I won’t deny it: I have a soft spot for teeny bopper ballads and songs about big dreams. “Breakway” started getting radio play during my senior year of college, when I’d wouldn't have been so bold as to admitted I liked a song as cheesy, soft and cliché as this one. Just the same, I was in the early stages of what would become a multi-year relationship with an unabashed Kelly Clarkson fan, who was all too ready to connect with this song, herself a girl who had grown up in a small town and dreamed of breaking away. So, listening to the song as a way of connecting with her seemed reasonable enough.
To underscore how cheesetastic this song is, a bit of background about the song itself: It was written by Avril Lavigne, whose people wouldn’t let her record it because it was deemed too soft and girly for her image.
I grew to like the song. It’s optimism. It’s call back to a simpler, softer pop music that predated my musical coming of age around middle school, taking me back to the sort of earlier pop selections that permeated supermarkets, mall shops, and top 40 radio as a kid.
My shining moment came when that girlfriend of the time and I barreled down back roads between Ithaca and Syracuse with a car full of friends. I sat behind the wheel. And as this song played out, the girl and I belted it back to the speakers. By the last chorus, I think everyone in the car was singing along.
If I were to liken a song like this to a particular food on the culinary spectrum, I’d call it dessert. Saccharine. Disposable. Not particularly good for you, but it tastes so good in the moment.
And like so many sundaes and pies, you tend not to remember songs like this after their fifteen minutes in the mainstream. I don’t think I had heard the song since 2005 when it came over speakers at an Applebee’s in Wooster, Ohio.
I had traveled to Wooster alone to judge an a cappella competition in a cattle barn as part of an offbeat music festival. The day started at five in the morning to get to the airport in time for the cheapest flight possible. When I was off the plane and in my rental car I headed straight to the Wayne County Fairgrounds where I partook in the festivities for the six hours to follow. Afterward, I checked into my hotel and crashed. I probably could have slept the night through, but I’d brought work to do, and I was trying to avoid letting my sleeping and eating schedules grow too wonky. So, after a 45-minute nap I got up and decided to take advantage of the Applebee’s gift card that had gone unused in my wallet for well over a year.
I sat alone at the bar, reading a book by John Updike, exchanging scraps of conversation with the bartender/waitress as my meal progressed. Between my salad and my burger, “Breakaway” cued up. And the bartender, a woman with a sleeve of tattoos, ironic pigtails, and dark eye shadow began to sing along with the first verse.
And it occurred to me that there’s a little “Breakaway” in all of us. At least all of us who grew up in small communities, all of us who aspired to bigger things, all of us who have lost ourselves at one time or another to the romance of the American Dream or the sureness of our own specialness. Perhaps even more simply, the lure of catchy, sugary bubblegum pop.
I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly
I’ll do what it takes, ‘til I touch the sky
Gotta make a wish, take a chance, make a change
With five bucks left on my gift card after dinner, I ordered a chocolate chip sundae-the biggest, sweetest, least necessary dietary indulgence I’d allowed myself in quite some time. I ate every bite. And I remembered.