The only music I remember listening to (not counting church songs, oh god) before my family arrived in Los Angeles when I was 10, was Julio Iglesias, ABBA, and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. This was all from my time in Paraguay. Don’t ask me about music from Korea. I have zero recollection of my life in my hometown of Seoul. I was 5 when we left.
When my family came to L.A. in 1980, our first home was in Koreatown, a six-unit apartment just off Olympic and Wilton Place. Our next-door neighbor had a daughter my age whom I was madly in love with from fifth grade all through junior high. But that’s a whole different story I would like to not get into right now, OK? Anyway … her big brother had an AC/DC record, Highway to Hell, that blew my mind. (The only reason AC/DC is not on this playlist is because I rarely think of a single track, just memories of sitting at Margaret’s place listening to Highway to Hell and then Back in Black.) Soon after, I was exposed to R&B and hip-hop through the Black kids who were the first (and only, for a while) people to accept me.
When I sat down to make this playlist, memories like these came to me surprisingly fast. And soon after, the feelings. Ohhhh, the feelings.
It makes sense once you think of it, but it’s so easy to forget that there is a soundtrack to your life. Just like in the movies, specific songs are played in varying volumes to accompany the moments you’re living through, to accent them.
I just didn’t know until I wrote this that the audience was me.
“Doo Wa Ditty” by ZAPP
No matter where I am or what I’m doing, no song instantly takes me back to Los Angeles better than this song by ZAPP. It might be the first song I fell in love with, but I’m not sure. Because 1982, two years after my family arrived in L.A., had some songs for me. It is the first time a song made me want to dance.
“You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by the GAP Band
Another ’82 classic. This song always makes me think of my older brother because it might be the last pop song that he and I ever bonded over. He loved this song, which looking back now, seems almost like fiction (he’s a classical music aficionado). I miss this time when he and I would sit in front of the stereo in our apartment on Gramercy Drive in Koreatown, our minds blowing each and every time the song came on.
“Nasty Girl” by Vanity 6
Um … sex. Pure sex. To me at this time (1982 is like “Another one!”), it was a wake-up song, except for parts of me that I didn’t even know existed. Vanity’s voice, way beyond even her physical beauty, made me feel like I was entering a different world, one that I’d never experienced before. You could call it the American Dream, the U.S., life in the West, the Global North, Hollywood, puberty, sexual awakening, possibility … Yes, I think possibility.
“Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order
High school. ’80s. Parties. Drogas. This is a song that is the center of my playlist called “80s 5AM COKE MUSIC” because in the soundtrack of you walking out of a West L.A. apartment at 5 a.m., those Pyrus calleryana spewing jizz into the atmosphere, your body about to murder you for all the Bartles & Jaymes you used to wash down the drugs, your heart broken by, well, you don’t even remember exactly what or who did that to you.
“Feel Good Hit of the Summer” by Queens of the Stone Age
Driving around with my childhood friend George in his black IROC convertible until we hit Torrance for no reason. We weren’t even talking. But we understood our lives were about to take drastic turns and we wouldn’t see each other much anymore—a friendship that began with a fight by the handball courts at Wilton Place Elementary in Koreatown, continued through his crack years, his shooting incident, his Boston exile and subsequent Boston prison term, his return to L.A. and his opening of a successful sushi restaurant in Palmdale.
“Walking Away” by Craig David
I couldn’t stop singing this song in the summer of 2001, and it continued into summer of 2002 as I was getting ready to leave L.A. for N.Y. It was for grad school but I didn’t think I was coming back. There was, as Mr. David says, too much trouble in my life in L.A. and all I wanted to do was run away and disappear. The canceled engagement. The post-canceled-engagement-self-destructive Eurotrash Era™. The Why I Wouldn’t Date You List that I was given over dinner at Nobu when I asked a woman I was in love with why she wouldn’t date me. But …
“Ship Song” by Nick Cave
… I came back to L.A. in 2004, with Judeth, who I met at NYU. And we got married in DTLA, on the rooftop of the Oviatt Building on Olive Street. It was a Sunday night because it was cheaper to rent on Sundays. And street parking was free. This song was our first dance. Therefore, this song is ours. Nobody else can have it.