The Sun Sets: Getting Schooled By the Music at an Amusement Park

Cameron Crowell spent the summer cleaning up barf while "Pour Some Sugar on Me" blasted from speakers overhead. And yet: he's still alive.

Summers would feel incomplete without a trip to the local amusement park—one with a single-loop roller coaster whose only instructions are in Italian and a Gravitron that has been causing kids to vomit since the 1980s. It’s a quintessential staple in American culture, like baseball, apple pie, chewing tobacco, and The Sandlot. The amusement park is a palace of nostalgia that instills a sense of longing for the past even in those who haven’t been alive long enough to miss much of anything.

This mishmash of history and fantasy, of looking back on a time that never really existed, confuses and combines eras. It’s the unilateral time where America was unambiguously great. In fact, nostalgia is such a powerful emotion precisely because of its inaccuracy. It’s the byproduct of personal history, one purely based on emotions associated with a specific moment in time that stands in for an entire period of one’s life.

Though the caveat to history is that it is always personal, it’s written with the complex and conflicting emotions of the person experiencing it. While it would be easy to throw away a rose-tinted or jaded view of the past for its inaccuracy, to do so would ignore the emotional aspect of the past that always was irrational. I feel a similar phenomenon while listening to music. It can be a solitary experience that calls back on personal memories that the artist has no connection to or a shared experience where listeners connect by similar feelings they get together.

I spent what turned out to be a classic Portland summer working at an amusement park: cold rain persisted into June, but by August it neared an unbearable hundred-degree, slightly humid heat almost daily. I became obsessed with the peculiarity of the park’s music. Like any playlist at a place of business, it’s loaded with American pop, but here it’s as if music ended in 2009 with Miley Cyrus’s The Time of Our Lives EP and The Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D. With the monotony of pressing a button for eight hours, the music was something in relative flux, at least something emotional to attach to.

The park aims to balance the in-the-moment thrills of spinning out of control on a massive metal track with the trappings of its American “family values” setting. This is perhaps most embodied in the “Rock & Roll,” a ride that spins two-seater Thunderbird replicas in a circle with hundreds of flashing ’50s marquee lights igniting everything in mesmerizing color. Over the speakers, classic rock songs like Twist & Shout,” “What’s New Pussycat,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and a slew of AC/DC songs play. What says good old family values more than a white guy busting out a wicked guitar solo and singing almost exclusively through sexual innuendo?

The old rock songs quickly became the most annoying. These had already sunk into my psyche long before I started working at the park, and the hundred-song playlist repeated at least three times a day, even blaring in the employee break area. Still, I found myself mouthing all of the words every time the kids would pass by screaming and crying. I would stand perfectly still watching for teenagers trying to reach out of the car or rock them off the tracks, hating myself as I sang along to My Sharona under my breath.

For the most part the playlist acted like a movie score—not explicitly noticed but still omnipresent—and accordingly these songs set my mood. On one of my worst days, an elderly man called us “trained monkeys” in a rage over his grandkid not getting complimentary cookies. Here I was thinking about the Chris Rock joke about minimum wage meaning that your boss would pay you less if they were legally allowed to while my mood ebbed and flowed between irritated ennui and spurts of joy, depending on whether Crazy Frog” or “Semi-Charmed Life played through the loudspeakers.

The park aims to balance the in-the-moment thrills of spinning out of control on a massive metal track with the trappings of its American “family values” setting.

The main attraction at the park was undoubtedly the spinning pendulum called “The Scream N Eagle,” a ride with its own playlist that ride operators have some control over, in that we were allowed to choose from a different set of a hundred or so songs on the attached iPod Mini. The power to choose between Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi, Nelly’s “Air Force Ones,” and Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” made it a coveted assignment. For workers, it was a ride of collective relief and understanding—an unspoken agreement to never let Cotton Eye Joe or the Hannah Montana theme song play. The major downside was that the floor of the ride was carpet, and since it was the park’s most popular and thrilling attraction, it was also among the most puked upon.

The unbridled excitement of the amusement park is youthfulness on its own egomaniacal terms. I’ve tutored kids in the past, and what I didn’t learn from that job is what they’re actually into, which pop songs have stuck and which have faded into obscurity (“Call Me Maybe” and Party in the USA,” for instance, are continually beloved, while Imma Be is largely met with indifference). When a twelve-year-old shrugs at the over-the-top cheesiness of Thunderstruck,” it’s similar to how I must have reacted to my grandparents listening to big band or jazz.

There is one universal exception: Bohemian Rhapsody.” People regardless of age perk up. Waiting in line, there’s always a group of children, teens, adults, and employees alike quietly singing along. Perhaps this is the test of a masterpiece. I’m no proponent of the idea of “objective truth,” but Freddie Mercury may have gotten as close as one could. When the sun set near the end of a shift and the fluorescent lights of the rides ignited under the darkening skies, the quiet wind returned as the hot day came down to the early-evening simmer. The kids softly cooed, “Mama Mia let me go,” just as I did. I could only smile and let them onto the ride as I silently checked their heights. It was the closest I got to riding along with them. FL

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