I have a theory that the songs that we fall in love with during our formative, adolescent years help to define the people we grow-up to become. Everyone has bands or songs that they listened to over and over again during their early teen years. If you hear one of those songs on the radio today, mid-thirties or forties, and you’ll likely be just as thrilled as you were back before the advent of on-demand music and customized Pandora channels.
“I love this song!” you’ll cry, while behind your eyelids you start seeing memories from your past. Your first date dance, your first breakup, your first fight with your best friend. Each memory has a corresponding ballad that even years later, makes your chest ache with memory and nostalgia.
Born in the early 80s (which means I got to miss out on shoulder pads and perms reinforced by Aqua Net), I was 14 in 1997. That means my milestone adolescent experiences occurred with a soundtrack that included Goo Goo Dolls, No Doubt, The Cardigans, Blink 182, The Cranberries, and Natalie Merchant.
I look back on these artists and their song with appreciation, even today, considering the lessons they taught me, and the person they helped me become. What follows is an ode to the songs that defined my adolescence and filled-up my angst-ridden teen playlist, circa 1997.
You Learn – Alanis Morissette
I think Alanis must have seen thousands of us through breakups back in the late 90s, a gift she gave to us as she worked to cope with her own heartbreaks. As a self-professed sage teen, I thought I truly related to the lyrics of Your Learn:
You live you learn, you love you learn
You cry you learn, you lose you learn
You bleed you learn, you scream you learn
You grieve you learn, you choke you learn
You laugh you learn, you choose you learn
You pray you learn, you ask you learn
You live you learn
Oh yes, I had learned so many life-altering lessons at the wise age of 14. Looking back? I had barely begun to live and only thought I understood the truths of the world. Alanis continues to prove to me that I am still learning lessons about life. Even today when I listen to her songs, crafted out of heartbreak and mistakes, I learn something new, about the songs, and about myself.
Hour Follows Hour – Ani DiFranco
I was introduced to Ani DiFranco from my young feminist friends and soon learned to love her soulful sound. The key lesson from her song Hour Follows Hour, is one I still hear echoing in my head in moments when I find myself at a loss as to how to take away the pain of a friend in need:
And maybe the most we can do
Is just to see each other through it
Sometimes, support is all you can offer someone, and all you need in return. Thanks, Ani, for the reminder.
Break Your Heart – Barenaked Ladies
Barenaked Ladies was unequivocally my favorite band during my teen years. In a lot of ways, they still are. I have listened to their songs for hours over the course of the past two decades, and I’m still amazed at the nuances in the songs, the metaphors, and the beautiful observations of life and love and friendship. Perhaps the one song that enlightened me the most during my youth was Break Your Heart. I was a girl regularly dumped by boy after boy. Every dissolving relationship felt the same. Things started out great, the boy seemed to really like me, and then slowly he started to disappear, becoming a ghost, our relationship becoming a hollow shell of what it once had been.
Why do these things happen? What goes through the minds of these boys? Why do they just disappear? Barenaked Ladies had the answer. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but I know even now with absolute certainty how right they were:
The bravest thing I’ve ever done
Was to run away and hide
But not this time, not this time
And the weakest thing I’ve ever done
Was to stay right by your side
Just like this time, and every time
I couldn’t tell you I was happy when you were gone
So I lied and said that I missed you when we were apart
I couldn’t tell you
So I had to lead you on
But I didn’t mean to break your heart
I’ve always appreciated that Steven Page, the lyricist, gave the rejected ex-girlfriend the strength to end things on her own terms. I used to scream the lyrics at the top of my lungs, hoping to pull some of the strength from the words into my own, broken heart.
And you said
What’d you think that I was gonna do,
Curl up and die just because of you?
I’m not that weak, you know
What’d you think that I was gonna do,
Try to make you love me as much as I love you?
How could you be so low?
You arrogant man,
What do you think that I am?
My heart will be fine
Just stop wasting my time
And now I know that you will be okay, and that I got what I want
And that’s rid of you
Rumor has it that Steven Page lived in my town for awhile. I’m not sure if he still does. I always hoped for the chance to run into him. Had I been so fortunate, I doubt I could have ever told him how much his songs helped me find my voice and rebuild my self-worth after all of those disastrous breakups, so I’ll say it now.
Wonderwall – Oasis
This song always makes its way onto every playlist I create. If I was banished to a desert island and told I could only bring ten songs with me, Wonderwall would undoubtedly make the cut. I simply never tire of hearing it. It’s such a beautiful unsuspecting love song. The idea of finding someone who can sustain you, reinforce you when you’re weak, protect you from the pain of the world around you, defined for me what I wanted in a relationship. The lyrics are poignant and brave, and remind me every day of what I want in a truly committed partner, and what type of partner I need to be in return.
And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I
Would like to say to you but I don’t know how
Because maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all, you’re my wonderwall
Oasis’ wonderwall is now the standard to which all men are held. In that, I have been unrelenting since 1995.
There are amazing artists producing meaningful music every day, but there’s just something about the songs that defined your youth. They shape your expectations, teach you how to survive, and give you the perspective you lack at a time when you haven’t lived enough to have learned the lessons on your own.
What songs have defined your youth and imprinted themselves indelibly on your heart? If you haven’t listened to them in a while, maybe it’s time to turn them up and remember why they meant so much to you.