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How Kings of Leon led me to musical puberty

On growing up with the help of heartbreak and southern rock

I call it my “musical puberty” — the period in my mid-twenties when I “grew up” in terms of the music I listened to; I learned to expand my horizons beyond the world of pop music and embrace a wider range of sounds. It wasn’t a quick journey; I was a late bloomer, both in terms of my taste for music and many other things, but boy am I glad to be here now. There’s so much good music in this world, and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to embrace it.

The Beginning

For the first 25 years of my life, no one would ever have accused me of having good taste in music.

As a young child in the ’90s, while everyone else was filling up on rock, grunge and sappy love songs, I was listening to oldies. What kind of 10-year-old listens to “Venus in Blue Jeans” on the regular? For some unknown reason, that and all the other music playing on our local oldies station spoke to my weird, nerdy, pre-pubescent soul more than anything else.

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I don’t know why I’m scowling… but I guarantee I was listening to the “Jurassic Park” soundtrack here.

In middle school, I was just as clueless. I distinctly remember a classmate talking about Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” which I’d never heard. I’ll certainly never forget the time a kid named Luís pulled a pink CD jewel case out of his backpack after gym class and asked if I’d heard of this new singer named Britney Spears. I hadn’t. The first CDs I ever bought were Smash Mouth’s “Astro Lounge” and Fastball’s “All the Pain Money Can Buy.” The third CD I bought: The “Jurassic Park” soundtrack, which I listened to almost religiously — a wonderful collection of John Williams compositions, but a ridiculous choice for a teenage boy.

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In high school I really started to develop my taste for pop music. The wide world of Limewire and Kazaa made it easy and free to consume all the music I wanted, and my friends and I traded our various mixed CDs back and forth like they were going out of style (it turns out they were). And when I say I leaned into pop music, I mean I really leaned in and never looked back. Pop music became my drug of choice. What started with “Astro Lounge” and, later, Jason Mraz, exploded when I purchased Britney Spears’ “In the Zone” album at a Circuit City in 2004. I spent the next 10 years ravenously consuming as much pop music as I possibly could, trying my best to keep up with current hits and catch up on the music I’d missed in the ’80s and ‘90s.

While it would be easy to consider this my musical puberty, it really wasn’t; it was an identity crisis. I’d spent so much of my life being aggressively uncool, not to mention hiding inside the closet and focusing on good grades over everything else, that I latched onto pop music like it was some kind of replacement for an actual personality. I cut my teeth on pop with mixed CDs and MiniDiscs in high school, and then iTunes and music blogs led me to a brave new world where the world was at my fingertips during college. Pop culture and pop music were my touchstones, my links to society. I became the self-proclaimed expert on the topic, and I worked my way up to leading the entertainment section of my college newspaper. If pop music is bland, and loving it makes you basic, then my one saving grace was a fascination with European pop and dance/trance music, which, at the very least, gave me an edge over other pop fans because I could cite acts like Girls Aloud, Delta Goodrem and September, who were largely unknown to Oregon audiences.

The worst part was that I actively shunned and looked down on nearly every kind of music that wasn’t pop. Even after college, when I was dating my first real boyfriend and we were living together, and I thought I was so grown-up and mature, I fought tooth and nail against the music he tried to introduce me to — everything from Pet Shop Boys and Bran Van 3000 to Ani DiFranco. If it wasn’t soulless, upbeat, danceable pop music, I wanted nothing to do with it.

The Awakening

It probably sounds like a well-worn cliché, but it took a major heartbreak to wake me up. In 2012, my boyfriend and I broke up after almost four years together and, naturally, I fell straight into a quarterlife crisis to cope with the pain. I took up running, both for exercise and an outlet for my emotions, and when my steady diet of pop and dance-pop failed to keep me motivated during particularly anger-fueled runs, I looked for something meatier.

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That’s when I turned to Kings of Leon. I’d never counted myself a fan, per se, because I’d never listened to anything beyond their most noteworthy hit singles, “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire.” And while I counted “Sex on Fire” as one of my favorite songs, I’d just assumed that Kings of Leon was a one-hit wonder of a band, doomed to obscurity after “Use Somebody” rocketed them to fame. I didn’t even realize they’d released material prior to “Use Somebody.” Curious, I checked out “Only By The Night,” their fourth album, and their most commercially successful, as it spawned their two big hits. The album itself was a stark departure from their earlier material, which was gritty and loud. “Only By The Night” eschewed that sound for something more commercial and polished, but also… sadder.

With the fire in my bones and the sweet taste of kerosene…

All of a sudden, I had music to match the post-breakup melancholy feelings I was experiencing on a regular basis. One track in particular, “Revelry,” spoke to me immediately, with its lyrics about self-destruction and inner demons in the face of heartbreak.

So I drink and I smoke and I ask you if you’re ever around
Even though it was me who drove us right in the ground

My life was so unequivocally boring and unemotional up until this point. I’d never experienced a death in the family or any other breakups because I’d never had a relationship last longer than a couple months. The magnitude of hurt and anger I felt during this period was unfamiliar, unwanted, and unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

And suddenly… music meant something.

I dove into Kings of Leon’s back catalog of music. Their earlier material didn’t quite do it for me (yet), but their fifth album, “Come Around Sundown,” was a real watershed moment. It was full of emotions that I could now identify with, and it was comforting to find that I wasn’t alone. I was experiencing the human condition, albeit later than a lot of my peers, and now music was enriching the experience instead of fueling my need for life to just feel good at all times. This felt real. To this day, that album recalls very specific places, feelings and people, and “Pyro” remains my all-time favorite KOL song. It speaks to the darker side of me that feels like a let-down, then and now, and it also reminds me of how far I’ve come. It feeds the side of me that wants to light a cigarette, pour a big glass of whiskey, and just feel shitty about myself for a little while.

You could still reasonably consider Kings of Leon “pop” because of their status within the pantheon of pop-rock stadium acts, but at the very least, they introduced me to southern rock and the greater world of rock and roll as a whole, which I’d mostly discounted as loud garbage. Before I knew it, I was diving head-first into the catalogs of acts like Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, The Black Keys, (Sandy) Alex G, Lissie, and more. I couldn’t get enough of new ideas and new sounds. The floodgates had opened, and they haven’t closed ever since.

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Kings of Leon at Madison Square Garden. January 2017.

In early 2017, I had the opportunity of a lifetime and happened to be in New York City when Kings of Leon performed at Madison Square Garden. My partner bought us tickets, and I will never be able to thank him enough for the experience. Seeing my all-time favorite band at one of the greatest venues in the country… there are few words to describe it, but it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Next on my to-do list: see them perform at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado.

Even to this day, it feels stupid to place so much importance on just one band. They’re just those dudes who had a big hit with “Use Somebody” more than a decade ago, right? But they represent so much more than that to me. In the same way Britney Spears will always be an important part of my life for being the soundtrack to my coming out (more on that later), Kings of Leon will always be credited with helping me to see that there’s so much more to life than radio-friendly pop songs designed to appeal to the masses. I don’t know if I would have branched out nearly as much as I have, or as early as I have, if I hadn’t remembered that “Sex on Fire” song on my iPod and decided to learn more about the artists behind it. I’m so glad I did.

What’s Next?

I don’t plan to stop expanding my horizons any time soon.

My appetite for rock has led me backward in time to folk rock and psychedelic rock from the ’60s and ’70s, and I’m slowly but surely working my way through the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac, and more. I know I have a lot to learn in that regard, and it can feel overwhelming sorting through decades of material — but it’s also thrilling and rewarding.

My musical puberty included a brief experiment with hip-hop and rap, but the older I get, I can’t quite connect with it like I could as a cocky twentysomething. Dipping my toes into hip-hop did, however, introduce me to a rich world of R&B and soul, and I can’t get enough of it lately. I started with Tinashe, who seems to effortlessly marry hip-hop, pop and R&B, despite her many label-related hurdles that have sidelined her career. Jhené Aiko is making some of the best experimental soul/R&B right now, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. The list goes on and on; other artists I’ve encountered in recent years include Gallant, Michael Kiwanuka, SZA, Kehlani, H.E.R and Kiana Ledé. The genre seems to be experiencing a bit of a moment right now, and it reminds me of the boom in R&B during the ’90s. The only problem is that top 40 radio has completely shut out the genre in favor of more easily bankable (i.e. white) mass-market hits, and it’s an absolute shame.

The strangest part of my musical evolution, though, is the way I’ve come full circle in a very real way. I haven’t picked up the oldies again, but during stressful rush-hour commutes, or when I really need to get into the zone for a work project, I’ve reverted back to instrumental music as my safe place — only this time I’ve graduated beyond John Williams’ soundtracks to chillwave, ambient electronica and modern instrumental/classical music. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to feel music, and sometimes words just aren’t that necessary to make an impact.

Funny how life has a way of coming back around like that.

A recovering pop music addict who’s finding his way in the wide, wonderful world of music.

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