During Christmas and summer breaks all through college, I worked in the house of a former chorus teacher, sorting and organizing his collection of over a hundred thousand vintage opera records. Said job might not have been the most carefree or intellectually stimulating way to spend what was supposed to be a reckless youth, but it kept me rich in late-night visits to the diner, concerts at Jones Beach, and Parliaments, thus helping to define me throughout college as someone who ate a lot and coughed even more. One of the perks of said job was that it was performed in a pair, so I was always sequestered with a friend, someone I had known since I was three years old when he began taking piano lessons from my mother. We would sit in the additional wing my employer had built onto his house and alphabetize, label, sort, lather, rinse, and repeat, chatting mindlessly about our third-grade teacher and tenth-grade play. And in the background would play, for hours on end, the only radio station with a signal strong enough to reach this room: Long Island’s home for shitty top forty hits, 95.5, WPLJ. And thus it went that, between the years of 1994 and 1998, I knew every shitty top forty hit the radio could possibly throw my way. Self-serious sons of Bob Dylan. God rock dressed up as latter-day grunge. The prefix “chumba” and the suffix “wumba.” The shittier the better. Just try and blow one past me.
Oh, and PLJ maintained as part of their guiding ideology that they did not play “rap or the hard stuff.” So, smell you later, “No Diggity.” It was me and Jewel all the way.
I didn’t expect there would ever be any practical application for this knowledge, but on a recent trip to Palm Springs, we were lying by the pool when, like, “Now That’s What I Call Music, Dan’s College Years” kicked up on the hotel’s PA system. Over frosty beverages, the mid-90s pissing contest was so on:
DAN: “All I Wanna Do”? Oy. Do you think this is, like, “Now That’s What I Call Music, Dan’s College Years” kicking up on the hotel’s PA?
PAM: Maybe it’s a Sheryl Crow Greatest Hits.
DAN: Ew. I hope they don’t get any Kid Rock in the pool.
PAM: They’d have to quarantine the whole desert.
DAN: “Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica…”
PAM: You’re singing out loud.
DAN: That line drives my mom up a wall. The stress on the wrong syllable offends her delicate musical sensibilities.
PAM: Not to mention the fact that the sun goes down over Santa Monica Boulevard, not up. Sets in the west, and all.
DAN: So to come up over it, Santa Monica Boulevard would have to run all the way to New York?
DAN: But the sun comes up over Kansas, and down over it as well.
PAM: In either case, the next song is going to be “Shine” by Collective Soul.
DAN: Ugh. Dun-dun-nuh-NUH-nuh-nuh-NUH-nuh-nuh-NUH-nuh-NUH…
DAN and PAM: Yeah!
PAM: Man, that’s a bad song.
DAN (singing): “All I wanna do…”
PAM: You’re singing out loud again.
DAN: I have something to admit.
DAN: I know every word to this song.
PAM: Indeed, I have noticed.
DAN: Oh, wait. Next song.
HOTEL PA SYSTEM: Dun-dun-nuh-NUH-nuh-nuh-NUH-nuh-nuh-NUH-nuh-NUH…
DAN AND PAM: Yeah!
DAN: Omigod, you did it.
PAM: Told you.
DAN: Well, at least we know exactly what kind of CD we’re talking about here.
PAM: Let us celebrate with another round of frosty beverages.
DAN: Maaaaan, this song is terrible.
PAM: Did you see that there’s a drink on this menu called “The Hummer”?
DAN AND PAM: Hummer.
DAN: Anyway, buckle up for two hours of Seal songs, coming right up.
PAM: It’s about to be Fastball nation in here. You know I…
DAN: …know seventy songs of theirs, six more songs than they ever wrote as a band. Yes. You have nine copies of “You’re Out: Seventy Of Fastball’s Fastballiest Greatest Hits.” And you saw them in concert pi times.
PAM: They were big in Austin.
DAN: Were they from Austin?
DAN: They were big in your apartment.
PAM: Anyway, I loved them.
DAN: So did I.
DAN AND PAM: Whoa-oh-oh-oh! Heaven let your light shine down!
DAN: Oh, Collective Soul.
PAM: Okay, what’s next?
DAN: “Barely Breathing.”
PAM: “How’s It Gonna Be.”
DAN: “Runaway Train.”
PAM: “Semi-Charmed Life.”
DAN: Ech. The song that launched a thousand Amanda Peet movie trailers.
PAM: Maybe something by the Gin Blossoms?
HOTEL PA SYSTEM: “Must have been late afternoon.”
DAN: Oh, god.
PAM: What on earth is this?
DAN: Just wait.
DAN AND HOTEL PA SYSTEM: “Tell me all your thoughts on god!”
PAM: Augh! “Cause I’d really like to meet her!”
DAN: “Am I very far now! Am I very far now!”
PAM: This opens up whole new lows.
DAN: Sophie B. Hawkins.
PAM: Goo Goo Dolls.
PAM: Hootie an…
DAN: Do NOT even say it.
PAM: This song is crazy bad.
DAN: I have something to admit. I know every word to this song.
PAM: I wish they’d play “No Diggity.”
DAN: Sorry, P-Love. No rap, no hard stuff.
PAM: So it’s Blues Traveler all the way?
DAN: I know every word to “Runaround.”
PAM: You know every word to “Hook.”
DAN: I only wish I could deny that.
PAM: You love this shit.
DAN: Yes. It’s part of my childhood. I also know every word to “Bitch.” And that song that’s like, “The right time, the wro-o-o-o-ong me.” And the Everything But The Girl song that’s all, “Like the deserts miss the rain.” Love it. LOVE that song. And “How Bizarre.” And that crazy “I Could Never Be Your Woman” song that was sung by a guy, which is from later, I think.
DAN: But I do have standards. Adam and I used to have a reflex test with how quickly we could turn off two songs. One was the Barenaked Ladies song that was all, “It’s been…” That was all I ever heard of it. And…
PAM: And the other one was “All-Star,” and you’d have to turn it off before the end of the word, “SomeBODY.”
PAM: At least this is still a Jewel-free zone.
DAN: Don’t bet on it for long. Hey, Shawn Colvin!
PAM: We need another drink.
Coming up: Hotel reception knows exactly what we’re talking about when we’re all, “What’s the song that’s all, ‘Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh, lying naked on the floor’?” It was Natalie Imbruglia, you guys.