Love & Sex

Love Song Yearbook: Ten Songs That Shaped My Idea of Love

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"In the '90s, the straight white male was being deconstructed for all his sins."

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? with "Love Song Yearbook" in the subject line.

Age three or four – "Girls on Film," Duran Duran
In its first few years, MTV could be enjoyed by anyone, including my mom, a thirtysomething homemaker in Ohio. Consequently, Duran Duran's "video album" (a VHS tape containing their first eleven videos) got frequent plays in our house, but she always fast-forwarded though one video. One day, when Mom was out, Dad told me and my brother to go play upstairs. Soon, I heard the first chords of  the song that usually prompted Mom to pick up the remote. The song was "Girls on Film," a softcore montage deemed too racy for MTV. I sat at the top of the banister and watched Dad lean back in his easy chair, staring at women in their underwear who were pillow fighting, sumo wrestling, pouring wine on each other, etc. From then on, I understood the basics: sex caused people to do weird things, and if you were interested in it, you sometimes watched videos alone.  


Age nine – "Black," Pearl Jam
Most of my heavy metal brother's music collection seemed too Satanic to interest someone into Animaniacs and Ninja Turtles, but he had a cassette of Pearl Jam's Ten and they seemed like they might be OK because — though I didn't really understand it — their video "Jeremy" had kids in it. Ten wouldn’t have alarmed anyone who was up to date on punk, metal or even college rock, but if the darkest piece of entertainment you'd ever encountered was Tim Burton’s Batman, Pearl Jam's volcanic doom was skull shaking. To me, they exuded young adultness; the stage you always assume is one birthday away when you’re a child. I heard tracks like "Black," a breakup song that skips the fond remembrances and goes straight for the shrieking despair, and thought, "Oh, shit."


Age fifteen – "Creep," Radiohead 
My family moved when I was in sixth grade. By the time I reached high school, I'd endured so much bullying that I decided to cease to exist socially. I never joined a club or went to a football game, and I ducked into the bathroom when yearbook photos were taken. It wasn't so bad; I felt like I had made the best truce possible between me and high school. Then I noticed a small, dark-haired girl with tiny hands and milky skin. She was a track star and an honor student and way above me on the social ladder — which forced me to admit there was a social ladder and the sting of my place on it. This crush wasn't like Corey and Topanga on Boy Meets World,  it was the feeling of existential dread Thom Yorke conveys in "Creep," that sense of worthlessness in the face of beauty.


Age sixteen – "Black Dog," Led Zeppelin
In the '90s, the straight white male was being deconstructed for all his sins. Kevin Smith,  Nick Hornsby, and WB dramas all portrayed guydom as a never-ending cycle of confusion, fuck-ups, and sulking. Then I went through a Led Zeppelin phase, which is a gift bestowed on all middle-class white males at sixteen. Between the Lord of the Rings stuff, the she-done-me-wrong ballads and the odes to groupies, Zep's catalog is one long tribute to male heterosexuality. Maybe straight men don't really need empowerment, but through cruising in my first car and singing along to "Black Dog," I found it in Zeppelin. 


Age eighteen – "Time Has Told Me," Nick Drake
I met C, my first love, on a music-related message board. Like me, she was clinically depressed, and had both a habit of moping around and a stack of classic rock CDs. The only artist I could introduce to her was Nick Drake. When I convinced my mom to drive me through two states to meet C as a graduation present, I arrived bearing a mix CD. On it was Drake's "Time Has Told Me," which included the lines, "Time has told me / You're a rare, rare find / A troubled cure / For a troubled mind." I got to have the ridiculously teenage experience of playing for someone a song that perfectly described how I felt about them. 

Age nineteen – "Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show

In college, I met a theater major in the dining hall and we bonded over mutual vegetarianism and our love of William S. Burroughs. She was more outgoing than I was, and I feared I'd lose her if we spent another Saturday night watching movies in my dorm room and talking. Come Halloween, she planned to go to a midnight Rocky Horror screening in a Columbia outfit she'had assembled last year. I also wanted to go in costume, but if she was Columbia and we were going as a pair, my choices were Frank or Eddie, and I wasn't brave enough to do Frank. After getting my Eddie costume in order, we sashayed around her dorm room to "Hot Patootie," a song celebrating what I was attempting: a cool guy goes out and gets laid. There were ten people total at the screening; we were the only ones in costume. She soon stopped calling and took up with a pierced guy who DJ'ed a local house/industrial night.


Age twenty – "Everybody Here Wants You," Jeff Buckley 
I was on a road trip with a female friend when we stopped for the night at her mom's house in the Philly suburbs. At about two in the morning, I was laying on a hide-a-bed in her basement when she just sorta jumped into bed with me. Nothing like that had happened to me before. She ran her fingers through my hair and said, "God, you're sexy, in a Jeff Buckley way." Even today, when I mentally prepare myself for a first date, I try to think of myself as a Jeff Buckley type: brooding and passionate beneath the obvious nice-guy label. Thank you, Mr. Buckley, for everything you did for emotionally intense young white men with average bodies. 


Age twenty-one – "Closer," Nine Inch Nails
My second major relationship was with A, a bookish girl with a mischievous smile. Unlike C, she didn't have much of a CD collection, just a few '90s albums leftover from high school. I assumed her lack of a multi-generational, multi-genre, carefully alphabetized music library like mine meant A didn’t understand how useful songs were in coloring certain moments. She proved me wrong one night by ripping my clothes off, tying me to a chair with two belts and giving me a lap dance to "Closer."  It's a memory I still recall often, if you know what I mean. "Closer" is the best song about sex ever written: Trent Reznor equates carnal lust with tossing one's self worth at the altar of an uncaring god, which hits the nail right on the head. 


Age twenty-four, "Just Like You," Roxy Music
During my quarter-life crisis, a suicide-hotline operator called a squad of cops and paramedics to force me into a mental hospital. You get to know people intimately quickly in a psych ward, thanks to therapy, downtime, and the general emotional mushiness of the environment. I got close to a dental hygienist who was drying out from a manic episode. She gave me her number when she was released. Two days later, I turned on my recently-returned Discman, which resumed playing Roxy Music's Stranded. "I know it sounds crazy / But what can I do / I've fallen head over heels, over you," Bryan Ferry sang in "Just Like You." Years later, long after the relationship blew up due to the to-be-expected erratic behavior on both our parts, that song still makes me want laugh and/or cry. 


Age twenty-nine, "Wouldn't It Be Nice?," The Beach Boys
I met J through a dating website. She had just earned her MFA and moved back in with her parents. We wound up in bed together on our second date. At about eleven p.m., she said she had to get home so her parents wouldn't worry. "Think of an excuse to be away for a night," I said, "so I can cook you breakfast while you wear one of my long t-shirts." She smiled and said, "Soon, I’ll have a place of my own and we can hang out every night." Then she paused. "God," she said, "this is like that Beach Boys song, ‘Wouldn't It Be Nice?’ and we are way too old for that." I queued up the song as she got dressed. The next day, she sent me a rambling email about how sex on the second date broke some rule of behavior she had set for herself, and that she'd had fun with me but couldn't see me again. We're not too old for it, J, at least not for the sentiment beneath it: the yearning to finally have something lasting and substantive. That's a feeling you can relate to if you a chaste teenager in 1966 tired of just holding hands and pecking cheeks or a long-time OKCupid user in 2013 jaded by one-night stands and frustrated by false starts.