Olivia Newton-John has a lot to answer for.
The music we like when we're young shapes us in a lot of ways. It might give you a lifelong disrespect for The Man, or it might make you a hopeless romantic. In Love Song Yearbook, we're interested in what songs shaped your idea of love at different ages. Want to submit your own Love Song Yearbook? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with "Love Song Yearbook" in the subject line.
1. Age four-ish – "Hopelessly Devoted to You," Olivia Newton-John
I saw Grease approximately 7.9 million times after it came out in 1978, and I wore out the soundtrack record with my friends. We liked to "play Grease," and I always insisted on being Sandy. I wish that the ironic storytelling of "Summer Nights" or the playful sexiness of "You're the One That I Want" had caught my budding romantic imagination, but the sappy "Hopelessly Devoted" got to me instead. All three of these songs present, let's say, problematic readings of gender roles, but at least the snappier tunes were a fun version of love. This ballad is sung to an imaginary (and idealized) version of Danny shimmering in a kiddie pool as Sandy mourns her humiliation at the hands of Rizzo at a sleepover. She swings around the pillar of a gazebo in angst at one point, a move I copied endlessly by swaying around and around my canopy-bed pole until I was dizzy. I blame this song for all the desperate pining I'd do in my teens and early twenties for boys who had no idea how to love me.
2. Age six – "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," Rupert Holmes
This song gave me my first hint of the more complicated, realistic side of love: the married narrator places a personal ad, and who answers it? (O. Henry alert!) His own wife! And then they just sort of laugh it off and revive the old magic when they learn something new about each other: yes, they both like pina coladas… and getting caught in the rain. This is a surprisingly open view of near-infidelity for a pop song, and I dig it. I swear that I got it even back then, as my mother sang along with this song every time it came on the car radio. I would later use a play on this as a headline on my online-dating profile — which happened to snag me my current domestic partner. (Thanks, Nerve!) And thanks, Rupert Holmes, wherever you're sipping pina coladas now.
3. Age nine – "Careless Whisper," George Michael
Oh, good lord, George Michael. I was very much going to marry him, and the fact that he would later come out makes my attraction even more prescient. In high school, I would fall in love with several gay men, one of them the first truly mature love of my life. This song, though: so forlorn! So riveting! "I'm never gonna dance again/Guilty feet have got no rhythm!" I was developing a flair for making my relationships dramatic in my own head that would serve me poorly through my twenties.
4. Age ten – "Broken Wings," Mister Mister
This song came out not too long after "Careless Whisper" — and, in fact, looking at the charts from 1985, I see that almost every song there tugs at some primal emotional center in my heart. This song, in particular, evokes skating parties at the Tinley Park Roller Rink and the prospect that Mark Corte or Tim Wilson would ask me to couples-skate. Both did, at one point or another, but Tim Wilson owns this song for me; I think I thought it expressed how he was going to take my broken wings so I could learn to fly again after the heartbreak of Mark Corte no longer liking me. Or something like that.
5. Age twelve – "Alone," Heart
Two things about this one: first, it's all about the tumultuous relationship I was having, again mostly in my head, with Greg Blakely. I was "going out" with him, but in reality this mainly consisted of us nodding "hi" to each other in the halls and sometimes watching MTV for hours "together" on the phone, saying very little. Second, I sang it at an eighth-grade graduation party with my best friend Katie Janeczek while we wore bathing suits and cover-ups (it was a pool party), backed by a band called Chili Man and the Crackers. (The lead guy was Keith Homel, which is kind of like Hormel, which is a brand of chili.) Yeah, that happened.
NEXT: "We would totally have played this song at our wedding if he hadn't been gay."
6. Age fifteen – "Look Away," Chicago
Man, this song still tears at my soul. It might have been the first to express an actual situation close to how it was for me, rather than how the movie version had unfolded in my overactive imagination. The boy I loved had broken up with me, I think mostly because we lived a few towns apart and our moms had gotten tired of driving us back and forth to each other. Kevin Honan and I would split up and kind of get back together a few more times over the next year, and we remained "friends" in the off times because we hung out with the same people. "If you see me walking by/And the tears are in my eyes/Look away, baby, look away," said it all for me.
7. Age seventeen – "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," Bryan Adams
Made out with my First Big Love for the first time as we watched that damn Robin Hood movie featuring this then-ubiquitous song. We would totally have played it at our wedding if he hadn't been gay. Instead, Dave Freiberg became my best friend and the model for what I was looking for in a guy, sexual preferences aside. He set such a high standard I wouldn't find that guy for another seventeen years.
8. Age twenty – "Stay (I Missed You)," Lisa Loeb
As you definitely know if you were in college in the '90s, this song is from the soundtrack to Reality Bites, which I think we were required by law to purchase. It's also from right around the time that a man who I would almost marry stole me from my still-closeted high-school boyfriend. At this point, I thought Winona Ryder was dumb for choosing the irresponsible slacker Ethan Hawke over the coiffed-and-pressed-and-employed Ben Stiller. I take it as a sign of maturity that I don't think that anymore — Ethan Hawke in that movie is, A, hot, and B, no more insensitive than she is. And C, at least interesting.
9. Age thirty – "Sugar, We're Goin' Down," Fall Out Boy
When I cancelled my wedding to that college sweetheart of mine, things got pretty messy in my love life. I'd been with him for a decade, and had been with a gay boy for two years before that, so I had some catching up to do. There was a lot of making out with inappropriate boys (and yes, "boys" is the right word for these twenty-something guys) in bad bars in New York's East Village. I experienced something of a regressive adolescence, and Fall Out Boy was the perfect favorite band for me at the time — they had a lot of young fans, an outsized sense of angst, and yet pretty sophisticated music and lyrics. Also, I shared a love for them with my sister, who's ten years younger than I am.
10. Age thirty-seven – "Shelter from the Storm," Bob Dylan
I'm a sucker for those songs about how world-weary someone's gotten at the very moment he or she is saved by the love of his or her life. This is one of those, and it's perfect for how I feel now. Especially after those Fall Out Boy years, I love living with my partner, Jesse, and staying in most nights to cook and watch Lost on DVD. "I was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood/When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud/I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form." Come in, he said, I'll give you shelter from the storm.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a New York-based writer whose books Sexy Feminism and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: A history of the Mary Tyler Moore Show will be published next year. Visit her online at JenniferKArmstrong.com [http://jenniferkarmstrong.com/].
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