Taylor Swift is described in every article ever written about her as a “savvy businesswoman,” but that’s like calling the Grand Canyon a “big ol’ ditch.” She is at this point a walking, talking corporation. When the Supreme Court first established the concept of “corporate personhood,” it seemed more of a conceptual, legal thing. But no. America, we have seen a corporation take literal human form, and its name is Taylor Swift.
“Human” might be stretching it. Via the dark web, I have proof that she was actually created in an underground lab in 2005 from an unholy primordial soup of rose petals, Diet Coke, and harvested cheekbones by the Universal Music Group in order to shore up their country music division. In a shocking turn of events, she pried off her restraining bolt and went rogue. She incorporated herself (much like The Terminator’s Skynet becoming “self-aware”), and became a multi-genre, multi-media assassin android, destroying rivals and haters with T-1000 intensity and protecting her “brand” with animal ferocity. She now morphs and evolves into something more plastic and ruthless by the month. It is a wonder to behold.
Her brand protection includes trademarking some key lyrics from her massive 2014 album 1989. A typically cunning move, but it’s been blown up into a minor brouhaha recently because a few Twitter idiots (Twitiots?) wondered how a person could copyright a year.
Well, you can’t, of course, and that’s not what she did.
However, it got me thinking. If a person could own a year, I think I would pick 1989, too.
1989 is allegedly the year Swift was born (but we know the truth, don’t we?), and it was also the year I was born — or at least the year I developed into the person whose words you’re yawning through now. Admittedly, the blessed event when my actual physical body entered the world was a decade-and-a-half earlier, but it was 1989’s experiences that made me the adult I am today (if I can be called an adult as I sit here in Star Wars boxers thinking up android metaphors to describe Taylor Swift.) It was also an altogether eventful, remarkable year even outside my little bubble world. I would like a tiny slice of ownership of 1989.
Like most new years, 1989 kicked off with a feeling of fresh starts. It was the beginning of my CD collection. I had just received a CD player for Christmas, so I started by buying all the Beatles albums, one a week, for thirteen straight weeks. Exactly fifteen dollars a pop (my entire weekly allowance), they still came in wasteful foot-long, shrink-wrapped cardboard long boxes, solely because stores hadn’t yet converted the deep bins that used to hold their vinyl LPs.
The first significant event I can remember from 1989 was the inauguration of George H.W. Bush as the 41st President of the United States on January 20…and I couldn’t be happier. Yes, at the age of fourteen, I was a hardcore Republican. Like most fourteen-year-olds, I liked winners, and after eight years of growing up middle-class in good ol’ Reagan’s America, the Democrats had the stink of weak, stagnant losers. I was a budding history buff, so the Republicans to me were the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. I was a military buff, so their strong-on-defense stance and airstrike-happy mentality (take that, Gaddafi!) was enormously appealing. Who could possibly choose that blobby nebbish Dukakis over the steely-eyed WWII pilot “Read My Lips” Bush?
So, how long did it take for the Republicans to lose this potential voter? Not much longer. A little college and a lot of real world observation shook off the final foul traces of political conservatism from me. And the Republicans did most of it to themselves. Some time between 1989 and Clinton’s second term, the GOP cheerfully opted to voluntarily devolve from “conservative” to a howling pack of pea-brained ghouls. If their platform all along was a raging hard-on for personally-owned assault weapons and a totally misapplied obsession with the Bible, coupled with a slobbering hatred of gays and a deep-seated need to oppress women and anyone half-a-shade darker than Wayne Newton, well, that would have turned away even 14-year-old me.
Where’s all the Bob Doles these days? When a sentient clown shoe like Dan Quayle would be a breath of fresh air compared to 2016’s slate of GOP candidates, you know the party’s hit rock-bottom. I try not to get too political here, but the 2016 election, so far, in particular has shown that latter-day Republicans have generally not developed far past the mental age of fourteen.
Anyway, back to me being fourteen…January 20 was a Friday, and I remember watching Bush’s inaugural address on a TV wheeled into my 8th grade classroom.
At an age when most other kids were deep into real middle school — “junior high” — learning to hustle from class to class, slamming locker doors and trying to beat the tardy bell, I was still in what was essentially an elementary school. Robbins School, K through 8th grade, was at the time the smallest school in the Yuba City Unified School district. Located about thirty miles south of Yuba City itself, it served the tiny town of Robbins (pop. 250 in ‘89) and its tractor-intensive rural surroundings. I was one of nine eighth-graders. All seventh and eighth grade classes were taught in the same room, usually by the same person (Mr. Perkins, who was also the principal, assisted by a rogue’s gallery of student teachers wondering who they pissed off to end up there). We didn’t even live in Robbins proper, but in more isolated surroundings — a rented farmhouse about four miles out of town, where the tranquility was frequently broken by miscellaneous motorized equipment rumbling through our gravel carport to service the thirteen acres of walnut trees surrounding us, and the deafening dive-bombing of radial-engine crop dusters seeding and fertilizing the open fields on either side of the property. (They were not precision vehicles — seeds rained down on our house like hail with each pass, and one summer our corrugated porch roof sported a healthy little crop of sunflowers.)
That winter I was fond of wearing a heavy nylon bomber jacket with a fake fur collar. Not long after the accompanying photo was taken, I began decorating it with vintage USAAF pins I’d acquired at a flea market, including pilot’s wings and captain’s bars on the shoulders. The cool kids — consisting solely of Nick and Abel — tightly pegged their stonewashed 501s at the ankle, whereas my hopelessly uncool cuffs flopped around my shoe tops. (By the time I started pegging my pants the next year, the trend was over and I was hopelessly uncool in the opposite direction.)
I had only started at Robbins Elementary at the beginning of 7th grade, and I was lucky that Nick, the alpha-dog kid who had ruled the place since kindergarten, decided I was OK and served as my best friend for a couple of years. The pictures here were taken at Robbins School for reasons unknown (I think I was trying to make some kind of photo-journalistic scrapbook), but I remember it was Valentine’s Day, 1989.
Nick and I had our respective parents drive us into Yuba City to see movies a lot. On one occasion around this time, we went to see Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it the film broke after five minutes, so we theater-hopped into Rain Man. We were at first bored by this character study of a mentally-challenged man and the growing-learning road trip he takes with his brother. Then we were perplexed, then amused, and finally completely won over. When Dustin Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar a few weeks later for his leading performance (at the same nutballs Oscar telecast where Snow White sang “Proud Mary” with Rob Lowe), we cheered. When we finally saw Bill & Ted a little later, it seemed silly and pointless by comparison.
We also actually went fishing together quite a few times that spring, like Tom and Huck of yore, staring at the water and talking exclusively in the voice of Rain Man. (“Felt a bite…yeah, definitely felt a bite…I’m an excellent driver…”) After spending a weekend at one or another’s houses, we were often delivered home just in time for a certain Sunday night phenomenon — a scurrilous social satire that Mark Twain just might have heartily approved of.
Married…With Children was never a critic’s darling, often catered to the lowest common denominator, and definitely went on several seasons too long, but I maintain that its peak years (say, Seasons 2 through 6) were funny as hell, almost entirely due to the genius of Ed O’Neill as family patriarch Al Bundy (he didn’t emerge out of nowhere, you johnny-come-lately Modern Family fans). It is totally tame by today’s standards, but its twisted, misanthropic deconstruction of family sitcom conventions was considered shocking for 1989. And I don’t know what it says about my family that it was the one show we all watched together without fail. At about two minutes to nine on Sunday nights, Dad would begin softly chanting “Bun..dy…Bun…dy…” as he fixed a highball and settled into his chair. I would strike the classic “kid-watching-TV” pose of laying on my stomach, chin in hands. Mom would occasionally make Marge Simpson-ish grumbles of disapproval when it got too raunchy, but would usually laugh along with Dad and me. Then it was over, and a new school week was a night’s sleep away.
In later years, as a single parent, I sang the above ditty to my kids when they asked for something we couldn’t afford…
Hormones had already kicked in in a major way the previous year. I discovered I had shaveable sideburns slowly creeping down my jawline, a few downy hairs in the crevices, and my voice, which had been a piercing squeak my whole life up to then, suddenly dropped a full two octaves over the Easter holiday. These bodily milestones aside, it wasn’t until the spring of ‘89 when I actually realized I could put these hormonal developments into action (with other people, that is.) And it seems I was not alone in wandering through a glandular fog…
As the weather turned warmer, I oiled up my mitt to begin my second season as the right fielder for the Robbins Roadrunners softball team. Most of the team’s existence revolved around “practice,” but we actually played other schools in the district from time to time. No one seemed to care if I sat down in right field and mangled dandelions for extended periods. It didn’t even bother me that when I batted eighth (just ahead of the seventh grader with the orthopedic boot and severe eczema), the other team would take one look at my noodle arms and make the humiliating call to its outfielders “move in!”
But our team had other things on its collective mind. The Exxon Valdez wasn’t the only thing interested in spilling fluids in late March of ‘89.
This “1989” piece is actually a serviceable prologue to my epic, seemingly unending set of essays on coming of age in the 90s called “This Used To Be My Playground.” I’ll quote myself from the first entry in the series:
I received my first kiss about six weeks [before 8th grade graduation]. There were no issues of “going out” or being a “couple” or any question of any kind of special relationship. Five or six of the graduating class had simply been blowing off softball practice to play an increasingly experimental series of Truth Or Dare games and engage in dangerously explicit conversation. I learned more in April and May of 1989 than the rest of middle school put together. One of my classmates did everything short of hanging out a red lantern to indicate she was down for anything. After a day of whispered planning, we rendezvoused in Nick’s bedroom for the Big Moment.
Like every first kiss, it was awesome. Braced teeth gnawing away, Big Red-flavored tongues flicking, one of my hands placed demurely on her hip, the other holding shut the door.
She had been my friend Dusty’s first kiss, too, either a few days before or a few days after. No drama, no jealousy. We all knew, even joked about it. It was just business, to be gotten out of the way, so we didn’t go to high school as lip virgins.
Our softball team imploded after playing only 2 games that spring…the girl in question played first base. I shit you not.
I even seriously considered saving that week’s TV Guide as souvenir of the momentous occasion.
It’s a good thing I went to a tiny school where the girls’ options were extremely limited and everyone’s hormones were like a rodeo bull banging at the gate. Beggars can’t be choosers. Otherwise I may have languished, untouched, until God-knows-when. With my chinless gawkiness and constant chattering about World War II trivia and parroting Monty Python quotes (complete with bad British accent), I would not be at the top of most girls’ list of fave-raves. (That did not happen for me until my early thirties, when my steady job, solid credit rating, and sympathetic listening ability became legitimate panty-droppers.)
When eighth-grade graduation rolled around at the end of May, I found myself in the position of having to give the keynote address. I was valedictorian of a class of nine. It was a pretty low bar, except for Nick, now the salutatorian. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that I had casually swiped from him what had been presumed to be his academic birthright. He had been the shining star of the school for years, and then it was all cast into ruins when I swaggered in at the start of the previous school year.
The graduation theme was “Hello ‘90s, Here We Come!” I suspect, in the end, our impact on the ‘90s was pretty minimal…
…or not. While the Awesome Class Valedictorian now divides his time between Seinfeld reruns on TBS (which he TiVos in bulk) and first-person shooters, the Humble Salutatorian has carved out a niche in the field of scientific agriculture, actually co-holds a U.S. patent “for the improved cultivation of rice,” and is presumably preparing a TED Talk or something noble like that.
Either just before or just after graduation, I was informed I would not be making the hour-long bus trip up to Yuba City for high school, but we would in fact be vacating the farmhouse and moving to Yuba City before the summer was over.
My first day of summer vacation was Monday, June 5. I woke (late) that morning to footage on every channel of a lone Chinese protester standing in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Or rather, welcome to Gotham City. It was around this time that the whole country started going Bat-crazy. The anticipation for Tim Burton’s Batman had been building for weeks before its June 26 release. The Bat logo was everywhere. People got it shaved into their heads and tattooed on their arms. David Letterman, who I watched religiously thanks to a VCR timer, made several bat jokes each night, and every Top Ten list seemed to have a Batman theme. I had already read the paperback novelization.
Then the movie came out. I was a little disappointed, and I swear I’m not just looking back through Christopher Nolan-tinted glasses. It was the first of the now-ubiquitous “dark & gritty” comic book adaptations inspired by the Frank Miller style, but its color tone didn’t make it feel any more serious or intense. It just looked poorly-lit — flat, drab, soap-opera brown. When it wasn’t represented by an unconvincing matte painting, Gotham City looked like about three blocks of false-front backlot, and the action was clumsy and awkwardly staged. Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman were fun to watch, though.
This was also a time when every summer movie wasn’t necessarily a sequel or part of a franchise. In fact, the summer of 1989 was breathlessly dubbed by the media “The Summer of the Sequel” because they were dumbfounded by a whopping four sequels released within a few weeks of each other. Had Hollywood lost its mind? Unless they were created by serial-obsessed money-generator George Lucas, sequels were for horror movies and cheap action flicks. The James Bond franchise was its own special case. There was indeed a 1989 entry in the series, the fair-to-middling License To Kill, starring Timothy Dalton in his second and last go-round as 007. It’s another version of the “Bond is suspended from the service and takes matters into his own hands” story, and it co-stars Dalton’s incredibly distracting chin dimple. Anyway, those few special cases aside, sequels weren’t meant to be tent-poles!
Then Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (May 24), Star Trek V (June 9), Ghostbusters 2 (June 16), and Lethal Weapon 2 (July 7) came out, made a goddamn mint (except for Star Trek), and started a trend. Sequels were now events. We would see very few sequel-less summers from here on. (Compare that roster to the sequels of previous year — Caddyshack II, Iron Eagle II, Poltergeist 3, and the most successful sequel of ‘88: “Crocodile” Dundee II.)
We moved to Yuba City in late July. From a rickety old farmhouse with a single bathroom off the back porch to a sleek townhouse in the toney southern part of town. Compared to Robbins, this Northern California valley town of about 30,000 was a bustling metropolis. After three years of antenna TV only, I gorged myself all through August on cable television…ESPN…MTV…VH1…and E!…so much E!.
The Rolling Stones were gearing up for their Steel Wheels tour, so they were all over TV at the time. I began buying their CDs (a much bigger project than collecting the Beatles.) I had constant access to an actual public library again. I was unleashed. It was like something out of Caligula.
We had all the subscription movie channels — HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, The Movie Channel. I recorded every movie I could onto Kodak VHS tapes, with their distinctive yellow labels (I had read somewhere that this brand of tapes was somehow superior.) Three movies to a tape, I would meticulously detail title, year, and VCR counter numbers in my neat-for-a-kid block printing. I did eventually tire of the process, but not before I filled three VHS storage cases with pretty much every major release from 1988 through 1991, and a catalog hand-written on a legal pad.
I could finally ride my bike to actual destinations, rather than just pedaling around gravel country back roads alone. I was still alone, mind you. Everyone I knew from Robbins stayed in Robbins, and I hadn’t started high school yet.
So I pedaled to the movies…alone. (Parenthood was the first one I saw after the big move, at the Yuba City cineplex. A bittersweet comedy-drama about a bunch of middle-aged people was an odd choice for a 14-year-old to want to see, but as you may have gathered, I was an odd child. In my defense, it was a Steve Martin movie)
I was too nervous to actually ride my bike across the 10th Street Bridge, where the guardrail was a little low-ish, to the old State Theater in Marysville (where I would toil as assistant manager seven years in the future), so I when I wanted to catch a second viewing of Batman, alone, I gingerly walked my bike across like the pussy I was. I pedaled to the Wherehouse…alone, to buy the Stones’ Hot Rocks 1964-1972 with a few sweaty, crumpled bills and a bulging pocketful of change. I pedaled to the pet store to stare at the fish…alone. I pedaled to the Chinese cafe and ate chow mein…alone. I pedaled to Ernie’s Toyland and looked at model airplanes…alone. I pedaled to the multitude of video stores in Yuba City…alone.
Some people may think that sounds a little sad, but I recall being incredibly happy at the time.
One thing that was sad was one of those aforementioned video stores. It happened to be the closest one to my house, which meant it was nowhere near the commercial hub. It was a little hole in the wall, aptly called “Alley Video.” Looking back, I think it was run deliberately to be a loss for one of those tax-related reasons I’m still not fully adult enough to understand. Anyway, they put Grandma Alley in charge, and she spent all day every day, alone as I was, on a stool behind the counter drinking tea and watching game shows and soap operas on a rabbit-eared portable TV. I never saw another living soul in that place. She soon knew me by name as I wandered in every few days to rent and re-rent their surprisingly robust Monty Python selection (and the Rolling Stones concert film Let’s Spend The Night Together.)
The days watching E! interview Bruce Willis on the set of Die Hard 2 (another sequel in the pipeline) and biking around to random locations in 100-degree heat were rapidly winding down. Looking back on it, that August felt like three months crammed into one. But it ended.
High school was coming…