There is one question I always dread…
“What kind of music do you like?”
To me, that’s like asking, “What kind of words do you read?” Too wide to encapsulate and always changing. But when it comes to the songs that make up the soundtrack of my human development, well, that is easier to share. Here is the shortlist — and I’d love to hear yours.
Soundtrack from Disney’s Oliver and Company
The year is 1988. This period of life is dominated by tunes sung by anthropomorphic animals. But none is more seminal than Disney’s Oliver and Company. The cassette plays over and over in my Muppet Babies boombox until the tape sounds wonky. I choreograph dances to every glorious song, featuring leaps and high kicks, and force any and all visitors to watch me. This is what happens when you don’t have siblings.
Les Miserables, Original Cast Recording
Broadway show tunes dominate the speakers of my mom’s car as we drive to and fro, from school to ballet to piano. I learn every word to A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, and of course, Les Mis. The very adult references fly over my head. (To my ears, ‘Lovely Ladies’ is not a song about prostitutes, but about ladies so lovely they must be immortalized in song!) Thirty years later, I listen to the original cast recording for old time’s sake and discover the song I now identify with is no longer the lovesick teen anthem ‘On My Own,’ but rather ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ the lament sung by the character Fantine as she is fired from her factory job and thrown onto the streets of Paris, where she reflects on life’s disappointments and eventually dies. Wow, I think, I’m getting older.
Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill
Middle school. Somewhere in New Jersey, I’m wearing a thermal shirt with baggy overalls and sneaking black lipstick into my backpack. Alanis Morissette is the first person to teach me that not only is it okay to be angry, it is also okay to express it. In fact, it is okay to be a lot of things — mournful, rueful, acerbic, clever — that may or may not be ‘pretty.’ It is a most welcome lesson.
Aerosmith, I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing
Freshman year of high school. I chat with classmates on AOL Instant Messenger, deep into the night, using screen names that make little sense (‘DerangedPudding’ and ‘FuriousMango’). I cry many melodramatic tears about things I have long since forgotten. In the background, this song plays on repeat, along with various others from Dawson’s Creek. It is not a high point, musically or emotionally.
Whitney Houston, One Moment in Time
I sing this — the official song of the 1988 Olympics! — all by myself at my high school graduation. (Ah, to be 18 and still brave enough to sing in public.) There is so much pomp and so much circumstance. If I could, I’d go back and tell myself that yes, as Whitney says, there will be many times where I am ‘more than I thought I could be.’ But often, these moments look different than we expect.
The Shins, New Slang
I arrive at college in the fall of 2002. Everyone listens to indie music and watches pretentious films (or at least pretends to). There is a weird band that plays weird songs at campus events. They are called Vampire Weekend. If you walk through a dorm at any time of day, you are sure to hear The Shins drifting from beneath someone’s doorway. This song underscores all social interactions in the years that follow. No one understands the lyrics (‘dirt in your fries?’) but we love it anyway.
Hilary Duff, Come Clean
20s (and beyond)
One day, while doing laundry, I hear a melody drifting out of my roommate’s bedroom. It sounds like the anthem of a candy-coated cherub. I burst into her room, where she looks like she has been caught holding horrible, terrible drugs. ‘THIS SONG. YOU LIKE IT TOO?’ I exclaim. ‘YES!’ she says, equal parts relieved and embarrassed. ‘IT’S JUST. SO. HAPPY!’ From then on, we refer to it as our ‘secret song’ (including in a text I sent as I was writing this). This is the first of many ‘secret songs’ — music you hate to love, and love to share with others who feel the same. Every now and then, I’ll sneak it onto a playlist as I’m tidying the apartment and find it hasn’t lost its magic.
Billy Joel, She’s Always a Woman
Always and Forever
In my thirties, the music I most identify with is what I’ve bundled under the umbrella of ‘Dad’s Car Music.’ This includes but is not limited to: Fleetwood Mac, Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates, The Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, The Police. But the song that always slays me is ‘She’s Always a Woman’ by Billy Joel. The ballad (about Billy’s then wife and manager, Elizabeth Weber, who was known as a tough businesswoman) has inspired much discussion and debate, with some saying the lyrics are misogynistic or the subject of the song is too ruthless. To me, it’s about seeing someone so fully that you love them despite — and even because of — their ‘flaws.’ It is a love song to one’s totality, almost as poetic and complicated as romance itself.
What is the soundtrack of your life so far? What songs have meant the most and why? Would love to hear…
(Photo from LIFE Magazine, 1950.)