I was eight when Kidz Bop was really popular, interrupting classic Boomerang TV shows like “Tom & Jerry” and “The Huckleberry Hound Show” with loud, unrealistic commercials featuring kids in campfire circles belting the latest pop songs. Needless to say, I wanted to be one of those kids. I can’t even remember how many times I tugged at my mother’s arms like a dog at a chew toy, begging for the elusive Kidz Bop CD.
At eight, I didn’t realize my mother had pulled a fast one on me when she handed over a CD with the infamous Kidz Bop cover freshly printed across it, the neon green and purple splatter-paint style just like the one in the commercial. How was I to know that in the late hours of the night, my mother had been scraping through her music library, carefully picking 22 songs to burn onto a CD, ironing the Kidz Bop cover onto it to deceive me into thinking I had finally gotten the real deal. As the real Kidz Bop taught my peers to love the Black Eyed Peas, Plain White T’s and other stylish artists of the times, my version taught me to love a completely different type of music.
Day after day, I jammed my Kidz Bop CD into my tropical-printed CD player. The sounds that seeped from the speakers were a varied string of 22 songs, completely different from each other yet living peacefully as one within my eardrums. Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” simmered into Cocteau Twins’ “Cherry-Coloured Funk.” Blink 182’s “All the Small Things” smash cut to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Only one artist appeared more than once— intertwined in the thick of the collection were multiple Tom Petty classics that sent me swirling around my bedroom every time. I played these songs on repeat until my CD was covered in scratches, screaming the lyrics in my pink room and tasting the love in Tom Petty’s voice.
Tom Petty died this past Monday and I didn’t cry. I found out on the train ride home from Lake Tahoe, where I had spent the weekend. In honor of him, I listened to his music on shuffle, old and new, Highway Companion to Damn the Torpedoes, and watched golden fields of fried grass and stark black cows run past my window. “Square One” consoled me as I traced streams into orange forests. “Rebels” scored the train’s trek across a Sacramento bridge. Tom Petty was dead, and I wasn’t crying. I was remembering.
Tom Petty was not just a scratchy, nasally, trademark voice crooning lyrics of forlorn lovers and the American life, mingling with the symbiotic acoustics of his bandmates. He was the first time I was ever addicted to sound. He was the first time I ever had that hot, throbbing feeling in my ears as they begged to hear that one lick in “Refugee” just one more time. I crave that feeling now, like a pregnant woman screaming for red meat. He taught me that music is something to consume, to take nutrients from that help keep you alive.
For me, Tom Petty is a Rolodex of memories. He was the second concert I ever attended –– my brother and I tossing peanut shells into the hoodie of the guy in front of us, the upbeat tempo and jubilant vocals of “American Girl” combining with the air that we were all breathing. He was senior year — my friends and I driving to the grocery store during lunch, Ava taking the aux cord and changing the vibe from Rihanna and Drake by throwing on “Don’t Do Me Like That,” all of us belting the words at the top of our lungs.
He was the two-hour drive to the Burbank hospital where my aunt was dying of alcohol poisoning, blasting “Free Fallin’ ” at volume level 40 to distract myself. He was dancing around my bedroom to “The Waiting,” forgetting all the structure of dance I was taught in ballet and just allowing myself to be consumed by music. Tom Petty was me learning that feeling of desperation and love, finding a small piece of my own voice through a silly collection of my mother’s music, burned onto a fake Kidz Bop CD.
The loss of this great legend is felt by anyone who appreciated rock ‘n’ roll for some of its best years. It is felt by any kid who had to listen to their parents’ music on a road trip and by every person who ever listened to his Southern drawl singing in California-rock style in passing on a radio station.
Tom Petty is gone and I will not cry. Instead, I will say thank you. Thank you to the man who taught me what music I really needed, when what I wanted was to just be like everyone else. Thank you, Tom Petty, for being the soundtrack of my childhood.