Retrospecting

The Goo Goo Dolls have released a bunch of music since I last heard from them about fifteen years ago, but I haven’t listened to any of it and can’t speak to its quality. Outside of their two most popular albums, I’m not familiar with the rest of their output, either. They released five albums before “Dizzy Up the Girl” in 1998! That’s a whole lot of music. I didn’t know about any of that until just a few minutes ago. So I don’t know much about this band in general and am not committed to campaigning for its reinstatement to a former glory, whatever that might have been.

But the Goo Goo Dolls were a big deal for a few years when I was in middle school, so they are locked into a very particular time in my life. Their biggest singles will likely be lodged in my mind for as long as I live, tied up with all sorts of associations of being half-kid/half-teenager, right before I earnestly declared my independence from all things Popular by buying a bunch of Metallica albums. I know these songs with a kind of intimacy that’s tough to replicate later in life.

“Black Balloon,” released as a single in 1999, is one of those songs. It’d be easy to dismiss it now, and maybe I ought to, but I think it holds up as one of the best examples of what this ‘90′s brand of midtempo alt-rock had to offer. It’s got a good vocal melody and good momentum, which keeps it pushing forward during the verses instead of just keeping time until the next chorus. It also opens with a simple but pretty guitar melody that’s put to clever use: the melody implies a minor key to the listener, suggesting a moodier atmosphere, but then the acoustic guitar enters with strummed chords and reveals that we’re actually in a major key, brightening up the song. This isn’t an uncommon trick in pop music, but it’s effective, and it makes for a kind of classic bittersweet vibe that encourages indulgent, wistful blog recollecting, like the kind I’m doing right now.

For all of those reasons, I liked this song back when it was in radio rotation. It was the sort of song I hoped would play during car rides and shopping mall visits. The lyrics never made much sense to me (reading through them now is illuminating), but there was a pair of lines that always stuck out. At the very end, after the big payoff of the last chorus, Johnny Rzeznik sings,

“I’ll become
And you became to me”

It’s a little unexpected, weird lyric! I never really knew what it meant to “became” to someone, but it sounded intriguing, and I let it go as a moment of poetic license in a song that otherwise plays it pretty safe. It was odd but it seemed to fit into the song somehow, and I didn’t want to question it too literally. It just worked.

Well, apparently it didn’t, because that is totally not the lyric. The actual lyric – not the lyric I misheard for 16 years – is “I’ll become/What you became to me,” which a) fits with the rest of the song, and b) actually makes sense, and is a thing people say in real life. It is more mundane than the slightly off-kilter thing I somehow heard and internalized and never bothered to question. But it works better.

At this point, though, the song has already burrowed its way into my brain and made calcified connections and associations. I can correct my knowledge and understanding of it, but somewhere in my mind, whenever I hear this song, I will hear it the way I heard it when I was in middle school. Whatever emotional ties I made to that misunderstood rendition will persist, though they might recede over time, despite knowing better now.

This is a common occurrence. I think we all rediscover songs and movies and whatever else from our past and are surprised by the things we thought we knew so well. But it puts us in a tough spot. How do we reconcile the real thing with the remembered one? I don’t know that there is a clear answer for that. I imagine it has to be addressed on a case by case basis, and in some cases, like with material that reflects regressive or offensive ideas, the question becomes more difficult and more crucial than in others.

There is always a risk in revisiting the things that help us narrativize our past. I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that we’re living in a cultural moment that prioritizes nostalgia, particularly as it relates to music, movies, and TV shows produced anytime between 1980 and, like…2010 (I’m not actually sure what the year is there, but it seems recent-ish. This is a blog post so I’m going to irresponsibly ignore my obligation to back up a statement like that with meaningful evidence.). The explosion of remakes and reboots and reimaginings in all areas of pop culture points to this.

And that can be cool. There are exciting things that can be done with older franchises. But I’m not sure that we’re approaching all of these revisits with the nuance they require. It’s great to take the time to appreciate the things we loved, that helped us develop our tastes, that helped us develop as people. It becomes a different situation when we submit too willingly to their unimpeachability. This is why resuscitating and rebooting so much of it for the current moment can be a dangerous maneuver.

Sometimes, the misunderstood or misremembered version of cherished cultural artifacts is more important than the real one could ever be. Not all of those favorite songs, books, movies, and games hold up to modern scrutiny. Which is why, I think, it’s important to learn how to appreciate those meaningful items from the past but be careful not to sanctify all of them, and be especially careful when we decide to drag them back into the present. (Good luck to the team at Square with this plot beat.)

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