For A Young Immigrant Growing Up In the ’90s, Music Was Everything To Me

Whitney Houston
Photo: Shutterstock.

The music we listen to in our youth has a way of shaping our worldview and influencing our tastes for years to come. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2020 nominees are imprinted in my memories. This music reminds me of the changes I faced when my mother and I moved from El Salvador to Los Angeles.

Music was one of the ways I got to know my new country. It was the early’ 90s and there were lots of new wave, hip-hop, and alternative rock to be heard. Every decade brings its own metamorphosis, open doors, and dreams. I suspect that the artists in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2020 will bring back memories for many. Every nominee in this class deserves the prestige of induction, but there are some who have touched my heart more than others.

The late Whitney Houston taught me that it’s possible to love and be feminine while asserting a strong voice. She came from a humble background and is still a national treasure. I still remember how much my mother loved her in The Bodyguard. The world already had hits such as “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” but her rendition of “I Will Always Love You” made us all forget Dolly Parton actually wrote the song in 1973. Today and forevermore, the song is hers. Her extraordinary prowess made everything memorable, including this 1994 cover of “Home” from The Wiz soundtrack.

Houston had a special connection to yet another nominee for induction this year– Chaka Khan. Khan is a nominee for her work with funk band Rufus. This is their second nomination to induction since 2011. She was a lead singer for the Chicago-based band until the 1980s. Khan’s stage presence was powerful and fearless. She was an inspiration to many other Black women that came after her. Whether or not she’s inducted, her impact on American culture is undeniable. Other seminal songs with and without Rufus include “Stay,” “Tell Me Something Good,” and of course, “I’m Every Woman.”

Inevitably, it’s impossible to be happy all the time. Three other nominees impacted my life by honestly discussing life’s difficulties.

Hailing from New York City, The Notorious B.I.G. influenced me and my peers in Huntington Park, California in the ’90s. My side of Los Angeles consisted mostly of immigrants, and though we had plenty of Latinx artists to look up to, we also knew hip-hop was English-language poetry that spoke to the ills of our society. Ready to Die spoke to our circumstances. Growing up in poverty is romanticized, but it’s also demanding for children and teens. In The Notorious B.I.G. we found someone who grew up in circumstances similar to ours, and rose to greatness anyway. Life After Death provided an honest perspective of what fame was like after a lifetime of hustling.

Soundgarden dutifully sang to my teen angst. When you’re an immigrant child of color you quickly learn life is unfair. I was far too young to understand the nuances of Superunknown during its heyday, but Chris Cornell’s vocals and Kim Thayil’s musicality kept me listening until I was old enough to understand what depression actually was. Later, I admired that Soundgarden could make something so beautiful despite battling something so complicated.

Nine Inch Nails is yet another band whose artistry has left an indelible mark on older millennials, Gen X-ers, and some of the Y generation, if only because Black Mirror featured an episode in which Miley Cyrus covers a version of “Head Like a Hole.” The band’s industrial brand of alternative rock showed us that the world could be better if we simply stood up and decided, well, not to take the status quo. Like their peers, Rage Against the Machine, NIN taught me to stand up for what’s right, show my righteous indignation, and dance.

Then there are the bands that brought me joy. Dave Matthews Band and the Doobie Brothers were the types of bands that filled my brain with pure music. Stay (Wasting Time)” was a revelation for me. The saxophone and band instruments made me feel sophisticated. The song was rock and roll, but it was one of the few songs I could listen to while my mom was in the room and not get into an argument about my love for rock and roll.

I first heard the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’” on an oldies station and their harmonies were impossible not to enjoy. This was yet another mom-approved band that showed me a soft but firm side of rock and roll. Of special note is Depeche Mode, a band whose lyrics I didn’t always understand, but whose “Just Can’t Get Enough” was and “Enjoy The Silence” evoke what it was like to sit in traffic in Los Angeles with nowhere to go.

Finally, who can forget Pat Benatar? Her songs bring powerful vocals to a sound that’s pure ’80s. Netflix’s ’80s nostalgia shows, like GLOW have skillfully used her music to remind us that all women with big dreams must persevere as if we’re already invincible. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” continues to make me feel like I can conquer anything. “We Belong” is still a song about heartbreak and love that manages to make listeners feel joy anyway.

The other nominees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Female class of 2020 include Thin Lizzy, Kraftwerk, Judas Priest, T.Rez Motörhead, and Todd Rundgren. But more than anything–this generation of musicians spoke to my spirit at a time when I needed them most.