The Ear Bud Generation

Students at Oakland School of the Arts talk about the music that moves them.

“The first time I heard Joy Division I was thirteen and my ears fell off my head and I ate them and threw them back up and after that I spent a lot of time listening to them.” This is what Rosalie Bidar told me when asked whether she can remember the first time she heard a band that changed her life.

I totally get that, because it’s pretty much how I felt when I first heard PJ Harvey for the first time. That was twenty years ago, but just like Rosalie, I remember it like it was yesterday. Except in her case, it kind of was yesterday — she’s sixteen, one of my high school students at Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), where I teach in the Literary Arts department.

My music-loving friends and I love to talk about what we listened to back in the day. We rehash pivotal mix tapes and first concerts (Soul Asylum and Spin Doctors, thanks for asking). They’re the soundtracks to our rebellions and romances — but we’re looking back across decades to relive these moments. I wanted to know how my students process these moments that they’re still so close to. For them, these moments happened last year, last month, yesterday, right now as they watch YouTube videos and listen to Spotify and Pandora, digital algorithms constantly exposing them to more and more and more. I wanted to know how they discover new sounds, how their musical tastes evolve and form. I sat down with a group of them to talk about it all. (Full disclosure: Though my subjects were unpaid, I did give them cookies.)

OSA is an arts high school (think Fame) and music is a constant: The jazz combo practices in the hallways while the vocal choir does scales in the next room. In Literary Arts, our focus is writing, but music — indie rock, death metal, underground hip hop, punk, R&B, whatever — is everywhere. My kids are smart and savvy and weirdly cool and half of them seem to have tiny white ear buds permanently embedded in their skulls. They also have a lot to say about the music they love — and why they love it. “It means my feelings,” said fifteen-year-old Paige O’Farrell. “It keeps me from making hasty decisions,” added Lena O’Neal, also fifteen. Francesca Pemberton, who’s the same age, nodded. “Sometimes it’s just as simple as a good riff. Like there’s something right and good about a song and I can’t stop listening to it.”

And despite what you may assume about kids these days and their newfangled ways, these guys learn about new bands from their friends. They go to record stores (Amoeba, Rasputin, Best Buy); they seek out live music; they hear a song on the radio and figure out who it’s by. Some of them own vinyl and cassettes. Though almost all of them use the Internet to find new music (legally and not-so-legally), most rely primarily on peers and — get this! — their parents. When asked if they like their parents’ music, they all said yes — many regularly borrow their parents’ CDs or iPods. Or vice versa, says Lena: “Tegan and Sara will come on and I’ll be, like, ‘Dad, I love them’ and he’ll be, like, ‘Yeah, I looked on your iPod and bought all their albums!'”

Though wary of saying anything as cheesy or pretentious as “music changed my life,” all my students could identify a particular moment where they made a significant shift in listening habits, left behind the groupthink middle-school tastes and began to carve out new tastes, and, thus, new identities.

For Lena, it was Outside Lands. “Totally changed everything.” Prior to the outdoor festival she listened to “completely mainstream stuff, whatever was on the radio.” But there she was exposed to an array of smaller bands, but it was Arcade Fire that really sealed the deal. She and a friend found themselves crowd-surfing “in the middle of this huge mosh pit, getting smashed up against all these adults.” Despite the claustrophobic proximity to crazy cigarette-smoking old people, “it was worth getting pushed around by all these strangers, to hear this, to be opened up to this.” She came home and made a Pandora station, listening “over and over every day, just to try to relive that experience.”

Rosalie, the Joy Division fan, also pinpoints a concert as a defining moment. “When I was eleven my dad and I got really good Radiohead tickets as a gift …. That was the first time I really witnessed the power of music, what you can do with it. Before that I’d only really heard popular music like the Black Eyed Peas or whatever.” She now counts Nina Simone, Mozart’s Requiem, and Velvet Underground among her favorites.

Fiona McCargar-Hurley, a generally all-black-clad ninth grader whose preferences include Rammstein and Celtic music, credits a pivotal mix CD: “When I was thirteen I was starting to get into goth and my mom’s friend made me this mix with Siouxsie and the Banshees on it. I’d never heard them before, and it definitely had a huge influence on my taste in music.”

As in the olden days, hearing-about-it-from-a-friend is the primary way these kids discover new music, but the Internet obviously makes that easier than ever. Calder Marchman, an 18-year old senior and 924 Gilman regular, told me his intro to punk came “back in the day, when MySpace was king.” He was in eighth grade when a friend posted a link to a video of “Seeing Red” by Minor Threat, which led him to the DC hardcore band’s first seven-inch. And that was that; he left the Arctic Monkeys behind, and headed off to Black Flag and Fugazi until he made it to the infamous Berkeley punk club at thirteen. “It was just sort of the right time and place,” he said. “I was young. I was angry.”

Although hearing a new band can be as easy as clicking on a friend’s Facebook link, deciding what and who to listen to can be much more complex — especially for young people of color, who are often navigating issues of racial identity on top of everything else. Seventeen-year-old (and occasional Express contributor) Kerby Lynch spent her middle-school years in “the ‘burbs” (“In Alameda it’s like ‘Aretha Franklin? You mean that black lady?'”) listening to the Jonas Brothers and screamo. “Now I look back and I’m, like, what the heck?,” she laughed. “I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I was a bully.” In eighth grade Lynch made a crucial discovery: Kanye West. He pointed her toward other “conscious” music, and made her aware of how music can transmit messages about race and identity.

But a person’s race doesn’t always inform her musical taste, Lynch discovered.”When I went to Adele at the Greek Theatre I was literally the only black person there,” she recalled. “It’s just, like, am I supposed to be here? It’s weird when a band that you like isn’t intended for you. It’s like, do they imagine that a black girl listens to their music?” Lena agrees; she felt awkward and out of place when she went to see X on New Year’s Eve with a bunch of friends. “Everyone was like old and punk-y and white. And I’m not any of those things.”

Senior Zakiya Jackson recalled that her music taste in middle school was, at first, “pretty whitewashed, like Avril Lavigne and No Doubt. Then it became all Destiny’s Child and Mac Dre.” Now that she’s older she can appreciate “both sides,” and credits her dad with getting her hooked on Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica — “which is weird,” she laughed, “’cause he’s a big black dude.” As a more mature listener she likes it all — but not all her friends appreciate this. “Half of them think I have the best taste,” she explained with a grin and a shrug. “And half think I listen to hipster white-girl music.”

Listening to all their anecdotes, I wondered: What if Fiona had never received that tape? Yes, she’d probably encounter Siouxsie somewhere down the line, college maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same. If Calder hadn’t seen that Minor Threat video, would he be wearing an Op Ivy T-shirt today, playing bass in a band, hanging around Gilman every week? If Kerby hadn’t heard Kanye and Common, would she be the grounded, politicized young poet that she is now? And what if I’d never bought that Bratmobile EP at Tower Records in eighth grade, or ordered that cassette by someone I’d never heard of named Patti Smith from Columbia House (which offered the “15 cassettes for 1¢” deal)?

None of us will ever know, of course. All we can do is turn it up.

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