Candace McDuffie
April 17, 2016 4:00 pm
Warner Bros.

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

Sometimes for fun, I poll some of my friends regarding what they consider their guilty music pleasures. They tend to shy away from sharing, but when they do get the courage to divulge what they used to listen to (most notably during their teenage years), they become riddled with inexplicable amounts of guilt and shame. It’s as if what they listened to during their adolescence somehow serves as a precursor to what kind of music they listen to today.

Quite frankly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As a music journalist, I’ve come to realize that versatility is the key to survival in this industry. As a black music journalist, said versatility is often placed under an intense microscopic lens. But despite the hardships I’ve faced in my ten-year career, I’ve always remained unashamed of any artist I’ve ever enjoyed because I’ve learned to not give any damns about what anyone else thinks. One particular genre of music that will always hold a special place in my heart is ‘90s alternative rock, and it’s for more complex reasons than you’d think.

Because I was raised on gospel music, hip hop, and R&B, my discovery of pop-rock didn’t develop until my middle school days. After I survived my elusive boy band phase (which I am convinced every prepubescent teenage girl experiences in one form or another), I went on a radio-friendly alternative music kick for several years. Matchbox 20’s Yourself or Someone Like You was a cassette tape (!!!) that grew ragged from extensive wear in my possession. Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up The Girl became a consistent staple in my musical diet. Lit’s A Place in the Sun had enough buoyancy to be added to my album rotation in a steadfast manner. I also grew fond of other artists who flourished in the same vein such as: Gin Blossoms, Vertical Horizon, Train, The Wallflowers, and Third Eye Blind. While some wrote off their songs as trite, cheesy, and a bit repetitive, within each lyric I heard an escape.

The transition from middle school to high school was one of the hardest periods in my life. I was teased by other kids because of how tall I am, how dark my skin is, and how I “sound white” when I talk. Naturally, music was a getaway from a reality that was frequently too much to bear. What I found so appealing about all of these bands is that their sound was something that was invitingly foreign to me. I’ve always hummed along to anything I found remotely catchy, but to buy actual albums and fervently study them from start to finish is an entirely different experience. Behind Johnny Rzenik’s satiny croon was a vulnerable expression of longing; amidst Jakob Dylan’s raspy warble was the gravity of self-realization.

I threw myself into all of the lyricism, the guitar crescendos, the innate lightness of the songs. What these artists represent is more of a feeling than a pastime. The crippling sadness and self-loathing I experienced in my teens wasn’t completely rectified by my infatuation with music, but I couldn’t imagine navigating through such a tough time without it.

When I wasn’t spending hours locked away in my room listening to music, I spent hours in chat rooms with other alt rock fans deciphering song titles, debating set lists, and arguing over tentative album release dates. Through our mutual love for this type of music, we formed our own type of misfit online community that went beyond CDs (!!!). It was comforting to find people who accepted me in spite of my insecurities. That showed me hope when all I could previously think about was how much I despised myself.

To this day, when anyone mentions their musical guilty pleasures, I not only name names, but I explain how I still indulge the alternative rock genre from time to time. The 1990s annual touring circuit known as Summerland, which was launched in 2012, served as an answer to my prayers: Since its inception, I have recently seen some of my favorite throwbacks like Everclear, Marcy Playground, and Soul Asylum. A few years back, Matchbox 20 and Goo Goo Dolls hit the road together. Not only was I lucky enough to receive press credentials to cover the show, but I even met Rob Thomas backstage before his band went onstage. I couldn’t stop smiling for a week.

I refuse to associate any of my past musical preferences with any sort of remorse or embarrassment. If anything, music has been my failsafe and the necessary platform to not only express myself but to connect with other people on a meaningful level. I consider myself fortunate to still be able to conjure up such positive feelings from a time in my life when I felt my lowest and I owe a huge part of this to ‘90s alternative rock. While other people choose to distance themselves from their former music choices, I embrace mine — and I regret nothing.

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