There’s something about the music that you grew up with that gives it a place in your heart forever. And even after it’s fallen off the charts or gone out of fashion, it grows along with you.
In the summer of 2017, I went to see the band U2 play at Soldier Field in Chicago. The tour commemorated the 30th anniversary of their iconic album The Joshua Tree, which they performed in its entirety in the exact same track order that I memorized from countless spins on the family record player. I stood amongst thousands of middle-aged people from the suburbs, waiting for the moment the stadium lights dimmed. The giant screen behind the stage lit up with the image of a black and white road, the camera zooming into the desert toward Joshua Tree, and then the band rose in front of the screen in silhouette, with the Edge’s instantly recognizable guitar licks reverberating through the June sky. As Bono’s legendary vocals joined in with the words, “I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside,” I had a sudden realization.
You know that feeling when you’re purely in the moment, surrounded by thousands of other people experiencing that same electric feeling, all of you singing lyrics you know by heart, sending love and energy and excitement out into the air? And in addition to all of that magic, I also felt super, super old.
For one, I had to take a Lyft to Soldier Field because I had injured my bad knee a few weeks earlier, while attempting to do a knee slide to “Wrecking Ball” at a karaoke bar. I limped into the Stadium and cursed myself for purchasing a field ticket over a seat.
But also, I realized I already lived this exact moment, 20 years ago, when in 1997, the summer after my high school graduation, I went to my first ever stadium concert with my best friends. Like all of us who’ve walked this earth for several decades, U2 has gone through many evolutions. They started out cool and political, then became commercialized cheesy for many years, and have circled back around to retro legendary, following the traditional ecological cycle of a major rock band.
In 1997, U2 was in their semi-ironic cool phase, riding the coattails of their more acclaimed albums. It was long before that low point in 2014 when they forced their music upon us by sliding into the DMs of our iTunes library in a weird reverse-kidnapping. In 1997, I LOVED U2. I stole my older sister’s “Joshua Tree” t-shirt and wore it until its threadbare remains disintegrated off my body. Freshly out of high school, I legit wanted to tear down the walls that held me inside. I wanted to reach out of the constricting suburb I grew up in, and fly down those open highways on the album cover, seeing the world, finally experiencing LIFE, MAN. An 18-year-old version of me danced and sang and marveled at how beautiful Soldier Field looked in the glow of a thousand Zippo lighters.
Between the late ’90s and now, my fandom for U2 waned and I kinda forgot about my early love. And yet, there I was, 20 years later: same stadium, same band, same album, same me, but all of us a little more road-worn and broken-in, with more miles on the odometer. Standing there with my aching knee and drunk on $12 beers, I had reached an age where I’ve followed the entire life cycle of a band from breakout success to commemorative 30th anniversary tour.
I’m turning 40 in April. I am mostly at peace with the looming milestone birthday, but every once in a while, the gravity of it all hits me. I don’t fear getting older, but I do fear running out of time. As each year passes, everything feels layered with an extra sense of poignancy. If I want to publish a novel someday, I better start writing it now. If I wanna take up tennis, I have to consider whether it’s a good idea considering my already ravaged knee cartilage. When the parent of a friend suddenly passes, it’s horribly sad but it’s no longer shocking.
I was never one to draw out a roadmap of my life of where I wanted to be by certain milestones, but approaching the big “Over the Hill” moment does cause me to consider where I’m at. Most of it is silly, like when I count down how few months I have left to make a Top 40 Under 40 list. Or the fact that I’ll enter the next decade still paying off my student loan debt (Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to spend five years getting a Bachelor’s Degree in Theater Arts). Some of the realizations are more real, like knowing that when it comes to giving birth to my own kids, that ship might have sailed.
I don’t want to be a person who panics about aging; I want to be graceful and accepting. For answers and advice, I look to the ageless enchantress Jennifer Lopez, who is turning 50 next year and still has the skin of a baby seal. After consulting the Google, I found that her secrets are never skipping a workout, never touching alcohol, caffeine, or cigarettes, meditating daily, and slathering herself in La Mer skin cream which retails for $175 per ounce. Upon reading this, I decided, screw it, I’ll just look old. I’m definitely riding into the sunset with a carafe of coffee in one hand and a bottle of Malbec in the other.
But honestly, my biggest indulgence isn’t drugs; it’s nostalgia. I’m of an age and nerdiness factor that when I hear the word Molly, I think of the American Girl doll. Nostalgia delivers the real trip. Let me mainline six hours of “My So-Called Life” episodes on my couch and vibrate from the sexual frequency thrumming off a 21-year-old Jared Leto before he ruined the fantasy by becoming a gigantic douche. Let me queue up “Paranoid Android” on Spotify and annoy any nearby Millennials with my story about seeing them in Grant Park in 2001 when they played three encores.
There’s something about the music that you grew up with that gives it a place in your heart forever. And even after it’s fallen off the charts or gone out of fashion, it grows along with you. My grandpa listened to his beloved Frank Sinatra records up until his deathbed. My mom, who in high school hid a transistor radio in her uniform skirt so she could listen to the Beatles during class, still sees Paul McCartney perform every time he passes through Chicago. And here I am now, too curmudgeonly to recognize more than three names on the Pitchfork Festival lineup, but I would drop serious cash on good tickets if the Spice Girls tour again.
I’m not the same young, lonely kid roaming the burbs on my bicycle in my faded “Joshua Tree” t-shirt, yearning for a place where the streets have no name. I’m the nearly middle-aged, well-traveled woman who’s driven into the horizon chasing the sun many times over the last 20 years, and who now owns the “Joshua Tree” 30th anniversary commemorative tee.
Kim Nelson is a writer and storyteller from Chicago, IL. Her work has been published by The Billfold, Hobart Pulp, and StoryClub Magazine. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @ponytailup.