When it comes to music, I think I got a late start.
A friend I have whose parents came of age in California in the 1960s once shared a fond memory of his dad spread out on the living room carpet, hands folded on his belly with one leg rested on the other, listening to a Jethro Tull album. Friends who know every Beatles album by heart, for instance, might’ve also started their musical education very young, receiving lessons on Saturday morning from parents who played “Abbey Road” to soothe the monotony of weekend chores.
My parents, Vietnamese immigrants and perhaps the last generation of Vietnamese youth to experience the impacts of French colonialism, listened to an eclectic mix of French pop hits, Vietnamese song-poems and perhaps a few disco singles from The Bee Gees.
They loved to listen to Dalida’s “Paroles Paroles,” French for “words, words” and Salvatore Adamo’s “La Nuit,” a song about a man who oscillates frenetically between desire and madness at the image of his lover during the night.
My mom’s singing, a gentle broken French modified by the tonal Vietnamese, is what I remember when I think of myself lying on my living room floor pleading with her to play something a little more contemporary.
In retrospect, my high school years, like those of many other students my age, were marked by music. My dad bought me an MP3 player that couldn’t have held more than a gigabyte worth of songs. I kept a fastidious rotation of songs from Radiohead and The Smiths — “I wear black on the outside ’cause black is the way I feel on the inside.”
Nevertheless, I felt (and sometimes still do) that some vast reservoir of songs from the ’60s and ’70s, songs always brimming with emotive power, was kept from me.
As a first-generation immigration whose parents had comparatively unconventional tastes, I had to learn to listen to Led Zeppelin, and I wouldn’t have thought to listen to Pink Floyd had a boyfriend not introduced the band to me during a drive to Santa Monica Beach.
I love Janis Joplin’s rendition of “Summertime” and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Little Wing,” but sometimes I regret that I hadn’t heard the songs earlier.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard phrases that begin with, “I can’t believe you’ve never heard—“ or how many times I’ve faced the look of complete shock that accompanies the question, “How can you’ve lived 23 years without knowing—“
The music that was inseparable from childhood for others had to become a self-imposed education for me, studied and absorbed in the same manner a student would when she tries to expose herself to high art or so-called “sophisticated” literature.
It was the same thing with movies. I hadn’t seen any of the Star Wars movies until 2011 or any of the Indiana Jones movies until 2012. This pop culture literacy that others took for granted was often lost on me. This access to America’s golden years of music came so naturally to others that my peers had a difficult time fathoming how I didn’t hear of such critical bands until later in my youth. As a Vietnamese-American teen for whom assimilation and perhaps conformity remained a significant, albeit unconscious, inclination this fact felt so limiting. This music was the heart and soul of Americana, and I had to teach it to myself.
Sometimes I wish I had learned the lessons of The Beatles alongside the lessons of childhood, like “don’t lie, cheat or steal” and in the same spirit, I also wonder if my young adult life would have been a little different had I had exposure to such art earlier.
I wonder about how they would’ve informed my adolescence and how I could have used certain songs, lyrics, movies and literature for comfort during young adulthood. Because art often provides new paradigms for communication, I often wonder if the music and literature I missed out on could’ve turned into tools that made self-expression easier.
But there’s often no use in being nostalgic about a past that never existed.
There is no practical difference between the songs you treasure as a memory of your youth and the songs you learn to love as an adult. There’s something liberating about that. Today, when I listen to a Talking Heads album or listen to Nina Simone’s play “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” there’s nothing to regret.
I love how David Byrne sings in “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody),” when he asks, “I can’t tell one from another: did I find you, or you find me?”
And I guess the answer is that it doesn’t matter that much. Who cares, really?
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @ce_truong.