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?