5 Songs I Wish My Teen Self Could Hear

Last month, I tackled five songs that defined my teenhood. Many years have passed since I was a teenager and many things about me have evolved, including my taste in music. But somewhere in the depths of my psyche, teenage me is still hanging around, all pissed off and terrified and in awe of all the awesome things the world has to offer. Plenty of songs from my teenhood have the power to bring that teenage version of me to the surface. And, once in a while, I’ll hear a song that didn’t exist when I was a teen but has the inexplicable ability to do the same thing plus more. These songs not only make me feel like I’m fifteen again in the best possible way, they make me want to pluck teen me out of the past, stick a pair of headphones on her ears and say, “You need to listen to this.”

1. Downtown Boys – Monstro. I mean, for the love of god, where was this band when I was fifteen? Growing up in a small New Hampshire town, I had a vague but undeniable feeling that there was something very wrong with the world. I sensed that everyone around me had chosen to accept this world as the Ultimate Truth, the One Way, despite the fact that it appeared to be royally screwing over women, girls, people of color, LGBTQA folks, the working poor, etc., etc., etc. But it’s pretty hard to articulate that kind of frustration when no one has yet to hand you a book on sociology or feminist theory or go, “There’s this thing called hegemony…”

The best I had at the time were Rage Against the Machine and Atari Teenage Riot, both of whom were too extreme and cartoonish to be any help at all. I hadn’t discovered Bikini Kill, and even if I had, Downtown Boys are like a step beyond Bikini Kill’s riot grrl feminism. As a creative unit, they embody diversity, frustration, hope, and punk rock spirit. They are truly a band for our politically fraught era, though I think if teen me had a tape of this song, she would’ve worn it out.

2. Okkervil River – The Latest Toughs. True story: I was twenty-two the first time I saw Okkervil River play, when they opened for John Vanderslice at a show in Denver, about a year before the release of their breakthrough album, Black Sheep Boy. Considering they are now one of my all-time favorite bands, you’d think it would have been a landmark event. A rock and roll epiphany, if you will. Sadly, it was not. A sad, sickly-looking Will Sheff took the stage and stared at his shoes while he played some songs that sounded sad and sickly. This prompted me to say to my friend, “What the fuck is this mopey bullshit?” (There’s actually a reason Will looked so damn miserable at this show—he was on the brink of giving up music entirely.) When they finished their set, some Okkervil superfan turned to me and said, “Oh my god, aren’t they amazing?” I shrugged but I was really thinking Seriously? Did you see what I just saw?

It took me years to realize that Okkervil superfan was onto something. I avoided listening to Black Sheep Boy even when critics ultimately creamed all over it (though it took them a while, too), because I’d been so put off by that show in Denver. But I got there eventually, and the next time I saw Okkervil River play, Will had transformed himself into possibly the most endearing rock star of all time (well, maybe second to Jonathan Richman). His songs will take you to strange, scary, beautiful places and then give you a hug and say, “It’ll all be okay…maybe.”

Bonus fun fact: Will Sheff grew up in New Hampshire! I think my teen self would’ve gotten a major kick out of the fact that a guy who grew up a mere forty minutes north of her moved to Texas and kick-started his music career by pouring his broken, exhausted, granite state heart into the cavernous wonder that is Black Sheep Boy.

3. The Blood Brothers – The Shame. As I noted in my last post, pop divas and boy bands ruled the day during my formative years. Every girl had a favorite boy band, even girls who didn’t take boy bands seriously. Despite young J.T.’s good looks and goofy charm, NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys (and Take 5 and O-Town and 98 Degrees and etc., etc., etc.) didn’t really do anything for me. Where was my boy band, dammit?

Now I know they were a bunch of young punks at the time, cutting their teeth on the northwestern indie/hardcore scene. There was the broody one, the androgynous one, the artsy one, the athletic one, and the passionate, wide-eyed leader of the pack. When they finally hit their stride, they wouldn’t sing seductively about tearing up their hearts or how they’ve got it goin’ on. They would scream their guts out about public executions, phone sex, fiery car wrecks, pink tarantulas, shadows and seagulls and a whole bunch of other gross and totally fascinating things against a backdrop of blistering, breakneck rock that will make your ears bleed. Because The Blood Brothers were not your average boy band. They were a boy band standing at the edge of an apocalypse. If they’d been around when I was a teen, I totes would have cut their pictures out of Tiger Beat and hung them in my locker.

4. Peaches – Boys Wanna Be Her. Another true story: Around the same time I saw Okkervil River open for John Vanderslice, I saw Peaches open for …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Queens of the Stone Age. Apparently something about her feminist rap-rock swagger really offended two dudes standing next to me and my friends. Despite the fact that they were at the very front, leaning against the stage, they turned their backs to Peaches as some sort of obnoxious dude-bro protest. Peaches and the teenage girls in the crowd heckled them into submission (you can read about it here!). I know my teen self would’ve loved to be one of those voices in a chorus of counterprotest. Teen me also would’ve dug this song with it’s badass riffs and transgressive play on the “men want her and women want to be her” trope.

Bonus fun fact: Peaches was on a recent episode of Orphan Black and it was literally the most Canadian thing I’ve ever seen.

5. Car Seat Headrest – Vincent. This is actually the song that inspired me to write this post because it sounds like it could’ve been an indie hit in the 90s when I was an actual teen, but somehow also manages to sound completely fresh and original. Plus, horns! (You’ve gathered at this point that I dig horns, right?) The lyric about the Van Gogh portrait on the Wikipedia page for clinical depression cracks me up every time I hear it and speaks so cleverly to adolescent and post-adolescent anxieties about mental health. That should be no surprise because Will Toledo isn’t just a fantastic songwriter, he’s also just barely out of his teens.

If teen me could hear this one, I know she’d smile and nod along and want to hear more of what this guy has to say. She’d also ask, “What’s a Wikipedia?”

What’s the last song you heard that made you feel fifteen again?

5 Songs That Defined My Teenhood

Because I spend most of my time writing about writing and bitching about TV shows, you wouldn’t know from this blog that I’m a massive music fan. Though I don’t follow music as closely as I used to and probably listen to more podcasts than albums these days, music has played, and continues to play, an integral role in my life.

A lot of writers, particularly YA writers, turned to books as teens. Books became their escape, their source of comfort and redemption, their way of connecting to something outside their sometimes-suffocating lives. Books helped them make sense of the world. I liked reading, but it was music that met all those needs for teen me.

Most of my teenhood (at least the parts that I remember like they were yesterday) was spent in the second half of the nineties, a strange, dark time for music and pop culture in general. I’ve talked about this before in another post, but let me summarize: All the beautiful, slacker-y yet hopeful alt-rock and political hip hop of the early nineties gave way to a gazillion carefully-manufactured boy bands and pop divas, some vapid rappers obsessed with Benjamins and bling, and too many angry white boys to count who seemed content to aim their rage at women and girls, all of whom they saw as either prudes or sluts.

These are some of the many reasons why I turned to old-school hip hop and late-70s punk as a teenager. But here and there, a few contemporary gems glowed through the darkness and I’m going to focus on those in this post. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, I think these artists and songs had the deepest impact on me when I was at my most self-conscious, neurotic, confused and at odds with everyone and everything around me.

1. The Smashing Pumpkins – Bullet With Butterfly Wings. No one likes a rock star with a Jesus complex and, like most double albums, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was hit or miss for me. But there was a handful of songs like this one that were so, soooo good that I was willing to declare The Pumpkins one of my favorite bands. At one point I’m pretty sure I told someone I wanted a tattoo that read “the world is a vampire” encircling my ankle. Really glad I ultimately decided against that, but The Pumpkins still hold a special place in my heart. By the time Mellon Collie came out, they were already a relic of the alt-rock heyday, yet they seemed poised to guide us into a sharper, smarter, glam-tinged era. That worked out about as well as that awful tattoo probably would’ve, but lines like despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage turned my angst into a poetic battle cry. They wormed their way into my guts, and I’m not alone—just check out Car Seat Headrest’s clever Twitter bio.

2. DJ Shadow – Midnight in a Perfect World. I loved the ragey rage of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” but I could just as easily be charmed by gorgeous noisescapes as long as they felt deep. And this song, really all of Endtroducing…, felt like being pulled down a rabbit hole into a sparsely-populated netherworld of snow-blanketed streets, graffiti murals, and dusty, crackly vinyl. It was a perfect escape because it didn’t feel empty. It was pretty and mathy and wide-eyed and made me think. And Shadow was like a gateway to all the fantastic hip hop that no one gave the time of day in a world where Puff Daddy / P. Diddy dominated MTV (remember MTV?). Shadow led me to the Soulsides/Quannum crew, Jurassic 5, Styles of Beyond, People Under the Stairs, Prince Paul, Dan the Automator, Company Flow, Anticon, Peanut Butter Wolf, Antipop Consortium, Cannibal Ox…too many hip hop weirdos to name here. For all of that, I’m forever grateful.

3. Fiona Apple – Limp. Poor nineteen-year-old Fiona got a lot of shit from a lot of people when her debut album was released (including Janeane Garofalo—what gives Janeane?). But I loved everything about her, including her “This world is bullshit…” speech at the MTV Video Music Awards (preach, Fiona). And I loved When the Pawn… even more than Tidal, in part because the songcraft is mindblowing and in part because it was like a gigantic middle finger to all the haters who thought she’d choke on her sophomore album. It still amazes me that a twenty-two-year-old could write songs like this one, with its super catchy melody, angry-funny lyrics and ridiculously cool arrangement (those little horn bursts!). All hail the mighty Apple.

4. Sleater-Kinney – Turn It On. True story: Despite all the critical acclaim Dig Me Out garnered, it wasn’t easy to track down a copy of it in my neck of the woods. (I swear to god I actually asked one record store clerk about it and he said, “What kind of music is it?” and I said, “Indie rock, I guess,” and I shit you not he said, “Indian rock?” I mean, what the fuck was he even doing at a record store when he clearly didn’t like or know anything about music?) Eventually I resorted to buying this online, which was kind of a new thing at the time. When my copy arrived, a fellow teenage music fan took a look at the cover, which features three cool little photos of the band members, and said, “Those girls are so fucking ugly.”

Seriously, that happened. And that moment seared its way into my mind because of the thought-explosion it brought on. I thought, “But, um, those girls kinda look like me and also like most of the girls I know.” Then I heard “Turn It On” and realized Sleater-Kinney didn’t give a flying fuck about teenage boys who’d been brainwashed by airbrushed magazines and video vixens. They were too busy writing feminist lyrics and rocking everyone’s face off. And if Sleater-Kinney didn’t give a flying fuck about that kind of soul-crushing bullshit, then neither should I. (In case the guy who was that teenage boy ever reads this, I should note that though this wasn’t his finest moment, we had many conversations about music and he clearly respected my opinions, which was a huge and much-needed confidence boost at the time. And I’m pretty sure I said several truly dumb things to him that are just as cringeworthy as declaring the women of Sleater-Kinney “fucking ugly.” Saying cringeworthy things is part of the business of being a teenager.)

5. Deftones – Change (In the House of Flies). As noted above, the late-nineties, with all their disaffection and backlash, were a breeding ground for angry white boys. And I must confess, as an angry teenage girl, some of these wounded manchildren sucked me right in with all their screaming and moaning and whining. But sometime between Jonathan Davis growling, “fuck you titty suckin’ two balled bitch with a fat green clit,” and Fred Durst claiming he “did it all for the nookie” and Papa Roach throwing cold cuts at naked groupies, I realized this music was not for me. As a teenage girl, I was either invisible to these dudes or, worse, an object to be obsessed over and ridiculed. In their eyes, there was no happy medium in which I could exist as an actual human being.

And then there was the Deftones. Though they were typically lumped in with the nu-metal crowd and regularly rubbed elbows with the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit, they somehow seemed to exist above it all. They were smarter, artier, punkier, and sadder, and half of them were people of color. They understood subtlety and made music that spoke to a broad range of people and experiences. And just before I graduated from high school, they released White Pony, a rock statement to be reckoned with that transcended nu-metal by leaps and bounds. It was everything I’d ever wanted from them and hoped they could be. They were a band I could take with me even as I was more than ready to leave those other bands behind.

It should be no surprise that while all those other nu-metalheads faded into obscurity or started Christian rock bands or became mediocre filmmakers banned from Ukraine, the Deftones are still making rock that will liquify your skull. Their latest album, Gore, came out earlier this year.

In my next post, I’ll tackle five songs I wish had existed when I was a teen. In the meantime, let me know what songs defined your teenhood.

Erin vs. The Magicians – An Update

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Back in February, I wrote a rather long, rather ranty, rather snobby post about Syfy’s The Magicians, which is based on some of my all-time favorite books. Much to my surprise, that post has received more comments than any other post I’ve written, due, in part, to the strange fact that it can be found by plugging the words “Eliot” and “snaggletooth” into Google. Amazing.

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YA & The Great Pop Culture Reference Debate

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I love the YA community on the interwebs. Truly, I do. Twitter, Goodreads, and the blogosphere are great places to read the thoughts and opinions of many smart, fascinating, righteous folks (writers, librarians, book bloggers, teachers, etc.) who deserve your attention. They are diligently trying to make the world better which is, really, what we all should be doing.

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Being On Submission…

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about writing/publishing, and that’s the whole reason I started this blog, so here we go.

Back in July, I somehow conned a gen-yoo-wine literary agent into offering me representation. I, of course, accepted before she could discover I was a talentless sham and snatch her offer back out of my grubby hands.

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One TV Fan’s Manifesto: My Reaction to Syfy’s The Magicians

Anyone who’s read my FAQ page already knows that I’m a huge fan of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. Seriously, they are the shit. A whole mess of spoilers are about to follow so if you haven’t read the books, stop reading this post and go directly to a library, bookstore or Kindle and acquire them. Now.

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