So Open the Door
Liana M. Silva
I looked through the small cloth cassette case full of cassettes I had saved over the years. I saw it, in the left row, a few tapes up from the bottom: a clear Sony HF 90. I hadn’t finished listening to one of the sides, judging by how the ribbon was split among the two spools.
On the A side, Moya had written the tracks from Nirvana’s Nevermind, and on the B side she listed Beck’s Mellow Gold. My friend’s handwriting, which I was always jealous of for its neatness and its angles, greeted me from the past, like a postcard. The white label had turned yellow and felt stiff. When I pulled out the cassette from its narrow place in the case, the label for Nevermind floated off. I’m not sure if I want to apply glue to put it back on the tape.
When I think of grunge I think of my friendship with Moya. Our friendship grew out of music. Moya and I met in the 3rd grade. That’s when I first remember spending time with her outside of class, on play dates at either my house or hers. I don’t remember a lot of hanging out with Moya in 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th grade. But in 7th grade, she and I became closer. We participated together in a talent show, and I spent more time with her on weekends working on homework or going to the movies.
Around 7th grade, grunge hit the mainstream. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” debuted in fall 1991, but I wouldn’t hear about it until later. Before the Internet, music news traveled slower, even with cable.
My pre-teen and teenage years coincided with the heyday of grunge. I remember when Kurt Cobain died. I remember the first time I saw the video to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I remember staying up for MTV’s 120 Minutes. But grunge wasn’t just the soundtrack of my days. Grunge and its umbrella genre, alternative, felt like a lifeline into another world outside of the borders of Puerto Rico. That music was one end of the tin-can telephone line to a world outside of my country hometown.
Grunge was also something that brought together my girlfriends and me. We didn’t just want to make out with the guys in the bands, wearing band t-shirts and long hair. We wanted to be in a band, write songs, play instruments, be loud.
It was the shouting, wasn’t it? Or was it the guitars? It was all so loud, and back then it all seemed so male. I did not know about Riot Grrl, or about the women who also made grunge music. I would find out about them way later, when as an adult living on my own and raising a daughter I wondered about the gender gap in my own music catalog. But back then, I sensed a raw energy in grunge that I associated with manliness, so liking grunge was antithetical to the stereotypes of young womanhood that I saw in the culture around me: make-up, heels, and shiny hair coming together in a thin pubescent teen package.
There was something about the aesthetic of grunge that appealed to us. Grunge encouraged my friends and me to embrace being ugly, being unkempt. Courtney Love and her messy, stained babydoll dresses showed us how to rebel against the feminine ideal we were supposed to aspire to. We hadn’t yet put thought into how white grunge seemed on MTV. We hadn’t considered how our idols were so different from us.
Ironically, there was money involved in this; you had to look a certain kind of grunge-y. In the southwest coast of the island, that meant going to Mayagüez Mall and buying our outfits at the Gap. The mall also had a Sam Goody, to where we all commuted regularly in order to pick up the latest cassingle we had heard on MTV. I still remember seeing an STP baseball cap there and asking for it for Christmas.
When I hear grunge, I think back to hanging out with Moya. She lived a half hour away from me, but we went to the same private school until I switched to public school in 10th grade. My parents weren’t fond of the drive to Moya’s house, but they agreed to us spending most weekends together. Moya was being raised by a single mom, one of the first single moms in my life that I can remember. Moya had a TV in her room with a VCR and a good stereo with a double tape deck. She also had many CDs. I did not, at least not as many as her. But Moya’s collection might as well have been mine.
I associate that period in my life to sitting in Moya’s room and listening to CDs, some of bands I didn’t know and some of bands I already knew from MTV, Rolling Stone, SPIN. Our tastes in alternative music overlapped, but I tended toward REM, Live, and Tori Amos while she preferred Rage Against the Machine, Megadeth, and Nine Inch Nails. Moya often introduced me to new music. Whereas I enjoyed delving deep into an artist’s catalog (I needed to know ALL of REM’s albums and I wanted to read every article published on them), Moya went for breadth. She would get different albums by different artists, and only on occasion buying a second album from an artist. Moya would buy a CD, and we would listen to it nonstop, sometimes at a high volume, with the doors closed in her bedroom. Moya’s mom was remarkably tolerant of us blasting our screechy aggressive music, and now I know it was probably because she saw it as a phase. The screechy aggressive music didn’t make us bad people or weird people. It was just the music we listened to.
Moya would often tape the albums I liked on a blank tape. My parents would probably have frowned at Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind with its floating baby swimming towards a dollar bill, but I smuggled it into my music collection with Moya’s help. I took my Walkman everywhere, and played those tapes over and over and over. That was a time in my life where I would not just listen to a record but memorize it. Memorizing the lyrics was a way of claiming ownership over the music, and showing my level of fandom.
One album she recorded for me was Beck’s Mellow Gold. Now Mellow Gold is heralded as brilliant—there are traces of who Beck would become hidden in Mellow Gold— and forward-looking. But back then, Mellow Gold was fucking weird. “Loser,” with its overexposed footage and burning guitars cemetery cheerleaders, seemed like a song about nothing in particular. But it was raw and aggressive while also being playful:. “In the time of chimpanzees there was a monkey.”
I don’t remember when I figured out the lyrics to “Loser.” For the longest time I said “So open the door” during the chorus, until one day years later I found out it was “Soy un perdedor.” It would never have occurred to me that Beck was incorporating Spanish, the language I spoke at home. It was a moment of crossover between two cultures that I thought were polar opposites: my life in Spanish and my music in English. Moreover, Beck didn’t rhyme, and he didn’t try to force his songs to make sense. I liked that quality about his work, and I still do.
Honestly, I have more in common with 15-year-old Liana than with 25-year-old Liana. Now she seems so honest, so bold (I also know she was insecure and sometimes depressed.) 25-year-old me had learned the art of the compromise. 25-year-old me was dieting, wearing tighter-fitting outfits, and dating. 25-year-old me had just started her second year of her Master’s program. She had goals (get a degree, get married) and she was working towards those goals. She took adulthood much too seriously. 15-year-old me was more creative, more willing to take a chance. I didn’t know much about myself back then, but I was unapologetic about what I knew.
At 35, I find myself grasping for that sort of energy again: creative, unapologetic risk-taker. I’d like to think that 15-year-old me would like 35-year-old me, with my hair and my outfits and my music. And I’d tell her it’s okay to be who you are. Just play the music and sing along.
So open the door.
Liana M. Silva is a writer, teacher, reader, and listener. On Twitter she’s @liana_m_silva, and on Instagram she’s @noenvelopeneeded. She’s posting there a postcard a day in a project she calls #365noenvelopeneeded