The folks over at Nerve have a new feature called “Love Song Yearbook: 10 Songs that Shaped My Idea of Love” where various writers discuss the music that built their romantic trajectory. It’s such an good idea; I really wish I had thought of it. As I was reading the posts, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own soundtrack–and I realized that music, perhaps even more than the relationships I grew up observing, was indeed a primary influence. I’m not going to stick to Nerve’s format, but here is my list:
That Summer – Garth Brooks
Hey–I don’t care what you think about country. When I was a little kid, we lived in Ohio and then Indiana, and my mother loved country. Male artists almost exclusively. Within those parameters, Garth was god. I remember knowing every word to this song even before I understood that it had adult overtones I couldn’t understand yet; and then in later childhood when I at least grasped the whos and whats of the narrative, I was enthralled. Garth is an incredible songwriter, and even though my tastes (and my mother’s) have long diverted from the country-soaked car rides of my childhood, I will always love him. Young me was vaguely scandalized about the older woman seducing the boy, but he was so happy I thought it must be all right. Nowadays I like to do this song at karaoke and, with my girl voice, pretend it’s about a first lesbian experience. It’s fun.
Super Touper – ABBA
My dad was a teenager in Iceland in the 70s. What that means, if you don’t already know, is that ABBA was the only thing to listen to. To this day, my plane-flying, Ironman triathlon-completing, barefoot-waterskiing, soccer champ, CEO of a father owns every ABBA record, tribute record, photo book, and DVD there is. He has even seen Mamma Mia! the musical more than once. This made for a very interesting juxtaposition of parentally inflicted music, what with my dad’s europop and my mom’s country penchant. I’m not saying I didn’t love it, because I did, but reflecting on it now is interesting. “Super Trooper” was my favorite ABBA song because it mystified me. The narrator basically gets to live on a stage with an adoring audience and she is miserable. The only thing that can save her is the lover she gave up. I have a very clear image in my head of her (or, me, in my kid-brain) looking out into an audience and seeing someone I hadn’t seen in forever, someone I wanted to see more than anything, and one spotlight bathing them in gold. It was a powerful image for me and I think it’s vaguely responsible for my lifelong mental affiliation of romance and spotlights. An isolating glow. Somehow unattainable–but maybe…
She’s Always a Woman – Billy Joel
The first artist I legitimately discovered and deeply loved, independent of adult introduction, was Billy Joel. This was on the cusp of teenagerdom; a sociopathic, myopic, frustrating era in which I first entertained the idea that I was never going to be in love. Not ever. I wasn’t capable. Sure, I had crushes: confusing presexual manifestations for a smattering of people across ages and genders, which, given my limited context and experience, seemed to negate the feelings they inflicted. I would only love animals. I was certain. But I did entertain the idea that someone, some day–might love me, and I might let him. A lot of people think this song is unspeakably romantic, but to me the woman in the song can’t love him back. So she is cruel, but she comes around apologetically, and she tries half-heartedly to love him but she can’t–and he knows it. They both accept it, and that is enough. In my cold, pubescent angst I thought this was the highest pinnacle of love I could reach. Someone, some day, might love me. And I might let him. Chills still creep up and down my arms when I hear this song.
You and I – Queen
You guys knew there was going to be Queen in here. And oh, boy…this song. This is my favorite song, ever. I got this album at age 15 (it’s A Day at the Races, by the way, and if you don’t have it, you simply must get it right now), and I still listen to it almost every day. Oh, I know this song is kind of breezy and pop-like at the surface, but it made me think of my summer camp job working with horses, which I desperately loved, and where everyone I worked with loved each other and where I felt safe and connected to other human beings like at no other time in my life. It’s about summer nights and music and all the wistfulness of youth and not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but knowing the absolute necessity of savoring a perfect moment. It’s a song no one but Freddie Mercury could sing, despite not having any of the soaring notes for which he is so revered–it’s a breathy prayer; a testament to a moment, and it made me feel like anything was possible. There is a reason it segues into the universally idolized “Somebody to Love” on the album. I played this song on repeat for hours in my car on gravel roads in Indiana, my heart full without knowing why. This whole album, and this song specifically, awoke the part of me in which dwelled the optimist I didn’t know existed. I continued to be a terribly depressed teenager for too long, but in this song there were pockets of pure, powerful emotions where I could almost feel my heart open, like a part of me was singing too.
It’s Late – Queen
More Queen. I’m not sorry. This song is a perfectly crafted rock ballad where each musician is at his very best; and Freddie is transcendent. I’m putting it on this list because, as you may already have inferred, I was something of a very late romantic bloomer and all of my “relationships” were hypothetical ghosts, spectres of a future I cautiously imagined and then scoffed at for my own masochistic amusement. It’s a pragmatic and still heart-wrenching doomed love story. “Ah, you make me love you/ But you know I can’t be true” and “If I say I love you in the candlelight/ There’s no one but myself to blame.” And after all that thinking, it is too late. There is always an expiration date. As I neared my high school graduation, this is where my head was. “Let the waters take our guilt in the tide.” The lyrics are teeming with thoughts I also had in my head–about life in general, not about a specific person. But I could see myself clear as day sitting at a table with a white cloth in dim blue lighting, saying these very things to some dark stranger in my future, and damning myself for it. Did I mention I had angst? (I was, as you know, also so far in the bisexual closet it may well have been Narnia in the White Witch’s Winter, if that makes me more sympathetic.) But the song remains a goldmine of feeling. I lived vicariously through it. It helps, on the album (News of the World), that it is followed by “My Melancholy Blues.”
Many the Miles – Sara Bareilles
I got to meet Sara once in 2007 and again in 2009. She is unbelievably lovely and her lyrics are so wise. This song really resonated with me through my time in New York, moving back home, and finally to Chicago–where I finally had the thought that I wasn’t a loveless weirdo after all. I will always be grateful for that.
Beast of Burden – Rolling Stones
I had just moved to Chicago and did some miscellaneous crew work on a great show at Columbia. I had a (very) brief “showmance” in which I went to a house party with the person in question, and there was a band who could have played stadiums instead of that living room. They played this the moment I walked in, as if they knew it was my favorite Stones song. This was my “shut up and let’s get crazy” attitude of that semester. It always makes me feel the right kind of crazy.
For the Longest Time – Billy Joel
Ever have something right in front of your face and then, suddenly, it makes so much sense that you are nearly physically staggered? I don’t want to talk about the circumstances, but not too long after I moved to Chicago for college, this song became my mantra almost involuntarily.
“Maybe this won’t last very long
But you feel so right
And I could be wrong
Maybe I’ve been hoping too hard
But I’ve gone this far
And it’s more than I hoped for
I don’t care what consequence it brings
I have been a fool for lesser things
I want you so bad
I think you ought to know that
I intend to hold you for the longest time”
And there is, after all, exhilaration in recklessness. And it’s an upbeat song to boot.
We Found Love – Rihanna
And now I bring you the glaring dissident of the list. While this song isn’t romantic for me per se, the associations I have are so strong that I can’t leave it out. This is dashing around Chicago last winter through early summer in the pouring rain, in the latent snowfall; it is playing while I laugh til I can’t breathe in my best friend’s brick-walled apartment; it is dancing at Big City at indecent hours with someone I am falling in love with, til my back is frothy with sweat and I can feel that his is too. It is playing as we pack up the same best friend’s things so he can move three thousand miles away for a dream. It comes on in the grocery store the day I find out I can’t go back to school, and my eyes sting because I don’t want to cry. Its ubiquity means that it is an indelible part of my story for the last year, so, simply, I love it.
Beyond the Sea – Bobby Darin
This is dancing in the kitchen with my boyfriend while we’re waiting for water to boil, or something. It doesn’t matter what we’re waiting for. It always comes on my carefully curated Big Band pandora station precisely at the right time, and it always makes me think of Him.