Shaping Identity: Musical Misfit

by Sunni Brown Wilkinson

I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly average person but for one thing: growing up, my tastes never seemed to align with those of my peers. In high school I dressed far too old or too quirky (blazers with shoulder pads, suspenders, tights underneath shorts), I read the English pastoral novels of Thomas Hardy while my friends raved about popular romances, and instead of head- banging or crooning to the hits of my own era, I drank from the deep well of the music of my parents’ generation. 

I grew up in northern Utah in a tight-knit community of Mormons. My parents had been bona fide hippies in the 60s, but now it was the 90s, and my dad was a mailman and my mom was a nontrad college student. They looked like anyone else’s parents, but they blasted classic rock at home on a regular basis at high decibel, which meant none of us could stomach the pop fluff played on the radio and consequently we developed sharp opinions about what qualified as “good music.”

When I was a teenager, girls my age listened to a variety of pop wonders: Ace of Base for the musically amenable. Mariah Carey for the happily mainstream. The Cranberries and Alannis Morissette for the moderately enraged. These artists might be okay for a dance song at a Friday night stomp, but that was not music that wedded poetic lyrics with killer guitar solos. 

While I loved the old Christian and Pioneer hymns we sang as a congregation at church, I loathed the newer “inspirational” pieces written for youth. Each Sunday I stood at the back of the room in our all girls’ church class and made barfing noises while the other girls sang youth hymns with flowery chords and lyrics so saccharine I couldn’t stomach them. I rolled my eyes. I opened my mouth and pointed my finger down my throat: the universal teen girl sign for “gag me.” It wasn’t the doctrine I had trouble with. I was deeply interested in our theology. It was the aesthetic of that music: lyrics whose metaphors were too bright and shiny, an overwhelming cheeriness that didn’t seem real. 

Led Zeppelin showed up in my early teen years like a cool big brother rescuing me from musical perdition. I listened to “Since I’ve Been Loving You” often and loud enough to enjoy John Bonham’s drum pedal squeak through the entire song. I ached to be the “girl out there, with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” that Robert Plant yearns for in “Going to California.” I once told a friend “That’s the Way” was, in my estimation, perfection. The acoustic strumming, the imagery, the heartache. Nothing from my generation gave me that. 

This preference for classic rock seemed to play out fine for my brothers, whose friends tended toward the social fringe and who, like their favorite music, found it cooler underground. Their Pink Floyd or Zeppelin T-shirts emanated a nostalgia for early rock. But I was socially mainstream, and a girl. I was a band nerd (not a cool drummer like my brother, but a flutist, and one who played Stars and Stripes Forever, not wild rock solos like Jethro Tull). My brothers were angry and looked edgier than me, but we spoke more or less the same language when it came to music. This was a tremendous relief because I felt like an outlier with my friends. Their music knowledge leap-frogged from The Beatles to ABBA to Depeche Mode, maybe skid a moment on Queen or Aerosmith, but completely missed the deep blue lakes of late 60s and 70s rock, cathedrals of sound I called home.  

Just when those deep, colorful emotions of late teen wonder and angst showed up, I found the perfect accompaniment. In high school I was crushing big time on 1967 Justin Hayward, lead singer of the British band The Moody Blues. There were weeks I would rush home from school and hide out in my basement watching over and over again the black and white original footage of “Nights in White Satin” on our VHS. My mom had given me a bracelet from her own teen years, a locket you could flip open, revealing inside a tiny cut out of Justin Hayward’s face. Each time I wore it, someone flipped the locket open and asked, “Who’s that?” And each time I explained, I was met with a blank stare and “Who?!” 

One New Year’s Eve when I was 19 and we’d sneaked into a bar in West Yellowstone, Montana to dance to the live music, my friend turned to me, incredulous that I knew the lyrics to what he thought was an original piece by the cover band and asked, “How do you know this song?” I stared back at him, equally stunned. “This is The Rolling Stones!” I yelled over the music and finished singing along to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” A few years later I handed a CD to a novice DJ at a church dance and asked him to play a song off it. “Who is this?” he asked, annoyed. “Uh… Stevie Wonder,” I answered, staring at him dumfounded. He may as well have asked, “What’s a potato?” Or “How do I put on pants?”

Last year I saw on Facebook that The Moody Blues’ 50th anniversary tour of “Days of Future Passed” was coming to Las Vegas. I called my husband, giddy and breathless. A few months later we were strolling through The Winn, finding our seats in the balcony, twenty years younger than most other fans but just as anxious for the show. 

I needed this music. The year before we’d lost our fourth son – stillborn – and I was still reeling from that grief. It felt like the whole world was sliding off its axis and I couldn’t get a finger hold. I needed to believe in the permanence of something. I wanted to connect with what had once made me happy. 

When the band came out, they looked old, even frail. Justin Hayward announced that one of the band members wouldn’t be joining them since he’d just been admitted to the hospital. The opening number was awful: shaky voices, shrill electric guitar. I wondered why we’d come, since this was far more depressing than just sitting at home. 

Thankfully after a few songs they quieted down and found their groove, and slowly my childhood crept back into me. It was like time travel, or finding a warm patch of sun. 

Toward the end of the show they played “Question,” one of my favorites. They sang that chorus I knew so well, and asked the audience to sing along. I’m looking for someone to change my life. I’m looking for a miracle in my life. And if you could see what it’s done to me. To lose the love I knew…

The audience swayed. They sang along so earnestly. My husband turned to me and said, “Wow, this is really good.” I smiled at him and said quietly, “Yeah.”

Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard ReviewBODYSugar House ReviewCimarron ReviewSouthern Indiana Review among other journals and has been nominated for two Pushcarts.  Her debut poetry collection, The Marriage of the Moon and the Field, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2019.  She earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University, teaches at Weber State University, and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons.

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