It happened as soon as I’d started our new car for the first time. I figured it was something left over from the previous owner. “Must have been an ABBA fan,” we chuckled as the first strains of “The Winner Takes It All” wafted unbidden through the speakers that night. It was easy enough to switch to the radio, so we thought nothing of it. When “Take a Chance on Me” popped up without warning the next time we started the car, we wondered if the previous owner had been Swedish, or maybe a distant relative of singer Anni-Frid Synni. By the time “Fernando” came on that third morning, my cheeks were flush from shame: Somehow, the car was accessing the playlists from my phone.
I didn’t admit this revelation to my wife at first. I was always quick to share my rap playlist (Biggie Smalls, Dragon Boy Suede) or collection of Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes, but my ABBA albums were a closely guarded secret. Some men harbor dark secrets or illicit affairs. Me? I hid the fact that I owned both the European and North American releases of the “ABBA Gold” albums. (The European version includes “Waterloo,” if you were wondering.)
Suddenly, my car was outing my musical proclivities for the world to hear.
Worse, I didn’t know how to stop it. I’d been driving a friend home for several minutes before I realized “Mama Mia” had been playing softly in the background. I hastily poked at the dashboard as the opening notes to “Dancing Queen” created that dreaded elevator music ambience that kills all hope for my musical credibility. Too lazy to read through the owner’s manual (since when had these manuals become longer than War and Peace?), I eventually had to come clean to my wife.
I’m happy to say we are still married, but we’ve had to endure many difficult conversations about the other skeletons in my closet (and yes, many did involve the Grateful Dead). I had to come clean about Adam Ant and Alanis Morissette, the Digital Underground and the Velvet Underground, Adam Levine and Avril Lavigne (I make no apologies: “Girlfriend” is a great tune).
In the end, I got my wife to acknowledge the critical aging process that strips certain songs of their former reputations. What was once considered a Scarlet Treble (say, “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band) eventually comes to be regarded as endearingly “retro” when enough time has passed. The shame disappears into the acceptable haze of nostalgia.
The difficulty is in establishing the parameters in which this magical transformation occurs. For instance, it’s my contention that Hanson’s “MMMBop” has already crossed that threshold and can be listened to in public without fear of judgment. My wife won’t allow the windows down if the song is playing lest we be cast forever from decent society.
My eighth grade students are brutal in establishing these limits. They were impressed when I played Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” last year at this time as it was topping the pop charts. When I tried to play it last month, however, I got sad, pitying looks. I might as well have played The Wiggles. In 20 years, that song will have been endowed with the patina of classic rock, the way I can play anything by the Beatles without student complaint. (Well, they might roll their eyes at Ringo’s tunes.)
For now, my wife and I have reached a détente. We accept that sometimes car rides begin with “Chiquitita,” and that’s OK. At least until she finds out about my Bangles playlist.