Who’s that girl running around with you?
— Eurythmics, “Who’s That Girl?”
As a teenager I used my youth—and my school uniform—as plumage in a years-long tail-feather dance for a few older, adult men. I had designs in learning The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” on my guitar, and I rocked my twin bed while imagining running off from Tennessee to California with a middle-aged, B-list actor. In my skewed, pre-feminism adolescence, I saw my youth as both a complement to their age and a roadblock in connecting to them. I started listening exclusively to non-contemporary music—classic rock, jazz, etc.—and watching old television and old films, especially those that seemed to belong to their youth. I threw myself into becoming the girl with knowledge, a grasp of experience beyond my personal experience, my second sight not into the future but, like an ordinary woman, into the past.
Typical of an only child, I sought cultural history as a means to connect to adults, even before puberty. In carpool, I had long conversations with my best friend’s mom while my friend ate Pop Tarts and dozed against the window. I spent summer days with my grandparents watching Perry Mason and insomniac nights watching the full run of Nick at Nite’s retro programming. My music, for many years, was my mother’s music. Bruce Springsteen. Jimmy Buffett. (There’s got to be a home video somewhere of me singing “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw.”) I used pop culture not only as a means to receive adults’ attention—I felt I could access their jokes and metaphors, indeed, their language.
Eurythmics’ 1983 album Touch arrived four years before I was born. I first encountered its hits “Here Comes the Rain Again” and “Who’s That Girl?” in the 90s through VH1, a network on which I binged and only neglected for MTV’s Daria. Listening to the album’s nine original tracks and rewatching the two music videos, I yet feel a great nostalgia, like an ink stain over my heart. Or, to use the Eurythmics’ own words, the music returns to me “falling on my head like a memory.” As an adult, I’m most compelled by Annie Lennox’s gutsy gender-bending, exemplified in her roles as both the female lounge performer and the male audience member who kiss at the end of the “Who’s That Girl?” video, especially now that I’m less bullied by hormones and seduced by forbidden (heterosexual) rendezvous, and more in touch with my own leanings. As a teenager, however, my interest in Annie Lennox and David Stewart depended only upon other people, indeed, any person I might want to connect with who had experienced the music in medias res.
In my investigation of the Time Before My Life, I collected knowledge piecemeal, like a panorama made up of many individual images. It’s something I still do through collecting vintage ephemera, pulp novels, smut magazines, science illustrations, music, etcetera. In fact, it’s what I do in writing poems. Some would attribute my behavior to feelings of a particularly hipster breed of nostalgia, a desire to return to some cultural motherland, and some might go so far as to argue that nostalgia reveals one’s inability to live in the present or work for a better future, a vestigial romanticism that makes it hard to crawl out of the turbulent ocean and onto the sunny beach.
But my interest in the cultural past, at least now, anchors itself in empathy, something I feel we must sustain if we are to move into the future with any sort of hope. The wish to make other people more real to me is also why I read literature, why I bought an old radio that reminds me of my dead grandparents. The past, unlike the future, never dies. The past is always the past, no matter if we lived it or not. The time before our birth is full of possibilities, lives we don’t know and never lived. The future doesn’t leave artifacts, but from the artifacts of the past we can make a benign voodoo doll (a bit of cloth here, eye of newt there) with which we don’t control actions but, rather, simply understand them, and, since the past has prompted the present, we therefore better understand our own.
So while I can never experience Eurythmics’ Touch as someone might have the day it was released, I have the gift of experiencing it for myself as a twenty-seven year old in 2014, as well as the experience of my attempt to experience it in the way that others might have experienced it contemporaneously. Additionally, as a poet, I’m constantly seeking new ways to reinvigorate the language I use, and so, experiencing the cultural past allows me to experience the linguistic past, and therefore nudges me, like a good friend, into conversations I wouldn’t otherwise have. My nostalgia, (a word rooted in the idea of going home) is a longing for a spiritual dwelling made up of others, its foundation beams made up of every one I love.
— Emilia Phillips