Last summer this guy I was kinda dating in an adolescent sort of way asked for a playlist of my favorite songs from high school -- “a musical snapshot,” he said. Compiling the soundtrack to my burgeoning teen angst turned out to be weirdly pleasurable, like wiggling a loose tooth. Here I walk you through five of my faves:
"What’s Up" (4 Non Blondes)
I went to Camp Chatuga for the first time the summer between freshman and sophomore year. That first summer was all strawberry lip balm and Capture the Flag and new besties by the end of two weeks. I wore butterfly prints and Tevas and told everybody to call me by my middle name: Willow. I also had my first kiss -- on the hill by the lake, with the camp’s self-proclaimed ping-pong champion.
“What’s Up” was a big radio hit that summer, and you could hear it blasting from cabins on the regular: “I cry sometimes when I’m lying in bed/just to get it all out what’s in my head,” Linda Perry sang, “and I’m feeling a little peculiar.” Weren’t we all? It was the herald of things to come.
The next summer, camp was the same but different. I missed my newfound group of friends at home, with their multicolored hair and snarky remarks, their misfit charm. The camp kids seemed so wholesome, canoeing and singing songs around the fire. I spent a lot of time on my bunk, writing letters and applying concealer to a particularly bad acne flare-up. My angst level was seriously on the rise.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey,” Linda wailed, “what’s going on?” FEELINGS, that’s what. So many of them, and so often at the same time! Much of this could be worked out, as the song suggested, by crying in bed, screaming from the top of one’s lungs, and/or getting “real high.” But these were activities frowned upon at Camp Chatuga.
"F**k and Run" (Liz Phair)
“You’ve got to hear this,” Hannah said. It was the fall of 10th grade and we were in her bedroom after school, that hour and time of year when the light has just begun to grow sharp and a little bit sad, a reminder that the world is on the move and taking you with it.
Within the first few seconds of “F**k and Run” I was sold: that rhythmic guitar riff, Phair’s almost monotone delivery, that brief revelation of heartache when her voice goes up a notch to sing, “I can feel it in my bones, I’m going to spend another year alone.” And then back to that steady rhythm, that matter-of-fact recitation.
All through 9th grade I’d envied Hannah. Prettier and more outgoing than me, she’d had several boyfriends, been to third base. But I’d been taking notes, considering future moves. I was feeling the pull of the scruffy, pot-smoking boys who sat in the back of the bus and I was losing interest in the clean-cut boys of AP English. I was figuring out how to inflect my own pull.
“I want a boyfriend,” Phair admits wryly, “I want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas.” Me too, Liz, me too! At 15 we’d apparently only touched the tip of the heartbreak iceberg. It was going be painful, it was going to be lonely, and it would go on forever, or at least into our mid-20s. But if we could blast Liz Phair in Hannah’s bedroom -- if we could learn how to say “f**k” with the same amount of emphatic nonchalance -- we just might be alright.
"Rebel Girl" (Bikini Kill)
By the end of 10th grade I was spending less and less time with Hannah and more time with Edie. More ‘panic’ than ‘pixie,’ Edie was distinctive looking, darkly funny, and unapologetically loud. She most definitely thought she was the queen of the neighborhood. Edie taught me how to drink 40s and take bong hits and chase boys, how to accessorize with Polly Pocket and kiddie lunchboxes and still look tough. She wrote me a billion be-stickered notes full of crushed-out laments and coded drug references and Lemonheads lyrics.
One night Edie put on her mother’s wedding dress (why not?) and we drove to the college strip where everyone hung out and ran down the street, yelling, “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck!” Chuck being a guy Edie had a crush on who, alas, was nowhere to be found, but we found another guy Edie knew who sold us some acid and immediately we unfolded the tinfoil and placed the bits of paper on our tongues.
And was that Anderson, the guy I had a crush on, telling some other kids from school about how he’d just pierced his own ears? Was Edie telling him I wanted my belly button pierced? Was he offering to do it on the spot? Was I lying down in a public place and pulling up my shirt? Was the acid kicking in?
Edie turned out to be kind of manipulative and backstabby and our friendship would crash and burn by senior year, but for a while nothing was more exhilarating than running around in our Doc Martens and baby tees, looking for trouble and making a scene and mocking everyone who just didn’t get it (which let’s face it, was pretty much everyone). With Edie I was in on the joke and the joke was hilarious, even when our tortured teenage souls were writhing in their tortured teenaged-ness (which, let’s face it, was most of the time).
“Rebel girl, you are the queen of my world…she is my best friend, yeah.”
"Fade into You" (Mazzy Star)
“I want to hold the hand inside you. I want to take a breath that’s true. I look to you and I see nothing. I look to you to see the truth.” Ambiguity! Contradiction! The building blocks of teen angst. Plus the twang-y wail of the Fender electric, the melancholy beat of the tambourine, all the places where you can lie down in Hope Sandoval’s voice and conjure up the person to whom you would sing this song which, despite the kind of oblique lyrics, is clearly, clearly a song about LONGING. I mean, duh, “want” is in the first line.
When I was 16 the person I most wanted was Martin, a charming German-American manic-depressive with an impish smile and green hair. And for a while he was my boyfriend. So why did I allow quietly pale Ted to kiss me in the stairwell of the building behind the Cat’s Cradle music club where all our friends, Martin included, were at an all-ages show?
Because for weeks Ted had been telling me he liked me and now he was looking at me so beseechingly, and half the time Martin was being so manic and depressive and explaining why our relationship wasn’t going to work using a METAPHOR ABOUT TOOTHBRUSHES and now he was somewhere with Edie, and possibly one of them was trying to kiss the other, depending on whose version of the story I listened to later, and -- I don’t know, I just did.
Martin found out, of course, and of course it confirmed his whole toothbrush theory and he broke up with me, and once I didn’t have him, of course I wanted him even more. And this would basically establish a quintessential pattern for all relationships to come.
That summer Martin went to Germany and I spent many nights sitting in my car with Edie blasting “Fade into You” and the tambourine, that guitar, the languid summer heat! The longing was palpable; I was alive with it.
"Runaway Train" (Soul Asylum)
Yes, the rhyme scheme is predictable, the lyrics cheesy, but doesn’t this song just sort of nail it? Who hasn’t felt like “a firefly without a light…a key that could use a little turning”?
Throughout my teenage years the darkness gathered. The winter of my senior year it swallowed me whole. I couldn’t stop crying, had trouble getting out of bed. Everything receded into the distance. “Can you help me remember how to smile, make it somehow all seem worthwhile?” It was a long winter. There have been a lot of long winters since.
Last year this song came on the radio in the middle of a rainstorm as I pulled into the parking lot of my therapist’s office. In therapy I’m learning how to be present with my feelings, among other things. So: I turn the radio up, sit in the car, and feel the feels.
I feel myself accordion out like paper dolls until I am my adult self and my adolescent self and all the selves in between. And the kids from high school in all their defiant, ridiculous, dyed-hair and flannel-wearing glory, they’re here too, imprinted on the paper. The song fills the car and outside the world is a blur of water and pavement and trees. My chest swells, my heart cracks. This is the magic of what a song can do, if only for 4 minutes and 26 seconds at a time.