This City and Those Who Built It by C. C. Russell
My family wasn’t big on music. Though my father was a DJ at the local radio station, he had very little love for music that had been produced in the twenty or so years up to that point. I don’t remember ever hearing a song played on the record player that gathered dust in our basement. My soundtrack was always either the television or my parents screaming at each other.
They were also the kind of Christian that was popular in that decade. No sleepovers, no D&D, no R-rated movies. Evil was waiting everywhere to steal away their children. So how I was allowed to attend a co-ed dance birthday party is beyond me. It is one of only a few birthday parties that I can remember attending. But there it is in my memory: my father dropping me off, me timidly stepping down the carpeted stairs to the sound of Top 40 tunes.
And so it was that I found myself in the basement of Angie Jones’ house, somewhere in the middle of sixth grade, dancing – for the first time – with a girl, my hands on her hips as We Built This City poured from woodgrain and mesh speakers. I want to tell you (trust me, you’re going to hate me for this cliché moment) that it was the first time that I had truly noticed music, but I don’t think that’s too far from the truth. It was the moment that showed me how songs can color us in, how they can hold all of these emotions in such a succinct little container.
We danced in the way that young people did then: the girl places her hands on the boy’s shoulders. He reciprocates with his hands on her hips. The arms are held out straight, elbows locked to keep the maximum amount of space between them while still touching. They then step out with one leg (opposite leg to each other so that they travel the same direction) and into it with the other, and then repeated the opposite direction – two steps to the left, two to the right. Once we got better at the timing, some among us would even start adding a slow rotation, our barely-joined bodies slowly moving in a large circle along with the shuffle.
We Built This City by Starship has been voted the worst song of all time by both Blender and GQ, and the worst song of the 1980s by Rolling Stone via a reader’s poll. I suppose that they have a point. It is a goofy song that somehow manages to combine anti-corporate lyrics with a completely corporate bubblegum pop sound, a song with ludicrous lyrics that treats itself with deadly seriousness. But it is the first song that I purchased. The day after that birthday party, I took my allowance downtown to our tiny little Pamida and I bought the 45 single and proceeded to play it repeatedly for the next few weeks. It was the beginning of my lifelong obsession with music, worst song ever or not. And I danced. Danced there in my empty basement, danced over the carpet sample squares, danced more to the memory than to the song itself.
My mother often said that music was one avenue that the devil takes to get into your life. I picture her watching Footloose (as if she would have watched a film like that) and siding with the villains who were just trying to protect those children from the evils of music. She wasn’t happy with the fact that I was spending my allowance in such a way, but she didn’t stop me. Years later, when we are fighting about my music (her threatening to burn my Siouxsie and Concrete Blonde albums), she will tell me that she thinks it is the music that has made me this way, that she never should have allowed me to buy those records and cassettes over the years. In her mind, I was possessed by Starship. I suppose that there is the tiniest little bit of truth in that. That song wormed its way into my heart and I was never again content without music in my life.
It is possible, probable even, that almost any song coupled with that moment, coupled with that first touch would have led to this realization, this fully fledged sudden understanding of music and what it can do to us. But for me, it was this. Grace Slick belting out lyrics about corporation games while my hands rested, sweaty, against the belt loops of Angie Jones’ jeans. It had a beat and we could dance to it. And so we did. Back and forth until the needle left it behind. That static and we parted, at least one of us forever altered.
About the Author:
C.C. Russell lives in Wyoming with his wife and daughter. His writing has recently appeared in such places as Tahoma Literary Review, Word Riot, Rattle, The Meadow, and The Colorado Review. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net. He has held jobs in a wide range of vocations – everything from graveyard shift convenience store clerk to retail management with stops along the way as dive bar dj and swimming pool maintenance. He has also lived in New York and Ohio. He can be found on Twitter @c_c_russell