaning out tapes from her personal collection as well as samplers she picked up from her local Christian bookstore. Innocent me at the time didn’t understand how a lot of Christian music was a good 3-5 years behind mainstream trends, or how some of the music I was getting into was really more adult contemporary than directly aimed at a younger audience. The upside of this was that since the lyrical content (and honestly, the record label putting it out) and not so much the musical style was what defined the music as “Christian”, I ended up hearing music from a lot of different genres, ranging from metal to rap (OK, really poppy rap like dc Talk, but still) to even a little country. Susan Ashton occupied a sort of middle space between pop, country, and folk music, and while I think there were a lot more pop and rock-leaning artists that I listened to far more frequently, this heartfelt ballad from her self-titled record became the one that really resonated with me the most from that era. It basically tracks the development of a person’s faith from the easygoing, feel-good, summertime vibe of being a new Christian, through seasons of questioning, loss and disillusion, and ultimately reconciliation and renewal. My moods have always been pretty strongly tied to the seasons, which is kind of laughable for a kid growing up in Southern California, because the worst we get during the winter is rainy grey BLAH, with the occasional bit of flooding. Certainly not the bitter cold you’d experience growing up in most other parts of the country. Still, I always struggled with winter, and found that my disposition was sunnier and my outlook on life a lot brighter when the weather was. A lot of Christians seem to view their faith as ideally something where growth is linear. I think it’s more cyclical. That’s not to say you forget the lessons and the ways you’ve grown, but sometimes you have to go through those seasons where it’s difficult to have faith and you’re feeding on scraps rather than a full feast, to really appreciate how God is constant despite our own faithfulness often wavering as we face various personal hardships. I love how you can feel the passage of time in this song, as its more expansive structure leaves space for contemplative instrumental moments and even a fiery guitar solo between the verses, rather than fitting into the compact space of a standard Christian radio single. It’s been the one song from that era that I’ve really felt compelled to come back to time and time again – listening to it on the summer solstice has become a bit of a ritual. I feel like it’s an important date. That’s when we get more sunlight than any other day of the year. (That date in 2016 also turned out to be when my Foster daughter was born – though obviously I had no way of knowing twenty-two years in advance that this would happen.)
1995: “Like a Child” by Jars of Clay
Jars of Clay’s debut album marked the beginning of a true seismic shift in my musical tastes. A lot of my friends were into “alternative rock”, and I didn’t fully understand what this term meant – it was vague enough to describe any rock band kicking against the norms heard in decades past, I guess. For some people, it meant grunge. For me, it initially meant slightly grittier Christian rock bands like the Newsboys that used a lot of programming, but in 1995, it meant the joy of discovering this largely acoustic folk/rock band that embedded a lot of string sections and kinda-urban beats into their music. I didn’t quite know how to classify it, but it sure had a broad appeal despite the inherent quirkiness of it. Ask most fans of the band which song they loved the most from that landmark album, and they’ll probably pick the undying fan favorite “Worlds Apart”, the huge crossover hit “Flood”, or maybe the preferred Christian radio single “Love Song For a Savior” (more recently known as “the Christian Mingle song”, unfortunately). For me, it was this joyous song with a bit of a Celtic lilt to it, which confessed to moments of shortsightedness and frustration, but ultimately celebrated the innocence and wonder of childlike faith. This pretty much became my theme song. I wanted to grow and mature as a Christian, and my freshman year of college was when I really got excited about that thanks to joining InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which felt a lot more vital than just attending church and practicing personal rituals because it seemed like the “right” thing to do. But I never wanted to lose the childlike wonder of seeing God do new things. I never wanted to become jaded and see it all as old hat. The years to come would make that a much bigger challenge than I realized when I set this as a spiritual goal for myself. There’s a difference between having childlike faith and childish faith, and I haven’t always landed on the correct side of that equation. But this song has always been there as an encouragement to me in the times when nothing seemed like it was making sense. There was always that hope that, given the time to stop and reflect and try to see what God might be doing during a difficult season, I might finally come to understand how God was creating something new and vital where, left to my same old devices, I might have never been able to see it.
1996: “Maybe Tomorrow” by Nouveaux
I’ve always been a sucker for songs about longing to meet that special someone, but not knowing who they are yet. This probably would be the Christian rock song on the subject if Nouveaux had been able to find a bigger audience. They started life as kind of a poppy hair metal band, in the same vein as Nelson, several years too late for something like that to really catch on, then they shifted to more of an acoustic rock format for their second (and sadly, last) album, which was a huge breath of fresh air. This was the opening song on that album, and I immediately fell in love with it. I’ve been a bit of a hopeless romantic ever since I hit puberty and finally got over my fear of even being friends with girls. I was too shy to really tell a girl how I felt when I liked her most of the time, at least not until I’d been quietly crushing on her for long enough that either it was obvious and she had to give me the “we’re just friends” talk, or else I knew enough to make it clear she could never be interested in me, and the confession of my feelings for her came out as more of an apology, like I knew at that point I was coming across as a bit of a creep. I had very little dating experience because of that, but a number of great friendships sprung up in the aftermath of a few of those situations, where an attempt to date each other even if she had been interested probably would have been disastrous, but we actually had a lot in common once it was made clear that the relationship was strictly platonic. I’m kind of lucky in the sense that I skipped over a lot of potential heartbreak, but still it was hard, watching a lot of my friends get into relationships, wondering when I’d actually be able to say I had a girlfriend and have that status stick for more than a few weeks (which is about how long my sad attempts at dating in high school actually lasted). I knew “Maybe Tomorrow” was the song that, if and when I met someone who was compatible enough with me for marriage to be a real possibility, I’d want to play it for her on the day I proposed. I got to do exactly that in September 2004, when I serenaded my wife-to-be with the song right before telling her the one unfulfilled line in the song was “Until the day you say you’ll marry me” and I pulled the ring out from my pocket. I’m not known for having a lot of smooth moves when it comes to romance, but at least I got to make that one count.
1997: “Even in My Youth” by Erin O’Donnell
“We can’t undo the days of youth. They speak on through our years.” This one’s a really obscure pick, considering that I was listening to a lot of alternative Christian rock in those days, and any number of heavy-hitters from the genre probably could have locked down this spot if I was just going for pure catchiness. This song was more “alternative pop”, as Erin O’Donnell was more adult contemporary than what I typically liked at the time, but she had an organic approach to her music that made it feel like the sound of springtime. I went through my first real bout with depression in the winter of 1997, and I wouldn’t fully shake it off until near the end of summer, because suddenly I was dealing with all these doubts and questions about core aspects of my faith that I had previously took for granted. I just wanted to grab hold of the constants that I had understood since my youth and not let them go, but I was too honest with myself to just ignore some of the questions I had, which challenged innocent assumptions I had previously made that didn’t gel with my current experiences. It’s hard to put all those feelings into words now, but ultimately I’m glad I went through that “dark night of the soul”. In the process, I shed some naive beliefs about how only good things should ever happen to a “true believer”, and found a faith that was less based on my mood or circumstances on a given day, and more assured of God being constant even when I was not. This song was a beautiful reminder of God still calling out to a woman who had perhaps gone through a phase of lost innocence, and wanted to know that the legacy her parents and grandparents had passed down to her, and the core truths she had trusted in as a kid, were still present within her as an adult. It was a reminder of that still, small voice letting you know you were held and protected, and that God would take care of you through the dark valleys of life, even if God wasn’t going to let you avoid going through them. Listening to this one, I was thankful for the ways God had been there for me in the earlier years of my life, and the lessons that had taught me that made it possible to persevere in my current situation, and I started to feel like I could see a light at the end of the dark tunnel I was going through.