In one of my few surviving childhood memories, dated around 1991 or 1992, my first exposure to FM radio coincides with my first taste of a second type of “pop”: a classic green can of Schweppes Ginger Ale, emptied with a straw over a slice at Smiley’s Pizza on 7th avenue in Park Slope. Long before I knew that I was listening to R&B and hip-hop — or that the word “pop”, musically speaking, derived from the word “popular”– I somehow got the idea that the high-pitched vocal melisma droning pleasantly from the ceiling-speakers originated in the tingly feeling that carbonated beverages produce in the nose. “Ginger Ale Music”, as I called it, involved a distinctly nasal type of singing– best reproduced by filling the lungs with air, plugging the noise, and flitting acrobatically around a sassy melody line. It also exuded an aura of “otherness” – not yet linked to anything so complicated as race or sexuality (for it was only disembodied radio voices that I heard), but amplified by the fact that I only encountered it at Smiley’s, once or twice a week, while indulging in other parentally controlled delights, like pizza and soda.
The other thing about “Ginger Ale Music” was that it combined everything I heard at the Pizza place into one, uninterrupted musical idea. Unlike hip-hop and R&B, it was a form without authors (none whom I could personally identify, anyway), and was composed of a continuous stream of half-remembered fragments, fading in and out of earshot like competing radio signals on the road. Later on, when I began seeking out my first cassette tapes, I learned to pick out a few tunes that had climbed their way onto this endless soundtrack, which seemed to linger under my breath at all times: Mariah Carey’s “Dream Lover” (1993), Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (1992), Boys II Men’s “River Runs Dry” (1994). For the most part, however, “Ginger Ale” music was a product of my own imagination — a collage of refrains and melodramatic flourishes that had once originated in something outside of me, but that I had digested into something entirely my own.