Arts·Sounds Like Summer

Now! 3 was the soundtrack and symbol of my pre-teen summer — it made growing up feel exciting

When she was "stuck between wanting to mature and being terrified of leaving kid life behind forever," the compilation was Anne T. Donahue's small step forward.

As her teenage years loomed, the Canadian compilation helped Anne T. Donahue take a small step forward

The last hot, hazy days of August warrant a look back — a look at what made summer what it is, or maybe what it once was and what it could have been. For our essay series Sounds Like Summer, we asked writers to reminisce about specific moments, reflect on feelings about the season's immense pull over us and conjure up the sounds associated — musical and otherwise. Summer's nearly over, but the reverberation of a particular mood remains.​

I wasn't allowed to listen to Now! 3.

The Canadian answer to America's forever-ongoing Now That's What I Call Music! compilations seemed too grown up for my 12-year-old ears. After all, it featured songs like "Bitch" by Meredith Brooks and "Sex and Candy" by Marcy Playground — and I assumed that, should my Catholic parents hear what I was listening to, they'd ground me forever, sentencing me to a lifetime of Disney soundtracks and adult contemporary. (I ignored the fact that they let me watch The Simpsons, see the occasional PG-13 movie and listen to Top 40 radio where these songs played constantly.)

I convinced myself that Now! 3 was too far, and too much. It was a mix made for teens well into high school — not a suburban child on the cusp of her 13th birthday who'd only just taken the plunge and begun wearing tank tops. Now! signalled a bold, new world in which words like "sex" and "bitch" and "it's the end of the world as we know it" (love you forever, Great Big Sea) were allowed to exist without being challenged by authority. So instead, I'd walk into HMV in my Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers, hold the treasured jewel case in my hands and put it back before buying another Céline Dion CD. Stuck between wanting to mature and being terrified of leaving kid life behind forever, I settled for music that I considered meant for grown-ups but wasn't, well, too grown up.

On a bright August morning in 1998, my aunt, uncle and cousin picked me up from my Cambridge, Ontario home before taking me on the biggest adventure of my baby tween life: a day at Canada's Wonderland, followed by a night and day eating and shopping in downtown Toronto. I, an only child who got homesick easily, was terrified. But my Aunt Vida was so cool. My 11-year-old cousin was so fun. And my Uncle Jeff had once plucked me out of the Sportsworld wave pool when I fell off a raft, and I owed him my life. (Or so I thought, until I realized years later that all I had to do to avoid being submerged in water that day was to stand up in it.)

I settled into the backseat wearing my cat's eye sunglasses and my Suzy Shier t-shirt, listening to my aunt go over the itinerary while silently reminding myself that I would be back home tomorrow, that I could totally handle a full 24 hours away, that I was old enough for an adventure. If I missed my mom, I would still be hanging out with her baby sister. And while my aunt was the Julia Roberts to my mom's (much kinder) Susan Sarandon, I was still with family. Deep breath. It was fine. I was fine. Everything was fine. (But what if I missed my parents?)

Jenn's enthusiasm for the starting notes of "Tubthumping" interrupted my thoughts. "I love this song — turn it up!" she exclaimed. (And rightfully so, since that iconic Chumbawamba anthem is important and shaped me).

"What are we listening to?" I asked, trying to be casual. "Um," my aunt picked up the jewel case and examined it. "Now! 3 — it's Jen's."

I was the human embodiment of a record scratch accompanying a freeze frame in the best way. ("Bet you're wondering how I ended up here.") I felt rebellious. Alive. Confident. Daring. A little terrified. I, in the backseat of that sensible sedan, was prepared, enthused and however Tom Hanks felt in A League of Their Own when he began shouting, "We're gonna win!" Now! 3, once the symbol of a world I wasn't ready to dive into, was now the soundtrack to my summer (24-ish hours) of (well-supervised) independence. It was a sample of how fun growing up could be, instead of the listenable representation of leaving childhood behind.

Every song was suddenly a gift. And as Janet Jackson's "Together Again" melted into Jewel's "Foolish Games" before launching into The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," I forgot about my anxiety footnotes and let myself have fun. Maybe I would miss my parents at bedtime. Maybe I would fall off a raft in the Canada's Wonderland wave pool. Maybe I would walk by a man who was covered in blood in downtown Toronto, which would send my cousin and I into unnecessary hysterics. (Which did happen, by the way, and my aunt and uncle were both very embarrassed. Particularly as we kept asking them, "Did he get blood on us?" even in the hotel, hours later.) But in this moment, and in the car, stuck in traffic, Great Big Sea's "It's the End of the World (As We Know It)" was blaring, and it was important to try and say the words as fast as Alan Doyle could. Or until my aunt and uncle couldn't take it anymore and switched CDs.

Growing up — at least into a teenager — finally seemed exciting.

Not that I went home and bought Now! 3 right away. (Especially since I still believed my parents would refuse to let me have it in the house and insist I burn it with a lighter like AJ in Empire Records.) Instead, over the rest of the summer, I listened to the radio and made my own Now! 3 mix via cassette, telling myself that I was compromising. Because sure, Meredith Brooks was declaring herself a bitch from the confines of my bedroom stereo, but I hadn't exchanged allowance or babysitting money for it — I'd made it myself, for free. And as I listened to it between trips to the library and evenings out at the mall, I saw growing up less as me losing my childhood self, and more like a trip to the GTA with three of my favourite family members: fun and exciting and containing way too many butterfly hair clips. Maybe there'd be a man covered in blood, but hopefully not.

Nearly a year later, Now! released its fourth incarnation, a mix defined by The Moffatts ("Girl of my Dreams"), Sky ("Love Song"), Barenaked Ladies ("It's All Been Done") and Brandy ("Have You Ever?"). And, fully submerged in early teen heartache, angst and Breaker High reruns, I bought it immediately, caring not as to whether or not my parents would object. And obviously, they didn't. Not when I blared Aaliyah ("Are You That Somebody?"), and not when I brought my newly acquired (and official) Now! 3 out for a spin. They just wanted me to please turn it down because the house was small.

Which, of course, was a terrible request. I was a grown-up now. An adult. A bold young old woman. And they needed to respect that their mature daughter required the vocal stylings of Sugar Ray to accompany her exciting nights of building 3D puzzles.

About the Author

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.