Music

How ‘So Fresh’ Helped This Hopeless Teen Nerd Survive High School

It turns out the key to making friends is knowing the chords to Train’s ‘Drops Of Jupiter’.

All week long Music Junkee is celebrating the greatest compilation series of all timeSo Fresh. You’re welcome.

When I was in my teens, music was a huge signifier of who was ‘cool’.

It was a huge faux-pas to not get a song reference or not know who a major artist was. It was especially forbidden to like a song or artist that had been deemed uncool. Good gracious. You didn’t admit that you liked The Backstreet Boys’ Millenium album unironically. Pretty soon you’d have no one to sit with.

I was unpopular when I started high school in 1999. ‘Unpopular’ may be an understatement. I felt like radioactive waste. Many lunchtimes were spent eating my sandwich in a stall of the girls’ toilets. I tried to connect with my fellow classmates but I was a sweet, deeply weird kid. Nerdy and earnest before there was a place for that (Tumblr), but also loudly opinionated while being horribly insecure before there was a place for that (Twitter).

A big obstacle to my fitting in was that I couldn’t keep up with the social signifiers you had to be familiar with to be ‘in’. Popular music was important and mostly disseminated through FM radio or the local Sanity shop. I was too intimidated to go into Sanity, and I didn’t listen to the radio. I only listened to Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. It didn’t look good for me.

We didn’t have social media yet. It was just being invented, and hadn’t filtered out to the northern suburbs of Perth yet.

When I started Year 8, we didn’t have personal email addresses or even a decent search engine. Google had just been founded, and the internet was mainly static pages that you could only read if you already knew the URL. It was still quite hard to find out about trends and bands if you weren’t already in the know. I didn’t even have a mobile phone, and polyphonic ringtones were still a few years away from blowing our minds.

Hope for my social life came to me in the form of a So Fresh CD. Each season, So Fresh would curate a mix-tape of the most popular music in Australia and I would have something to grasp onto, a lifeline into the cultural lives of my peers.

THANK YOU FOR EXISTING

Nobody seemed to want to converse about pre-war 20th century Canadian novels in the schoolyard, so I set about studying what ‘the kids’ were interested in. There was something called Destiny’s Child. Girls liked a ‘Justin Timberlake’. Nobody thought Chris Isaak was cool. I was learning a lot.

When it came out in the early aughts, So Fresh was a then-unique mix of daggy pop music, soft rock and R&B. It was perfect, because I found that there was something that would connect with almost any type of kid at my school.

“Hope for my social life came to me in the form of a So Fresh CD. Each season, So Fresh would curate a mix-tape of the most popular music in Australia and I would have something to grasp onto, a lifeline into the cultural lives of my peers”

The Christian kids, when they weren’t brightly suggesting that I’d ‘get a lot out of’ Friday night youth group, could bond with me over Creed. The boys who used to wait at my locker to call me names and chase me through the arts block were impressed that I knew who Tenacious D were. That one loner kid at the back of the classroom and I bonded over the genius that was Eminem’s ‘Stan’. (When we got our first email addresses, he and I emailed each other during computer class and always signed off with ‘Your biggest fan, this is Stan.’)

I learned the piano chords to Train’s ‘Drops Of Jupiter’ and when I played it on the school’s upright Yamaha, the drama kids would gather around me and scream: “THE BEST SOY LATTE THAT YOU EVER HAD, AND … ME.” (That song is a joke now but when it came out in 2001, let me tell you, we all went nuts for that opening C chord.)

So Fresh cushioned my education in hip-hop with the saccharine bubblegum pop that I secretly adored. Pretty soon I wasn’t skipping over D12 to get straight to Mandy Moore. When my friends (!) would come over to my house after school, or drive around in my second-hand Corolla with me, I could put on the latest volume and know that something on there would appeal to all of us.

Eventually I gained enough confidence to trust my own taste in music and embrace my own style. But the first two years of high school felt like a battleground, and I’m thankful for anything that bridged the gap between me and my peers. Thank you, So Fresh, for helping this hopeless teen nerd.

(I still think Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ is a banger.)

Kaitlyn Plyley is a freelance writer and the host of conversation podcast Just A Spoonful. She tweets from @kplyley.